Diary of a Globetrotting Family
Setting into our neighborhood, with deliciousness and calm all around
Singapore has futuristic grandeur. Bangkok has bustle. Tokyo’s sophistication carries both tradition and the future. And Osaka, Japan, knows that the most important thing is lots of places to eat all around.
Jodie has an incredible knack for finding accommodation. We greatly enjoyed our tatami room in Tokyo, and a neighborhood where, within a short walk, we could snag Japanese French-inspired baking or a large bowl of ramen.
But our place in Osaka just might be Jodie’s current masterpiece.
The joy of a quiet neighborhood
If you turn left from our front door, just before the lane that runs parallel to the tram tracks, a small stone shrine stands at the end of our housing row, at about eye level to me. It’s clean and well-kept. A speckled gray stone comprises the squared base, the round columns, and the curving roof. In the back of the little shrine, tiny figures await: two smiling people in robes, kneeling, as if they’re about to wish you a good morning (or ohayō, said like “Ohio”).
Two one-yen coins lie before the bottom step of the shrine. Inside are also two pops of color against the gray: a small, red-orange torii gate, with something written in Japanese characters on one vertical piece.
The other is a little yellow bear, sitting and holding a bowl. The bear looks a bit like Winnie the Pooh.
No hotel, lots to see
We will be in Osaka for a month. So instead of staying in a hotel, we found a rental house in a quiet neighborhood. Do we have to hop the train or the tram for sightseeing? Mostly, yes. Yet our neighborhood is its own site to see.
Attention to detail is a core component of Japanese culture. And our calm, residential neighborhood has no shortage of little details.
When we walk to the supermarket, the bakery, the ramen diner, or the udon restaurant (more on that in a bit), we look for the little details. A couple of doors down from us, a single tulip has unfurled from the center of a small pot. Now, the blossom is opening. Along another street, which is on the way to the ramen diner, someone made a small fire flower (from Super Mario Bros.) out of perler beads and set it out by the side of the lane. Another house has painted wee ceramic owls in the small structure that holds their mailbox.
Right around the corner from our house, the cherry tree in the playground is about to add its brilliant white flowers to the famed sakura visual symphony of a Japanese spring.
Some sights, attractions, or experiences are big, bold, and darn well should be. Others are small, ever-present, okay with being passed by as you do your thing, but ready to delight you when you are ready to notice.
Quiet streets, but not still
There’s a difference between vacancy and calm. Some places in the world feel empty, devoid of human action and imagination. They’re not good places to linger.
That’s not the same thing as calm, though. When an area is vacant, there’s a sort of vacuum that you sense. A void, waiting for opportunity, for a child’s giggle, for someone to set out a pot of purple geraniums.
Here, small minivans and modern station wagons line open garages. Bikes are often parked on the street. During school hours, mothers bring small children to the playground. Later in the day, school-age kids hang out in the same little park. Wandering along the labyrinths of lanes, we pass a barber shop (good thing too, I’m in dire need of a haircut), a fabric shop that may also tailor kimonos, and a shrine at the top of a patch of slightly higher ground, not even tall enough to really call a hill.
Our side streets have side streets. Traffic? Sure. There are streets with plenty of vehicles, but the residential side streets rarely see congestion, other than when we need to remind the kids not to spread out across the narrow lane.
The calm behind the busy
Our month in Osaka, though, is not still either. We’ve made some calm days for ourselves. But we know what we’re here to do. Jodie and I are finalizing projects for the next few months, and my days will be filled with negotiations and discussions, just about all via email. We’ll be meeting up with dozens of fellow world schoolers later this month, spending a week together and exploring the sights of the city.
Oh, and we’re working on getting an RV, like we mentioned a couple of weeks ago. We’re examining listings, talking with dealers throughout Western Oregon, and figuring out the money.
If the opposite of vacant is full, we are most full.
Yet here, we still can find the calm that helps us do what we need to do.
Back in the swing
I stood my ground, waiting for the moment.
The soles of Aster’s sandals nearly grazed the patch of green artificial turf under the swings. She giggled as she flew upward again. Stretching out her legs, she called, “Better get out of the way, Daddy, I’m coming through!”
