Wandering the old city that lives its dreams

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 May, 1993, 12:00am

MENTION Osaka to anyone who knows this city and their eyes brighten with memories. It's a hectic place with cash flowing between its many buildings, mostly banks, businesses and bars, like nervous energy through a living body.

The visitor is not commonly caught up in this tide of monetary affairs, merely taking part in its lighter whirls in an evening jaunt about town.

At the office it is still common to exercise in the morning air, possibly on the rooftop, shirt sleeved, like a troop of apprentice signallers.

I had arrived in Osaka by train, and Umeda station itself takes considerable energy to leave behind, it is so maze-like. A city within the city.

Amid its amazing collection of shops and restaurants there are the east and west outlets that lead into Osaka's ever-trailing edges, the subways of Higashi and Nishi-Umeda, and subterranean gateways leading to the city's further flung delights.

Day or night, head towards the area of Namba and its famous shopping, walking and everything else streets of Shinsaibashi, Ebisubashi, Sennichimae and Dotombori, all easily-recognised by the solid flow of people.

Teenagers in trendy clothes, old ladies with their kimono-clad bevy of friends, sharp hoods, straggly haired hippies, foreign sailors and a multitude more. All adding human colouring to an already colourful scene.

These streets are today's Japanese fairyland, a more open and leisurely affair than say 20 years ago when Osaka was the last bastion of naughtiness in the Yoshiwara style.

In this city there was another, a hidden city of sexuality, exuding lower toned delights of reds and blues where ladies lacquered into their kimonos would sit, in arched alcoves, waiting for customers. Now the fun and frolic is less seedy.

For Bunraku fans or Kabuki followers the area of Namba is the place. The puppets of Bunraku can be enjoyed at the Asahi Theatre of Dotombori, though for some reason I could never quite get into this puppet art-form, despite having been impressed by thepuppets themselves.

Now Kabuki, that is different. Something about Kabuki jelled. A late morning start, 11 am, queuing with those ladies in kimonos - so that is where they all went.

Up go the curtains and down comes olden-day Japan with its geishas and warlords, lost loves and dramatic battles between man and man.

And how could I really believe that those slinky stage-females were men, for so it is. It has been a tradition in Kabuki ever since women were banned from public performances, but women more womanly than these are most rare.

At the intervals, when the curtain temporarily falls, all shuffle out to hit the snackeries, to touch upon the sake pots, just enough to dampen a little the stirred memories of near forgotten or presently dimming loves.

And what better than finding a cafe in mid-afternoon, after the show, by one of the many little bridges that cross the interlace of waterways, to spy on the crowd.

Then on to Osaka castle, a 16th century landmark, its five-storey donjon (keep) commanding an extensive view that was once the Shogun's. At night it is illuminated in fine relief.

By early evening, businessmen seek some nook to begin the jaunt, the unspoken of, innocent enough beginning that leads to any end - and how those jaunts end! Of course it's not their cash, it's the company's account and in this clever Osaka madness the money runs from hand to hand and keeps the entire structure of city life alive.

The borderline naughtiness is not all the visitor can look for though, as there are festivals galore, always something up the cultural sleeve in Japan.

The most renowned Osaka festival is the July Tenjin Mauri with boats on the river, fires and drums too and village-rough mikoshi battles on the streets.

Adjacent to the railway station is Kita Umeda, the adversary in titillation tonics to Namba district. It is another entertainment area chocker-block with bars and restaurants, pin-ball parlours and a thousand-and-one side-shows.

There are all night coffee bars for those who missed the train, and the jazz joints don't close till four; discos at five.

Failing anything else there are always the noodle stalls, the ever-present nocturne with lights so welcome when the early chill penetrates the shroud of rice wine.

Finally, for those last two or three hours before the trains start to move in the new day, there is the novelty of resting in a capsule hotel, designed like beehives for unlucky ones who wound up in the night all alone, having fallen through the dream.