61 posts categorized "Where is he gay today?"

Foodzilla II. Frytening.

LONGREAD
Where is he gay today? Osaka Soemoncho, Sannomiya and Kobe Harbour. 

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The story so far: Dazzled by the dining options of the Dotonbori, Osaka's restaurant district, my husband and I set out to find a doofus food joint that won't challenge our soon to be inebriated brains. 

Don't you hate Westerners who won't shut up about Japanese food? It's so light! It 's so natural!  It's so pure so special so cleansing so spiritual so harmony with nature so blah blah blah blah wank wank wank! 

Here's what you should do with these people. Get them to shut their eyes, dip a piece of avocado in wasabi and soy, and tell them it's high grade tuna.  They won't know the difference. 

Truth is, not even the Japanese can live on raw fish and vinegary rice at every meal.  

First of all, it's expensive.  There's an old Japanese saying: I used to be rich, but I ate sushi.  And we're in Osaka, which is cheapskate central. Here's a Kansai saying: I'd rather lose a finger than a yen.

Furthermore, Japanese people like to drink. 

Unless you're quaffing champagne with caviar, raw fish is extremely poor drinking food. Insubstantial, unabsorbent of alcohol, and frankly, a little bland.

That may be OK among the social and corporate elites of Tokyo.  But Kansajin have zero patience for bullshit.  Ain't got no time for twelve courses of exquisitely arranged kaiseki.  Your average Osakan would be gnawing off his limbs before dessert.  

If a Kansaijin starts gnawing off his limbs, that shows his stomach is empty.  Japanese people hate drinking on an empty stomach, because—how can I put this nicely?—the ability to hold one's liquor is not exactly a national trait. 

Daikichi. Total alcoeats. 

My husband is a Kansai lad, so he knows this district very well indeed.  "Follow me," he said with a glimmer of nostalgia in his eye. "I'll take you to a place where Oscar and I would eat after drinking on the gay scene."

This remark predicted a night of heavy turpentine.  Oscar is my husband's gay BFF, or as we gay gents sometimes say among ourselves, BFFF.  

Oscar is a brilliant Kansai native, who reads his namesake Wilde in the original English, and speaks it with a perfect—and perfectly gay—Oxbridge accent.  But that wasn't the element of his character which I recall most vividly.  My fondest recollection of Oscar is his taste for gin and tonic, and his sneer if you pour too much of the latter. 

If this restaurant has the Oscar Seal of Approval, it will serve drinking food. Decision Accomplished. 

Thus did we find ourselves at the venerable Daikichi, or 大吉.  The kanji translate as great run of luck or on a roll.  (Odd. We didn't find fugu on the menu, so a run of good luck isn't critical.)

A thirty-seat izakaya, Daikichi cultivates a reputation as an insider secret. The celebrity autographs reminded me of a hole-in-the-wall trattoria in Naples or Brooklyn, whose owner is proud of the luminaries who sought out his special skills. Like its Italian counterparts, I suspect that Daikichi has seen the odd mafioso parking his legs under a table.  Tattoos, such as those on the gent in the glossy, are widely believed to be a sign of a yakuza.  

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In Japanese, the kanji for izakaya (居酒屋) literally mean a liquor store you can stay and drink at.  So the dishes tend toward bar food, small and sharable, like tapas.  Management has plastered its menu on the wall, revealing prices between one and four bucks each.

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Luckily, Daikichi provides an English menu for its foreign guests. Though the word English  may be a tad generous. 

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A whelk is a species of sea snail. You're whelcome.
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I wasn't game to try the fried hormone.  It sounded too much like a description of me in college. 

My husband needed neither menu nor wall; he ordered from memory. His youthful evenings always kicked off with octopus, and a fine choice it is.

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Pitch a tentacle

More fast food followed, keeping us content while our main meal was prepared.  The tofu soup and grilled sardines made a small gesture to healthy dining.  We quickly undid these health benefits with two rounds of Asahi Super Dry.  