Aster and I have taken to visiting the little park around the corner from our house. There’s a tall slide, a set of monkey bars shaped like a rainbow arch, a small set of baby swings (one seat blue, one red), and the Aster favorite, a swing set. Often other kids are here, toddlers and pre-school kids in the morning with their mothers, and older kids in the later afternoon and evening. It has also become Aster’s happy place, and all the more so when we can come down together, just daughter and dad.
Though those high-velocity feet were now, getting awfully close to my face.
Sliding my left foot forward, I turned, leaned backward, and just stepped out of the way. Aster laughed as the swing swooshed backward.
It’s been how long?
Chatting at the park one morning while Aster and I swung side by side, she asked me how long it has been since she was on a swing set.
My eyes widened as I thought about her question. For all the things we’ve done over the past few months, playgrounds haven’t had as much of a role. Sure, we’d done theme parks, but she wasn’t referring to rides at LEGOLAND Malaysia or Tokyo Disney. Parks had been a big part of our plans for Singapore, but days of heavy rains had, shall we say, encouraged us to do something else.
“There was that park in Huatulco,” I said slowly, thinking back over the seven months we’ve been traveling full time. “Wait, what about in Bangkok, in November? Didn’t you do a bunch of swinging at Lumphini Park before we left for Chiang Mai?”
Aster thought for a moment.
“Yes, it’s been that long,” said Aster.
“Oh my gosh,” I said, as I did a little mental tabulation. “That’s around four months.”
“That’s a long time for a girl not to be on a swing,” said Aster.
I nodded. “Thank goodness we’ve sorted that out.”
Guess where she’s going?
I go with Aster to the park as much as I can. However, Aster loves playgrounds, and she could be at one just about all the time. And it’s inspired her to boost her confidence a little.
“Mama? Daddy?” she asked one day. “Can I go to the park by myself?”
Jodie and I had one of our mental spousal conversations.
The park is right around the corner. Aster understands about people and what is and is not okay.
“Of course,” we told her.
A few minutes later, she closed the front sliding door behind her, and we heard the fast sound of little feet as they slapped quickly along the lane.
The giant food and beasts of Shinsekai
The giant red octopus waved around a fudge popsicle the size of a dining table. And beneath it, the children posed with a pyramid of takoyaki, the filled popover landmark dish of Osaka, rendered in stacked bronze spheres the size of grapefruits.
Osaka’s Shinsekai area was designed to bring out big smiles. Shopfront after shopfront boasts massive, over-the-top designs on top of the facades. Across the street from the three-masted sailing ship, we found our destination: A wheel of sushi platters, surrounding a center circle that said, simply, Kura Sushi. Well, in Japanese. But the sign was a giveaway.
After lunch, we wandered back outside, amidst the pose-worthy sculptures of food, teeny plush octopi on a display board, and prize machines full of Pokemon pokeballs.
Japan is quiet, calm, and attention to detail. Japan is also bold colors, bright lights, and boundless imagination brought to life.
Osaka is also known for its personality. There’s an outgoing quality that Jodie and I remember from our 2013 trip to Japan with Connor. Now, as we walked around Shinsekai, the occasional man or woman would stop and make it clear that they thought Aster and Connor were the most sublime people they had seen that day. Which I rather understand, given how often I feel that way myself.
There would be smiles, bows, and flowing sentences in Japanese. We responded, we hope, with as much grace as our minimal Japanese could muster.
Along with stuffing ourselves with sushi, our day in Shinsekai was also a bit of a day off. And as we giggled at the displays, we realized how much we had needed it. With intense weeks coming up, we realized we were refreshed, ready for the work we needed to do, both in the business and for the next stages of our travels.
Back at home, that evening we chatted about the sights of Shinsekai over a home cooked dinner of seasoned rice, sautéed veggies, and pork.
The kids cleaned their plates. And asked if there was more rice. They love the food here, the quiet streets, and even the bustle of areas like Shinsekai. I love being reminded that Japan’s culture is vast, and can contain so many multitudes. With every day, we enjoy being here more and more, both in the quiet moments—and the bombastic ones.
Cooking on the road
During our seven months of traveling, our cooking experiences have ranged from full kitchens and sumptuous home-cooked meals, to instant noodle nights with a few auxiliary veggies, sliced up sausages, and water boiled in the electric kettle on the motel room desk.
