(II) ALONE in OSAKA
The largest creature in the world, by area, is a fungus in Oregon known as Armillaria ostoyae. What scientists took to be many different fungi of the same species is actually the same organism spreading mycelium for 2,200 acres below the ground. Its mass is greater than that of several blue whales.
I'm thinking of that fungus as I walk underground. I'm in Umeda, one of Osaka's main downtown centers, in a labyrinthine mall-and-subway system that spreads for several square miles. This network of halls, corridors and capillaries lies under Umeda and extends escalators, elevator shafts and stairways to the surface to respire. At these points the membrane is porous, and I can cross over and explore the narrow warrens for the first time in eight years.
In my personal running monologue—which is ponderous and rambling, the majority of which I spare my gentle readers—I have come to Osaka to make peace with it. But that's not quite accurate. "Make peace" implies coming to terms with a dead estranged brother or something. But it's more like seeing someone I used to love long ago. Especially considering who I will meet in forty-eight hours.
Yet I can't shake the idea that I'm here to make peace with Osaka, and in another sense that's not completely off the mark. There is a loss involved in coming back, eight years later. Things have changed.
Some things are constants. I still wear long coal-colored coats. I still am scruffy and wild-haired. I still wear headphones everywhere like they were grafted to my body—this go-round it's a set of wondrous Audio Technica noise-cancelers that I bought specifically to soundtrack this pilgrimage. My reflection, in a Jaguar boutique's plate glass, hasn't changed much since 1999.
Umeda hasn't changed drastically either. Yet things are different. I have lost things only to gain other things. My old friends, for instance. They're still my friends, but they're no longer waiting for me in Umeda, enraged at my 45-minute tardiness. Instead of wandering drunk at midnight I find myself clear-headed and wide-eyed at seven-thirty in the morning.
I saw Hankyu station's huge TV, Big Man, under which we used to meet. There were gaps in my memory. Had this hallway always been here? Was that ceiling always so low? It didn't quite seem like the same place. It's true: you can never go back. I visited my old haunts hoping for that sweetspot of nostalgia, that pang of memory connecting the past to the geographic present, but it didn't hit me. It rarely does when I go looking for it.
And yet—there. That was the coffee shop where we took refuge on New Year's Day, exhausted from partying all night and watching the first sunrise of the millennium from Osaka Castle. There was the ramen joint I loved. There was the music shop I visited, dreaming of playing the drums someday. And I did learn to play the drums, but not until after Osaka.
Here—Shakey's Pizza, home of the weird pizza buffet and the bottomless pitcher of Asahi Super Dry. Here were the cramped alleyways and covered arcades where we took purikura, a Japanese contraction of "print club": dozens of tiny group photographs on gaudily-decorated stickers. No one does purikura anymore, and the familiar booths were gone.
I walked over the footbridge where we drank beer in a circle of fourteen. (Were we really so brazen?) I passed the gaijin club we always went to, though no one liked it. I visited the out-of-the-way lobby in MBS tower where homeless people were suffered to congregate in the winter. We ragged urchins huddled there too, pouring Kahlua into cups of milk and slugging it down without ice.
I came to the Yodo River. It was wide and placid as ever, an assertion of sea level, of point zero from which the city rose or sank. Concrete columns thicker than redwoods rose from the river and blossomed into a canopy of highways several stories above me. On the opposite side there was construction, dozens of massed workers gathered in the sun for the morning briefing. I'm sure that moments earlier they had been singing the company song and doing ceremonial calisthenics. They wore various riffs on the laborer's uniform: helmet, fluorescent vest, enormous baggy trousers, and heavy rubber shoes with a separate big toe.
As I crossed the river and turned to walk along it, they broke up and walked down the other side of the street. Tribes of construction worker intermingled: blue pants and green pants, white helmet and pink helmet, young and old. I half-expected them to erupt into a spanner brawl, tribe on tribe. Or better yet, a musical number, the Bridge-Building Boogie, fluttery pants high-kicking. Or maybe both, a West Side Story-style dance-off. The Cats versus the Carp.
I could cross another item off the list of things I'd always meant to do again. See the Yodogawa: check. I've wanted to come back to Umeda ever since I left it. Finally I have, and for that I am grateful, though I only vaguely recognize it now. It isn't quite connecting with my memories of it. I was hoping for that crack hit of nostalgia, that movie moment where the soundtrack swells and the heavens open. But I guess what I remember most was the people in it and the things we did. It's not the same alone.