(An aside: when I lived in Japan, I always wanted to get into English language voice-overs.  Many commercials end with an English tag-line, and I imagined it to be a pretty good racket.  Most famous was the abundantly-advertised Asahi Super Dry beer, whose royalty-rich TV spots concluded with its name delivered in a perfect be-afraid-be-very-afraid blockbuster American movie voice, which I can do in a dawdle.  Alas, the only gig I could score was Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat.)

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While we drank and nibbled, the TV on the wall caught our eye.  An Osaka talk show.

In Japan, the words "Osaka" and "Talk Show" add up to an oxymoron.  Osaka has talk-everything.   Nobody ever shuts up.  (The stereotype of shy Japanese folk comes from Tokyo, where government bureaucrats and corporate cogs waste oxygen in silent, organisation-man presenteeism.) 

The Osaka dialect reminds an Anglophone listener of outer-borough New Yorkese; fast, impatient, and the natural language of comedy.  There's no better example of this than Sanma Akashiya—Sanma for short.  A titan of mirth, he's been clocked as Japan's fastest speaker.  (Click this link to hear how fast he talks while interviewing hapless heartthrob Takuya Kimura, a Tokyo native and ex-member of Japan's most popular boy-band of the early twenty-first century, SMAP.  The limp-personalitied Kimura stands no chance against smart-aleck Sanma. Even Beyonce totally pwned him.)  

But that night on Osaka TV, Sanma encountered someone who could give it as well as take it.  Hailing from Chiba (Tokyo's New Jersey) the sumo-sized cross-dresser Matsuko Deluxe furnishes bitchy wisecracks to talk shows across the nation.  She started her career as a writer for Japan's pioneering gay magazine, Buddy, before hitting the big time. 

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Just in case you were wondering, Sanma is the one on the right.

Choosing the politically-correct English pronoun for Matsuko Deluxe is no easy matter, since Japanese pronouns have no gender.  Her drag-name, Matsuko, is clearly female.  Ko means small, and as a suffix, it might be translated as -ette.

To assign the right pronoun, we must listen to her speech patterns.  Deluxe uses the grammatically proper watashi to refer to herself, equivalent to the English I or me.  When speaking casually, most women will continue to use watashi or atashi, whereas men will change to boku or ore.  It causes many a snicker when men who have learned Japanese as a second language continue to use watashi, no matter what the context.  Lookin' at you, millennial American gamers. 

This show combined two Osaka obsessions, talk and food.  A rather large panel of talkative celebs watched evergreen A-lister tarento Nozomi Tsuji prepare a meal, to crack wise at her attempts.   Displaying no gender ambiguity, we caught the former starlet preparing a seaweed garnish for miso soup. 

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Sanma and Deluxe traded gags, while a noted doctor (also on the panel) touted the digestive virtues of having miso soup with your rice.  We listened closely.  We could use a few urgent health tips, since main course was on its way. 

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Many westerners look at Japanese people, few of whom are fat—sumo wrestlers or Matsuko Deluxe notwithstanding—and conclude that a Japanese diet keeps one trim.  World Health Organisation data published in 2017 ranks Japan 185th out of 191 countries in obesity, with a mere 4% of citizens officially classed as tubby.  The average Japanese body Mass Index lobs in at a svelte 23.  Thus, many assume that all Japanese food is low-fat, nutrient rich, and good for you.  As I mentioned above, that assumption is false.  Because this: 

Fried deliciousness
clockwise from top left: shu mai, tofu, beef, chicken, eggplant, shrimp and...um, dunno.

What lardy magnificence!  It's an Osaka specialty known as kushikatsu (串カツ).  If one prefers to avoid katsu, the borrowed French word for cutlet, one can also say kushiage (串揚げ).  Literally: fried stuff on a stick.  The Japanese character for skewer, kushi (串), is a nice bit of visual onomatopoeia.  

Now this is goddamn drinking food, amirite?  Beats your hard-to-eat wings and nachos.  And please, don't tell me that everything looks like a corn dog, because they just ain't in the same league. 

In olden times, restaurants often charged the same price for every stick. Customers would present a glass with their empty sticks to the cashier, who counted them up and thus settled the bill. One gets a proper check nowadays, but the tradition of collecting your skewers in a beer glass remains. 

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I took in this glorious scene, and grilled my husband. 

"An Osaka specialty, you say?"

"Yes."

