When I travel and I don’t speak the local tongue, my social skill set shrinks to that of a toddler. I point and shrug and grow frustrated with well-meaning strangers who are unable to interpret my basic desires. Plus, no one gets my jokes. I’m someone who likes to be competent, more than competent, when it comes to language. So when I learned that in 24 hours I’d be on a plane to Osaka—a place where most signs would be in kanji (characters), and I wouldn’t even be able to grope for cognates—I felt a prickle of sweat. I’d have to give in to wordless ineptitude.
Of the dozens of friends and friends-of-friends who replied to my email requests for connections and recommendations in this city of 2.8 million people, few mustered any excitement for Osaka, a metropolis with scant tourist attractions other than a decent aquarium and a couple of Ferris wheels.
“Go to Kyoto,” they all suggested, “it’s less than 30 miles away.” Kyoto was relatively unscathed in World War II, and so, in contrast to Osaka, which has a Lost in Translation–like urban starkness, it remains an Instagram-friendly city of peaceful temples and intimate, tourist-attentive restaurants. Even at customs, the officer who scrutinized my form said, “You’re going to Osaka for vacation?” Yes, I said. “Are you also going to Kyoto?” she asked. I told her I wasn’t. Her eyes narrowed.
I was beginning to root for poor Osaka, and I made a plan. I would take two trips outside the city—one west to Naoshima Island, a haven for modern art in the Seto Inland Sea, and another east to Nara, a town known for the herds of wild but friendly deer that roam its city park. In Osaka, liberated by the absence of must-see sights, I would merely wander and sample the street food. It was an agenda designed for linguistic incompetence.
After a remarkably jet lag–free first night, I took a morning train from Osaka to Uno and a ferry to Naoshima. I biked around the hilly little isle, home to a few big museums, a dozen freestanding galleries dubbed “art houses,” and a smattering of outdoor installations. It was the first time I’d been on a bike in more than a decade, and let me tell you, the adage is not quite true. I was wobbly. Very, very wobbly. Then there was the art. For me, James Turrell’s light-bathed installations are disorienting in the United States, but when surrounded by people speaking only Japanese, the art is positively hallucinatory. At the entrance of the Benesse Museum, a security guard spent five minutes posing me with my hand cupped so that it looked like I was holding Yayoi Kusama’s gold polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture, which sat on a pier off in the distance. Back home, I would have resisted such a gimmick. Here, by the time I figured out what he was trying to get me to do, I was already enjoying it.
After my gentle immersion in rural Japan, it was time to dive into the urban scrum. I spent the better part of my first day back in Osaka strolling up and down the Shinsaibashi-suji shopping promenade, a disorienting consumer experience of midrange department stores next to luxury-knockoff stalls next to Longchamp boutiques next to 100-yen emporiums (dollar stores). I bought cheap tatami slippers, a T-shirt with the phrase you mean a lot to me on it, the most delightful stationery (the Japanese, despite their rep as tech-obsessed, clearly still revere the art of letter writing), and green tea–flavored Kit Kats.
At one point I got ambitious and decided to try on a dress, something deconstructed- looking that would allow me to casually reply, “Thanks, I got it in Osaka” when I received the inevitable cocktail-party compliments. When I set foot inside the dressing room stall without taking off my shoes, the salesgirl screamed with such disgust that I was still flushed with shame hours later. It was all for naught: The largest size came to a dead halt at my hips.
On the following day, my third in Japan, I was starving after a long afternoon of wandering. Then I saw a sign in English: Tako Tako King. I remembered this name from someone’s email, probably because with a minor alphabetical tweak it could be a Mexican restaurant at home in Los Angeles. When I pushed open the door, though, I found no local fried delicacies like takoyaki or okonomiyaki, but instead a dark, tiny bar crammed with teetering stacks of CDs. The walls were plastered with Japanese tour posters from notable rock acts of the 1960s and ’70s. The bartender, a large man with a goatee who looked to be in his late 40s, was smoking and jumped a little when I came through the door. “Are you the Tako Tako King?” I asked. He conveyed, through a series of hand motions, that the fried octopus treats I sought were actually to be had next door. I stayed for a beer anyway.
