Updated: Jul 15, 2022
I started writing these stories almost exactly 4 years after my medical research internship at Handai, during which I spent half a year in Osaka. And never have I had as many memorable experiences, such a sustained sense of wonder, compacted into such a modest time span, even compared to previous experiences abroad. While it was by no means enough time for me to pretend I know how Japan ticks, it was just enough to make me feel like I actually lived there, for Japan in general and the city in particular to become a part of me.
It was also just enough time to peek beyond the usual suspects, to do the everyday things you wouldn’t dream of wasting your precious time on as a tourist, such as going to a neighborhood swimming pool and experiencing the strange ritual of having to get out of the water every hour for some music-guided exercises, or for exorbitant yoghurt and muesli prices to become normal. I also believe Osaka itself was the perfect place to become enamored with the unsung heroes I’ve described, given the fact that the city has fewer famous highlights, less clout as it were, and as such is not at the top of most tourists’ itinerary like Tokyo and Kyoto are. One might even say Osaka in and of itself is an unsung hero of sorts.
What I like about the unsung heroes is that they surprise. Tim Anderson, who lived in Kyushu on a working holiday visa and became a famous chef of Japanese soul food, voices this exceptionally well in his cookbook ‘Tokyo’ when he says that Tokyo induces reverse Paris syndrome. Many famous places, Paris the titular prime example, can easily disappoint because they can’t make true on the romanticized expectations people project on them. Tokyo, according to Anderson, is simply too overwhelming, too dazzlingly crazy to fall victim to this: no prior expectations can ever come close to reality, let alone overestimate it. In this I see the unsung heroes that rear their head where you least expect them.
Of course, most people come for the oversung heroes: the rustic kiyomizudera that turns out to be under perpetual construction, unique Fushimi Inari where there are so many visitors that it is nigh impossible to get that prized picture where it’s just you and the rows of red torii gates, or Golden Gai where the locals themselves have all but fled from the overpriced drinks and the hordes of tourists. I believe it’s not those easy travel guide highlights, which have a tendency to (mildly) disappoint, that get people hooked; it’s the many small things that make Japan more than the sum of its parts.
Indeed, Fushimi Inari which I describe as an example of an oversung hero actually hides an unsung hero of sorts: the most inner of its shrines rests on a mountaintop a 60-90 minute climb beyond the red torii palooza, the length to which few visitors go. Not only is the climb itself spectacular (through plenty of the coveted torii guiding the way), but going beyond the highlight rewards you with an incredible view of Kyoto and the actual tranquil experience you might have expected from the temple visit.
I’ve only tried to describe a few of the unsung heroes that reside in Japan and many remain; some I don’t know well enough to cheekily write about, more I believe I am yet to encounter. It is exactly this that excites me, the knowledge that every visit will surprise me and that a sense of wonder and adventure will always reward me. While this of course generally applies to almost any place, it is true like nowhere else in Japan. And as such I am truly grateful for the unlikely convergence of circumstances that facilitated my exchange in Osaka, and would recommend it to any student that has the option.
Contributed by Tom de Hoop on August 5, 2021.