"So, other restaurants in Kansai serve this?"

"Everywhere. Western Japan loves fried food."

"That means we don't have to live on sushi and ramen for the whole of this week, right?"

My husband scoffed.  "Of course not. Kansaijin aren't stupid."

Our vacation was looking up. 

Suika KYK, Sannomiya.  Pig out.

The next night, we set off in search of the crumbiest dinner we could find. We made it just in time.  Restaurant KYK closed permanently not long after we visited.  Clearly, we were the ultimate in alpha-customers.  Management gave up.  Future patrons could not possibly meet our measure of gluttony.

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Thrifty Kansai fellow that he is, the numerous set-menu options in the window attracted my husband's attention.  Frittered food makes an ideal Japanese restaurant window display; the crumbs are very easy to duplicate in acrylic, and lose none of their appetite appeal.  Oddly, many restaurants still cover these fake plastic dishes in cling-film overnight. Not to preserve the food, but simply because the plastic models are a pain in the ass to dust.

One of the plastic window models
Not exactly Surf 'n' Turf.  Pig 'n' Prawn, maybe?  Fruit of Sea and Swill?

Digesting such mountains of  fried food would make even the sturdiest bowel wince.  So Osaka custom demands side-dishes of fibrous cabbage, rice for ballast, and miso soup as a digestif.  In unlimited quantities, to do battle with the giant gut-clogging cutlets for which the place was famous. 

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Look at the pork cutlets below, and look at my husband's hand for scale.  KYK served up a mess o'pig.  Fried to perfection, these thick slabs of pork stayed juicy, with just the barest wisp of pink in the middle. 

Crumbed prawns (or for you Americans, breaded shrimp) came with the set.  The decadence of deep-fried oysters was entirely my husband's touch.  Note the plentiful dipping sauces and sinus-scorching Chinese mustard.

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We tucked in so heartily that the server rushed over with emergency cabbage, almost instantly. She repeated this several times. 

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I had never experienced a food coma in Japan.  But this meal caused our eyelids to droop, and both of us to yawn with satisfaction.  We lounged around for about half an hour, picking our teeth with a Proo. 

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Teppanyaki Grill Tajima, Portopia Hotel, Minatojima Kobe

We took my husband's parents to dinner the following evening, which pushed us upmarket.  Could we keep up our fry-happy lifestyle?  Teppanyaki gave us the perfect solution.

The Restaurant Tajima is located in a hotel on Port Island, a man-made island in Kobe Harbour.  I use the phrase "man-made" because when I called it a fake island, my husband objected. "It's not a fake island.  I saw the many tonnes of dirt they trucked into the harbour to make it.  It's a true island from top to bottom."  

(Hmmm...surely, islands don't have bottoms.  That's how you can tell them apart from a boat.)

When in Kobe, beef it up.  And since Kobe is a port city, do seafood too.  The lanced prawns were still alive and wriggling as the chef presented them to us.  

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Ordinarily, I wouldn't include pricey teppanyaki in a piece about comfort food.  But here are four reasons: 

  1. It's fried. 
  2. Look at the fat in the Kobe Beef below. I'd say the fat/protein ratio in that cow ran at 50/50.  This pushes it well into state fair concession territory, and maybe even rivals French food.
  3. Look at the picture below. The chef topped the scallop dish with a pillow of fried cheese.
  4. Let me repeat: fried cheese 

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Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari, Kobe Harbour City

On the Kobe waterfront, we hit a motherlode of oil and crumbs.

Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari sits inside a mall of restaurants facing the waterfront at Kobe.  The name is almost as long as one of those pesky German words.  It's so long, I haven't attempted to type it; readers may assure themselves that every mention of the restaurant's name has been cut and pasted from its Yelp entry.  

As best I can figure out the kanji, (神楽食堂 串家物語) the name means The Story of the Gods' Temple of Easy Meals.  

"Here's the deal," explained my husband. "At (ctrl+V) Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari, ¥2000 (USD $18, €15) gets you all you can eat. Another ¥1000 ($9, €7.50) gets you all the beer you can drink."  He paused for a moment, trying to contain his enthusiasm. "I think we'll get our money's worth on both counts."

