I took advantage of the long chuseok weekend to head across the strait and into Japan. I felt a little sorry for neglecting the filial duties that are expected of the eldest son on chuseok, the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. Normally on such occasion, I would visit my grandparents’ grave in the countryside and perform a series of esoteric rituals for family honor and blessing. But a flash sale on round trip tickets to Osaka isn’t something to shirk either (I’m sorry Grandmother and Grandfather).
I knew when we began our descent into Kansai International. It wasn’t the flight attendant’s broadcast on the airplane loudspeaker that informed me. I didn’t understand Japanese and her heavily accented Korean did me no service. Nor was it the noticeable change in cabin pressure; I was sufficiently loaded from a combination of anxiety pills and complimentary house wine to notice such a drop. It was the passengers around me. They opened their window shades in almost timed choreography, hoping to steal a glimpse of Osaka Bay before arrival.
I lifted my window awning and peeked outside. I could have cared less about joining in the chorus of oohs and aahs. I wasn’t interested in what Osaka looked like from hundreds of miles up. I wanted to know what the city looked like on ground. But as I looked out my window I couldn’t help myself gaping at something below. Something was bellowing smoke into the sky, into the airspace of our low-cost carrier plane.
A large cargo ship was on fire. And a number of Japanese Coast Guard ships were circling the flaming freighter frantically hosing down the situation. I didn’t know how to process this spectacle in my head. These were scenes I had been familiar with in films or video games or in my imagination, usually with the aid of Lego figures and plastic toy boats.
If Tokyo is New York City, Osaka is Chicago.
The Osakans I had met on my trip took immense pride with their Second City and held immediate disdain for their counterparts in the capital. They were proud of their distinct dialect, their wider streets, their slower pace of life, and their middle-class disposition. I asked the owner of the guesthouse I was staying in for his thoughts on Tokyo. “I hate Tokyo,” he served with a hearty helping of provincialism. “Here, you can actually breathe.”
That’s not to say Osaka is some idyllic refuge in the middle of one of the most densely populated countries in the world. There were times when the city appeared to be just another concrete colony. Rush hour. Osaka Station. Japanese businessmen shuffled in mindless coordination through walkways and over escalator hills, droning back to their respective queen bees.
But I slowly began to understand my friend’s sentiment. There was space here, a commodity too rare back in Seoul. I indulged myself with this space, walking aimlessly in the middle of the street. I combed through entire neighborhoods with only the occasional compact car here or there. There was nothing behind to push me aside. It was just my own natural sense of freedom that dictated my pace.
It was a peculiar feeling.