We managed to exchange names; his was Ebe, and we embarked on the purest distillation of so many conversations about music, a language-barriered dialogue in which we just took turns saying the names of artists we liked. “Bobby Womack!” “Sam Cooke!” “Led Zeppelin!” All met with nods of mutual approval. He drew me another Asahi as we moved on to actors, and when I found myself agreeing enthusiastically about “Charles Bronson,” I realized I was kind of tipsy. Good old Ebe walked me around the corner to the real Tako Tako King, a punky hole-in-the-wall that was blasting Aerosmith. Ebe informed the staff that I wanted to try the okonomiyaki, which is this incredible “fried however you like it” pancake thing that can have cabbage and eggs and squid and shrimp and yam and pork strips, topped with barbecue sauce and bonito flakes.
I became fast friends with the staff, who quickly took to calling me Ann-san. Most of them spoke decent English, including Yumi, the bartender with the sides of her head shaved, who’d lived in New York for a while. One guy explained to me that Ebe used to be a popular local singer in the ’80s: “Ebe-san, the soul man of Osaka!” They thought it was “very cool, very, very cool” that I was a journalist. And they taught me okini, a local slangy way of saying thanks. This word ended up being my ace in the hole. Over the next few days, any time I inconvenienced someone with my lack of language skills, I offered an “Okini!” and watched their annoyance melt away.
By this point in the evening, most of the Tako Tako King patrons—mainly businessmen wolfing down takoyaki, the fried batter-and-octopus balls that Osaka is famous for—were royally drunk. Behind me, a table of dudes ordered a round of Zimas. (Like the hair scrunchie, this relic of the 1990s is alive and well in Japan.) To my left, a guy was air drumming to “Hotel California.”
It occurred to me, the outsider’s idea of authenticity is a slippery thing: Just when I think I’ve found a place that is sufficiently “real,” I’m forced to confront the fact that everyone here speaks English and likes the Eagles.
I walked back to my ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, past trios of blotto businessmen stumbling arm in arm like sorority girls during their first week at college.
The next night, I resolved to get deeper into the city. A friend had put me in touch with a guide—Erik, a whippet-thin fellow who grew up in California and had lived in Japan for the past three years. His girlfriend and roommates were Japanese, and he promised to use his considerable language skills to show me corners of the city that were usually inaccessible to tourists.
We walked through the red-light district in Nishinari, where storefront after pink-lit storefront showcased girls in midriff-baring sailor outfits, some clutching teddy bears, some with stone-faced madams sitting beside them. We ate udon and beef intestines at a signless restaurant. We walked up to the third floor of a building that was sliced into dozens of tiny bars connected by a narrow hallway. Erik led me into one run by a friend, a guy with a bowl cut and thick- framed glasses who’d chosen a decorating scheme of black leather and anime. We drank scotch, and Erik admirably walked a social tightrope, conversing alternately with his bartender friend in Japanese and with me in English. I was the only one not chain-smoking. “Okini!” I called on our way out the door.
The next day I decamped for Nara, a tourist draw especially for its giant Buddha and docile but greedy deer. I stayed in a rickety ryokan, and on my last night in Japan I took a long soak in the onsen (hot springs) in preparation for my trip home.
At the airport ticket counter the next morning, I had my most confusing conversation yet. Even my elaborate hand gestures failed to elicit directions to the United terminal. This was because, I soon learned, there was no United terminal. I had gone to the wrong airport. As I rushed to a bus stop to correct my error, I berated myself. How could this have happened? When I unfolded my itinerary, this time I saw something I hadn’t even bothered to read: the name of the correct airport, printed in English.