"What's on the menu here at (ctrl+V) Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari," I asked?

"Fried stuff on a stick." His eyes went dreamy. "Fried stuff on a stick, forever. There's a catch, though.  Like a Korean barbeque, you gotta cook it it yourself."  

One starts at the buffet of pre-stabbed edibles. Patrons choose among meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, tofu, and other items of indeterminate provenance. 

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Lotus root and okra
For the vegetable course, lotus root and okra

A diner-cum-chef carries his selection to the table, where a modest friteuse awaits, dangerously hot.  (The grillwork on all four sides is an exhaust fan, by the way.)

One coats the food with a slurry of water and cornstarch, which allows the breadcrumbs to adhere.  You rest the coated stick inside hot oil, and when done, slather it with dipping sauce.   At this link, you can watch two young women show how it's done.

First course
First course: crab, shrimp, tofu, mushroom, potato, beef, pork, chicken, champignon, fish balls and...um, something else we couldn't identify.  Appetiser: beer. 

The sticks emerge crisp, ready for a good dipping. 

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We tasted the first lot, and maybe went a little overboard.

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The place was packed with teenagers, and no wonder.  Not only did the food suit an immature palate, it thrived on a teenager's underdeveloped impulse control. 

The two teen girls at the next table had packed away a brace of kushi, and moved onto dessert.  I did a double take when I saw them eating soft-serve ice cream cones with a spoon. 

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In Japanese culture, opening your mouth too wide is kind of vulgar; a little too intimate.  Women feel particularly sensitive about it, and will often cover their mouths when they laugh or eat.  Ice cream poses a special problem; licking is icky. 

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As with everything else, the ice cream was self-service, and so was the dessert bar.  Their English skills rivalled Daikichi.

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Keeping with the stuff-on-a-stick schtick, a chocolate fountain drenches your stabbed sweet morsel of choice in brown goo.  You can even dip french fries in it.  And finish the evening with coffee-flavoured Jello, which you garnish with non-dairy creamer from those little sealed cup-things.  Because your body is a temple. 

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My husband insisted I take the picture below, as proof that we nailed this whole skewer business.  We couldn't count the number of sticks demolished, because we got excellent value out of the ¥1000 bottomless beer.  And my beloved topped it off with an ice cream cone, which he licked, because he's a real man who laughs at all this prissy business of covering your mouth.  You could see his tongue. It was very erotic. 

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No doubt, you readers have noticed that I've been typing this slowly.  The memory of that dinner  (and the next, since we returned the following evening) has put me into a food fog and beer haze.  We got wasted, and waisted.  We left the restaurant for a stroll along Kobe waterfront, and onward to a highly necessary evening's sleep.  Barely made it.  Goodnight, and sayonara.  I gotta go burp. 

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Foodzilla

LONGREAD
Where is he gay, today?
Dotonbori, Osaka
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Some days, Facebook looks like a cookbook.  Posting your dinner to Instagram feels like the modern equivalent of saying grace. I often give my friends a serve over how eagerly they share their food on the social media. I get it, though. Food is more than fuel. It’s culture—especially in Japan.  

The entire nation obsesses about food.  What shall we eat?  Where shall we eat it?  What does it mean?  Locavores are not necessarily hipsters; long-standing tradition demands that when visiting a far-off city, one consumes its fare. If you haven’t eaten the local specialty, you haven’t really been there.  

In fact, Japanese food is more than culture.  Food is history, literature, geography, and pornography.  

No place more so than in Osaka. Notorious for rough manners and a most un-Japanese impatience, Osaka does nothing in moderation—including eat. 

So, on our first night in western Japan on a visit to my husband’s family, we took our appetites out for a spanking on the Dotonbori.  Osaka’s nightlife district, it caters to hungers of every kind.

Dotonboristas generally start at Shinsiabashi, where the covered shopping streets give way to this well-known Osaka scene. 

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Since 1935, the Glico Running Man hawked caramels so perfect, that a single piece could replenish you after running a marathon.  With modern sports drinks and energy bars, his pitch is no longer so relevant.  But like the Sanyo sign in Piccadilly Circus or the Skipping Girl sign in Melbourne, the icon proves indestructible.

