Escape from Osaka

Every weekday dozens of foreigners here fly to Japan to get working visas at the consulate in Osaka. It's a routine procedure; not terribly well organized—one guy didn't have proper papers from his school so his trip wasted--but it's a good chance to get out of Seoul, meet people and see Osaka, even if it's only for a few hours.

There were twenty or thirty foreign teachers on the morning flight. Two hours later we landed at Kinsai Airport and caught the train for the hour ride into the city. Nothing unusual, except for the nutter on the tour, a real genuine  whack-job. I've met others here like him, people who can't seem to function right in our world; loners, sycophants, alcoholics and other miscreants. They are the Wasters, and this one was a fine specimen.

It's hard to describe the extent of his behaviour, but suffice it to say you wouldn't want to be in the same room with him. He was talking--loudly--to anyone within earshot, oblivious to the general reaction around him. He moved from one to the next extolling his vast knowledge of Asia and his experience with the procedures at hand. He jumped the immigration line handily, managed to be one of the first out, and kindly waited for the rest of us.

I came out just behind a rather tall British guy, Paul, in a suit and tie and good cuff-links, and the waster came straight for us. Paul and I tried hard to long-leg it to the tracks, but he actually ran to catch up with us. It was 12:30pm, he was drunk, breathing hard and telling us how smart he was, if we'd only give him a chance. There were four of us on the same rail car, Paul and I, the waster and a woman  from Texas that buddy turned his attention to. We breathed a little easier, chatted and watched the city pass by.

At first glance there seems to be little obvious ethnic difference between Koreans and Japanese, though it's a serious offense to mistake one for the other. Japan has occupied Korea numerous times, the last for nearly fifty years ending in 1945. There is still animosity, particularly among older Koreans, but the two countries are closely linked, not unlike Canada and the US, and the differences seem subtle until you go to Japan.

What struck me first was the cleanliness of Osaka; the streets, the gardens and public spaces, even the alley ways seemed to be tidy. Compared to clean streets and blue sky of Osaka, Seoul is filthy. The area surrounding the consulate had a broad, tree-lined boulevard and tidy, bright shops.

The visa office was crowded with foreigners, though the process went smoothly enough despite the waster who now appeared to be literally wasted. He spent a good while telling a New Zealander how pretty she was though insisting he wasn't actually attracted to her--he likes them Asian I supposed, but who knows. When she used the word shit he said only prostitutes use that kind of language?!

He spent more time talking than getting organized so many of us were out before him, and in a way we have much to be grateful for his obnoxious presence. These things are supposed to pass uneventfully, and people drift off on their own or in small groups. He brought us together, gave us a common ground, or at least something to talk to each other about.

Eight of us ended banding together, ambling down the street in a vague search for a drink. A bit like a tour group without a guide, but we found a decent spot with tables outside and a friendly Australian girl who works in Osaka. We talked and drank beer in the sunshine and generally admired our surroundings.

How nice it would be to stay longer, we mused. Radiohead was in town, the Ozzie had a ticket for the show and the rest of us were lamenting the impending return flight. Gary--a Canadian teaching in Seoul on his second tour--and I were the last to leave. We had to make it back to the consulate around 4pm to pick up our visas and head back to Kinsai for the 7pm flight.

Lots of time.

By 4:30 we all had our papers and regrouped at the Pig and Whistle pub across the street. Time flew by and the responsible ones in the group got restless and headed to the train. Gary and Keith (another Canadian and a veteran teacher here) and I stuck around for one more pint. Plenty of time. We'll take the bullet train, 40 minutes and we're there, laughing our asses off at the ones who missed our last call.

Outside the sun was setting brightly and we legged it hard to the station with an hour and a half to get to the airport. At the station we bought the tickets and then hit the roof as we were told the train wouldn't leave until 6pm. It's 40 minutes to the airport. Our flight leaves at 7. We're screwed.

Think about it. Put yourself in our shoes. Then walk up to platform number nine, feeling your heart sink away from your chest as you realize you're effectively stuck in Osaka--not a bad thing, but under the circumstances, not a good thing either. Then look over and see five familiar faces break into grins. The group's back together, and we're all screwed.

The Japanese are great fans convenience, and vending machines are well stocked with pop, snacks...and beer. Make it or not we grabbed a few for the road and boarded. On the train we sat together and the conductor didn't mind, though I found Paul sitting in his assigned seat one car over and brought him back. Strength in numbers.

It was a little hard to maintain our optimism as we approached the airport. Keith was all for staying, but some of us had to work in the morning, and I don't think any one of us wanted to make that call to Korea.

At 6:45 we reached the airport and ran. The international departure area was off the ground floor and a good distance, though we made it to the Asian Airlines kiosk, waving our tickets in the air and screaming "Seoul! Seoul!". The agents jumped fast into action, taking our passports and tickets and radioing ahead, while one lead the way as we raced on toward the security check, through the gate and onto the plane. Time 7:05pm.

Laughing, gasping and thoroughly impressed with ourselves, we took the mostly empty seats around us and settled in for another beer before takeoff.