I can’t see much out of the window from where I am sitting, but as my plane flies in to Osaka, I can see that the skies have that haze of industry and activity common to large cities worldwide. I’ve given so little thought to my one-night stopover in Osaka that I haven’t really considered what Japan would be like. I don’t have any concept of just how populous Japan is. I know it’s huge, but it’s more than my brain can comprehend.
Still Kansai International Airport is considerably less chaotic than many other large airports I’ve visited. I make my way to the airport help desk to ask how to get to my hotel. I know precisely two Japanese words, but it’s a safe assumption that someone will speak English. I’m told it’s one stop on the train, so decide to give it a go.
Once I’ve found the ATM, I head for the station. I find a route map and the name of my station written in English lettering. But then I’m stuck. Some signage is in English, but not enough to do things like buy railway tickets, where I’m confronted by an array of machines covered with Japanese characters. I can say the name of the station I want, so I’d be ok with a person, but the machines are indifferent. I try a strategy that works in Wellington, but wouldn’t be recommended most places in the world – hovering around the machines looking confused. Someone comes and rescues me. Once again, I wish New Zealanders extended same the courtesy to Asian people struggling with English we receive when we travel.
Given that my hotel is a 5 minute train journey from the airport, I’ve accepted I’m unlikely to see much of Japan in the 20 hours I’m here. The wisdom of the internet has informed me that the closest thing to my hotel, apart from the railway station, is “Rinku Pleasure Town Seacle”, which appears to be a shopping mall with a food court and ferris wheel near the waterfront. My other choice is some sort of outlet mall specialising in American brands. I decide to take my chances with the pleasure town.
The shopping mall lives up to the stereotype of Japan as filled with images of cutesy (and to my mind profoundly disturbing) neotonous cartoon characters. I bought a few random items – some brightly coloured clips for closing plastic bags, sparkly stickers for the daughter of a friend, orange socks. People use that distinctively Japanese half nod/ half bow a lot, hand me receipts with two hands and seem happy with my efforts to say “hello” and “thank you” in Japanese. Most spoke enough English to help me, those that didn’t were patient and followed my sign language without trouble.
I decided to try the ferris wheel – a chance to sit down and look at the view. I loved the construction of it, all the interlocking metal silhouetted against the blue sky. The gondolas were brightly coloured, I hoped to get one of the oraange ones but timed it wrong and got purple. I’m sharing my gondola with a giant and rather disturing soft toy. Its face is huge and the eyes are almost as large as a human head.
Despite the haze, the view from the ferris wheel is spectacular. Kansai Airport is an artificial island in the bay, connected by a large bridge. Impressive engineers structures are everywhere. I’m staying in a 55 storeyed hotel (on the 50th floor). The entire suburb where I’m staying – Rinku-town – is reclaimed land. High motorways circle around the shoreline. A beautiful cable-stayed bridge crosses an inlet – although the adjective is probably redundant, has there ever been an ugly cable-stayed bridge?
Then I notice something familiar among the foreign. Behind the sprawl of the city, there is green. The hills are steep and furrowed, looking exactly like the hills I see every morning when I look across Wellington harbour. As in Wellington, it appears that these hills have confounded the engineers, and so they are left to the plants.
I realise that this is the second thing I’ve noticed in common with New Zealand. The first is that strange impression we give visitors of being a land of innocents, almost child-like. With Japan, it’s the ubiquitous cartoons and politeness. With New Zealand, it’s the casual friendliness and movies about hobbits. It’s largely untrue of course, both countries have their dark sides but they tend to be hidden. While I know I have no chance of finding out, it makes me wonder what people are thinking.