Note, though, how Japanese folk wisdom deals with sweets.  They don’t give you a boost of energy, but rather restore it after it’s expended.  Feeling tired is noble; a state of grace that tells you you’ve achieved something. The standard way to fare a colleague well as he leaves the office is otsukare samadeshita, or “you must be tired”.  The Glico Running Man doesn’t look tired, though.  As a mascot—and every Japanese business needs one—the Running Man embodies the spirit of health and energy.

IMG_6547 (2)Not so that other icon of Osaka, a mechanical clown named Kuidaore Taro.  His first name recalls a Japanese word for which we have no direct translation in English; kuidaore is a weakness of character which comes from overindulgence in food. From 1950 to 2008, the beloved Taro stood outside a namesake restaurant, popular with sumo wrestlers who weakened their characters under his watchful, bespectacled eye. Since the restaurant closed, he now poses for pictures outside a shop in which he mainly sells souvenirs of himself. He must be tired. 

Turn left down the banks of the Yodoyogawa, and the buzz picks up.  You’ve arrived at peak Dotonbori, where restaurants shout unsubtly of the deliciousness within.  

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The most unsubtle is this giant crab, whose mechanical claws, legs and eyes flap about like he was just plucked from a tank. That’s Kani Doraku, built in 1960, molded from a then-newfangled material called fibreglass.  Many believe the sign to be haunted.  Just inside the front door, real crabs wait on death row.

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Sayonara, baby!

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of crab.  Crab is just too hard to eat.  My husband, on the other hand, will patiently wield that ice-pickish bit of cutlery which extracts every morsel of (supposedly) sweet, succulent meat from the crab's leg.  

This strikes me as the gustatory equivalent of performing a backward four-and-a-half somersault—beautiful to watch, but the degree of difficulty is far too high for a recreational diner.  For me, even a KFC thigh pushes the boundaries of Not Worth the Trouble.  Anything harder to eat than an oyster doesn’t deserve to see the inside of my stomach.  Crab needs to be  made into a ball, and fried on the end of a claw, Chinese-style.

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Speaking of hard-to-eat things fried into a ball, let’s talk takoyaki.  Small pieces of octopus tentacle hide in a spherical fritter of rice-flour, garnished with barbeque sauce and flakes of dry tuna, which you eat by stabbing with a stick. This dish can be quite tricky to make, and requires a deft hand to rotate the spheres 180 degrees in mid-fry.  These gents are clearly gifted.

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Tricky to make, and tricky to eat.  Takoyaki present the same problem as biting into a potato in a stew; the tentacle inside is much hotter than the outside, but there's no way of knowing how much hotter until you've bitten into one.  You'll clock plenty of people on the Dotonbori sucking air heavily through open mouths.  

Kani Doraku started a trend.  Giant, mutant food bursts through the front wall of almost every restaurant. Here’s a rather striking scallop, which might perch equally comfortably atop a Shell station. 

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Go Well

Those quaint models which sit outside restaurants in Japan—so that no diner will get a nasty surprise when a dish arrives—look puny in comparison. You'll find almost none along the Dotombori. Fittingly, one of the few places which needed to explain the perplexing nature of its dishes was the American Diner.

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Do they expect to sell actual food with this stuff?    Let me speak as a professional adman.  In the course of my career, I spent more intelligence than I care to admit learning the secrets of appetite appeal.  

Food is tricky. It needs to be photographed (or Photoshopped) with care.   You've got to get close, so you can see the texture.  It should be cut into a bite size, and angled to suggest that the bite is on its way to your mouth.  Appetising food must steam, splash or crumble.  

None of that happens in images of Dotombori food, nor in its unchewable acrylic models.  One wonders if the culture of lifeless, too-perfect plastic fakery has given the Japanese foodie low standards of edible allure. This Korean BBQ can make even steak look blah.  Let me repeat: steak.  

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A prominent chain of ramen restaurants gave up on the giant ingredient schtick. Since an enormous noodle would look as appetising as a radiator hose, Kinryu Ramen opted for a dragon—in deference, one assumes, to the Chinese origin of the dish. 

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But the dragon symbol works on another level, too.  The dragon is manly.  And real men who get real drunk need noodles. 

In Japan, ramen serves as the ultimate drinking food.  Water to rehydrate you, oil to line your stomach, and carbs to soak up the next beer. Kinryu has perfected the art of drunk-wrangling; they serve their customers on the street, where the lads can happily puke, smoke, and text their impatient, stood-up girlfriends.  

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These guys were so busy texting and talking they failed to notice their food was ready.
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At a slightly more upmarket ramen joint, drinkers enjoy a peaceful Tampopo moment

The Dotombori feels fast, loud and chaotic.  Precisely the sort of place you don't want to eat a dish that requires the chef's utmost concentration, lest it kill you.  That's the deadly puffer-fish of the genus Takifugu, or river pig—better known simply as fugu.  

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Puffery

On the Dotonbori, fast-fugu joints abound.  This McFugu restaurant is called Zuboraya, identified by its beloved fishy mascot Ronald McRespiratoryparalysis.  

Thrillseekers maintain fugu is best enjoyed as sashimi—thinly sliced raw pieces served with wasabi and soy—in such quantities that your lips feel dead, but your lungs still work.  Brave foodblogger Chinito found that his visit to Zuboraya left him with a working tongue, but shaky legs which recovered in time for dessert.  Personally, I prefer getting shaky legs via beer—the safe alternative

This Osaka institution has been numbing customers since 1920, so I guess their attrition rate remains acceptable. In the local Osaka dialect, zuboraya means loose, casual, or sloppy.  Never had a hankering to try the deadly delicacy, but if I did, I assure you it would be in a restaurant that looked nervous, uptight, and expensive.  

Sensing that I was a little overwhelmed by the food-circus, my husband led us into the most ancient part of the Dotombori.  The ruckus gave way to peaceful, metre-wide streets.  

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The bars and restaurants, though busy, were smaller and more exclusive. Such small restaurants in Japan often cater to a select, regular clientele; one really needs to be introduced by a standing patron to earn a full welcome  There's a word in Japanese for a first-time restaurant visitor: Ichigen.  The word smells of gauche. 

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A different Taro

Religious artefacts began to appear.  It suggested we were approaching a shrine. 

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As one might expect at a shrine, maneki neko (beckoning cats) promised good luck.  In this neighbourhood, the cats  had a bad case of kuidaore

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The maze of alleys opened to a small square, with an open pavilion at its centre.  This modest building is the Hosenji Shrine, which the Japan National Tourist Organisation describes as "newer", dating back to 1637.  (They should write New York apartment ads)     

Hosenji houses the god Fudomyoo, a fierce scrapper who can kick the ass of evil spirits with a few not-quite-kosher MMA moves.  If you need heavy duty good luck, you must splash him with water.  The many Dotombori waitstaff, chefs, barkeeps and tipsy revellers do this often; it's given him a coat of moss that recalls Oscar the Grouch.  As kids, didn't we all have days where we prayed for an intercession from Oscar the Grouch?

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One assumes that jittery diners can stop by for a pre-fugu pray.  Handily, Osaka's most exclusive fugu specialist sits just across the street. The Asakusa Hosenji restaurant presents a discreet front, exuding an air of calm that many diners would find comforting should—Fudomyoo forbid!—they dine themselves into the afterlife.   

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Mercifully, one needn't risk an agonising death to eat here.  They have a second, much safer specialty.  It's turtle.  

I suggested perhaps this might be a nice delicacy on which to feast (as long as the restaurant practiced strict separation of crockery).  I mused that some nice turtle sashimi might be just the ticket for two hungry gents.  

My husband sneered, in the way that spouses reserve for each other when one of them has committed a faux pas that is just a little too much in character.  After executing a monster eye-roll, the size of which I'd never seen before on a human being, he scolded me for knowing absolutely nothing about turtle!   Turtle, apparently, is far to gummy to eat raw; you need to soupify it for hours.  A pointless discussion about the merits of turtle for our evening meal followed, brought to a close by a look at the prices on the menu.  

Wasn't there someplace here in Osaka that made food really cheap and easy, for gaijin dolts like me, I asked?  

And with that question, my fine husband knew exactly where to go.  

What did we eat?  To find out, you'll have to wait for Part Two.  Hint: the picture at the top of this post is a clue. 


Brexit Explained

Brexit
Where is he gay today?
 A burger joint on Fulham Broadway, London.

Overheard from the next table, a group of men in their early thirties. 

"Of course you got sick.  Can't 'elp it if you travel abroad."

"Mate o' mine reckons you can get sick from just handling the money. It's filthy."

"A lot of them carry their money in in their arse-cracks.  The criminals are so afraid of looking gay, they won't touch another bloke there." 

"They say you should get your cash out of the machine in the morning, put it in your pocket, and jump in the swimming pool."  (Murmured agreement)  "Yeah, the chlorine cleans it right up."

Conversation ends as Spanish waiter arrives at table with lunch. 

No, I'm not making this up. 


Tattooed on the Memory

Where is he gay today? Edinburgh
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Thirty years ago, I found myself wishing bagpipes had a snooze button. 

Those sleepy mornings—over two dozen of them—took place in Edinburgh in the summer of 1985.  Seeking cheap digs, my pals and I bunked out at the Leith Nautical College, on the Firth of Forth.  A visiting pipe band from Canada, in town for Royal Tattoo, had the same idea.  They used the sports field outside the window to rehearse their drill.  Every morning, promptly at six forty-five.  

We spoke to management.  We explained that we were a comedy troupe from Australia, playing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  Jet lag was eating our brains.  Lights went up for our show at midnight.  And we drank a lot after the curtain fell—in Scotland, we reasoned, such an argument held sway.  Could the Canadians please keep the noise down until lunchtime?  

The administrator replied in soft tones reminiscent of Gordon Jackson in Upstairs Downstairs.  "Now, you do realise you are in Scotland?"

Yes, we said.

"And you know that this college is an arm of the Royal Navy, and as such, is a military institution?"

Yes, we said.

"And you imagine that militia, in Scotland, might march to tunes played on a bagpipe?"

Um, yes, we said.

"Well..." he concluded, with a phrase that betrayed a schooling in classics not uncommon among east-coast Scots, "caveat emptor."

*     *     *     *     *   

Leith Nautical College closed its doors in 1987.  One of my fellow troupers quipped that had he known, he would have delayed his visit two years.  

But bagpipes before breakfast were a small price to pay for an extraordinary several weeks.  

Our band of undergrad comics regularly played the fringes of the festival in our native Adelaide, and sought to open our gills in a bigger pond.   We came as rubes from halfway across the world, and left as actual, minor-league almost-professionals.  (Up to a point. Only one of our troupe went on to earn a crust in showbiz.)  At the Fringe, both competition and opportunity ran hot.

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The Royal Mile.  As ever, packed with patrons of the arts

By the late seventies, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe had become the largest arts festival in the world, dwarfing the festival proper.  Every church, school, gym, pub, spare room and coat closet morphed into a theatre—though in 1985, we were still half a decade away from using the word morph.

Postcard_1985Millions crowded into a city which, under normal circumstances, held barely 350,000.  To squeeze the maximum number of butts on seats, most performances ran less than an hour.  Audiences sprinted from show to show, through as many as eight or nine in a day.  As you dashed to make the next curtain, performers plied their witty ways to get a playbill in your hand—a practice known as flyering.  It was chaos.  Energetic, inventive, brilliant chaos.

Billing ourselves haughtily as the Australian Comedic Revue, we touted that we were a hometown hit on the Adelaide Fringe—an exaggeration: we were less a hit, and more a mild slap.  

Several of us threw together a show called Wagga Wagga High High.  From memory, the blurb went something like the tale of a school so evil that it can turn children into accountants.  I played a character called Zeldor Fitzgerald, Teen from Another Planet. The costume included my own high school uniform, into which I still fitted. Yes, 1985 was a simpler time. 

We gave an even milder slap to the Edinburgh Fringe, but felt we acquitted ourselves well enough.  Thanks to a not-unkind review in The Scotsman, we sold out our season.  Russell Harty wanted to interview us, too.  But that fell through, because his phone at the BBC didn't allow Subscriber Trunk Dialling, or something.  

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Edinburgh has since grown to half a milllion souls, but can still barely contain the beast.  In the first three weeks of August 2014, the Fringe sold 2,183,591 tickets to 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.  

If you divide the number of tickets into the number of performances, one gets an average audience size of a little over forty.  Few impresarios count this as a real figure.  In 1985, rumour put the median audience size at twelve.  This year, word on the street tipped nine. 

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Better Together

In the decades since, I'd wanted to return, simply as an audience member. This year, encouraged by friends who now live in Edinburgh, we did.  The promise of some fine travelling companions clinched the deal.  

When I told people in Edinburgh that I'd performed on the Fringe thirty years ago, they grew curious.  It must have been very different back then, surely.

I shocked them with my reply.  No.

In my observation, here's what's changed.  

  • Lager drinkers can choose from a wide array of bottled craft beers.
  • American university students majoring in theatrical administration or arts publicity often work on the Fringe as a course requirement.  We met several flyering. 
  • Edinburgh's quality broadsheet, The Scotsman, once provided the most authoritative critiques. The paper remains an authority, but nowadays a mammoth website called Broadway Baby overshadows it.  Curious, since the Fringe is about as un-Broadway as you can get.

That's about it.  Here's what hasn't changed since 1985. 

  • Busking bagpipers on the Royal Mile love the theme from Star Wars.  
  • Tickets are pretty cheap, but dedicated cheapskates pick up bargains at the half-price box office.
  • Snooty, sensitive, arty types hate the atmosphere.  Australian acts thrive.  American and Japanese artists enjoy the looser rules.  
  • An act lives or dies by its reviews—if you get a decent review, you put it on your flyers and flog the hell out of it.  
  • Modern times have seen the rise of the professional publicist.  But still, the best way to get an audience is for an artist to wear out some shoe leather, press some flesh, and perform on the street.  
  • Never sit in the front row for a stand-up comic. When he asks "And where are you from?"—and he will—whatever your answer, he will mock you mercilessly.  He will mock you mercilessly, too, if you decline to answer at all. Too often, the where-are-you-froms displace actual jokes.  It's heckling in reverse.  Hey, buddy, I'm your audience, not your material.  Lookin' at you, Fred McAulay and Scott Capurro.  I repeat, never sit in the front row for a stand-up comic, unless you crave attention.
  • You can take your drinks into the theatre, or indeed, anywhere.  Restaurants in most parts of the world will bundle leftover food in a doggie bag; in Edinburgh, pubs decant leftover drink into a Starbucks-style doggie cup.  Have you ever sipped beer through a straw?  Not my preferred means of suckage.
  • Scots like to vomit.  Billy Connolly's most famous routine even jokes about it.  Drinking Scots should be required to carry airsickness bags, in the same way dog-owners must carry plastic bags as a measure against their pets fouling the pavement. 
  • The Fringe organisation does an awesome job of managing the herd of over 20,000 temperamental performers. Nowadays, it provides a cool mobile app that lets you squeeze more theatre into a given day than you thought humanly possible.  Their website pulls together a programme, ticketing system, reviews and social media seamlessly.  But the telephone-book sized Fringe programme remains the most popular means for visitors, literally, to get their acts together.
  • With 20,000 performers in a city the size of Edinburgh, the Fringe thrusts artists and audience together in ways you simply don't find elsewhere.  Many performers mingle before and after the show—given the set-up of most venues, it's unavoidable.  If you want to talk to your comedy heroes face-to-face, go to an Edinburgh pub. 

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Umbilical Brother Dave Collins clowns with the public in the foyer after his show
—which was superb, by the way.

I've changed.  But the Fringe hasn't.  Every year, it finds new sources of energy, originality, and outrage.  Perhaps I shouldn't leave thirty years between visits.  Nowadays, I can afford a quieter place to sleep. 


Photo Friday: Walk

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This week's Photo Friday theme is Walk, but in truth, the pictures sort of show a march.  We arrived in Hakone on a festival day in the summer of 2003.  The mountain town celebrated with a parade.  Her streets, though, are barely wide enough for a single car to pass: bands could march, at the most, three abreast.  And spectators got up close and personal with the musicians.

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