Part of travel is about embracing a range of experiences. We try to set understood expectations with each other about what is and is not an option for a given set of travel accommodations. In our hotel room in Singapore, for example, we had an electric kettle and a small fridge at our disposal. However, we could get simple meals from the 7-11 down the street, and warm them up in the microwave by the store’s front door.
In other places, such as Oaxaca, Chiang Mai, and now Osaka, we’ve had a full kitchen at our disposal. As much as we enjoy going out, or the simple joy of finding a fun and even decently balanced meal at a convenience store, there is nothing like cooking our own food. Not only do we get more out of our travel budget, but cooking has always been one of the ways we come together as a family.
Our quiet Osaka neighborhood has a lovely grocery store just a few minutes’ walk from our front door. We go not quite every day, but usually every two or three days. Sometimes it’s simply to restock eggs or fruit. Other times, we check off a bigger grocery list. We’ve picked up meat, veggies, and rice for home-cooked meals. Given the takoyaki maker in our kitchen, we are also planning some takoyaki nights, where we’ll make the filled spherical popovers that are a favorite food of Osaka.
Every place we’ve been has had its own rhythm of cooking. In Oaxaca, most mornings I cooked breakfast for me and Jodie. Usually these would take on a theme of sautéed vegetables and fried eggs. In Osaka, Jodie and I usually breakfast on scrambled eggs (maybe with a dollop of shallot and garlic chile crisp), yogurt, and fresh fruit. Lunch is sometimes our main cooked-in meal of the day. Jodie gets a pot of rice going in the rice cooker. We’ll make a quickle of peeled, chopped cucumber with salt, sugar, and rice vinegar. I sauté up a few veggies and maybe some chicken or pork.
Most mornings now, the kids have leftover rice as part of their breakfast, usually complete with a savory dash of rice seasoning.
We dine out as well. A typical meal here might cost the four of us about US$20. Some evenings, I nip to the nearby supermarket, where a discount table holds prepared dishes, from sushi to bento-type meals of rice, salmon, seaweed salad, and more. I might pick up comfort food favorites like fried chicken or tempura chicken, or breaded pork tonkatsu, tender and sliced and ready to be served over a bed of rice.
Eating is at the heart of Japanese culture—and it’s also at the heart of our family travels. Aster and Connor seem to have taken on a general philosophy that they’ll try pretty much anything if it’s from Japan.
Short of wasabi, anyway.
But by the time we leave Osaka, they just might even be a little curious about the funky, fermented, stringy soybean mixture of natto…
The udon heart of Sumiyoshi
As the nearly spring sky darkened over Saturday evening, we wandered the side streets of Osaka’s Sumiyoshi neighborhood, to the ramen diner where we ate our first meal in Osaka. The cool air carried a damp chilly, the exact sort of evening where both the stomach and the soul call out for a hot bowl of umami-packed goodness.
Reaching the door, we were about to go inside. But as we looked through the window, we realized that the ramen diner was full.
Wondering what we were going to do instead, Jodie remembered she had seen an udon noodle restaurant nearby, in the large covered market near the supermarket, bakery, and okonomiyaki place we liked to frequent. Entering the covered market, we looked up at the milky, curved cover, three stories up, over the lane where we walked.
Many of the white metal doors had been pulled down for the evening. But turning down one lane, we soon found ourselves outside a glass door overlaid with thin, vertical wooden slats, and framed with wooden planks. Little handwritten signs in Japanese looked playful and inviting, especially next to a display window showcasing examples of the food. Glancing through the window, we saw a man in the kitchen and a woman standing by a table, where another woman and a teenage girl were ordering. All around the little restaurant, little toys rested on shelves or the tops of backsplashes at the counter along a narrow counter across from the three tables.
Inside, warmth both from the air and the owner’s smile greeted us. We gave a bow and a “konbanwa,” or good evening, and were soon seated.
Trying to chat as best we could in our limited Japanese, it turned out our hosts also loved an opportunity to try out their English.
Setting down a three-sake sample in front of the woman at the table next to us, the owner asked us if we drank alcohol. Answering with “hai,” or yes, we also accepted her offer of a couple of samples of sake. Jodie’s was milky, sparkly, not very dry, and a bit sweet, with a rich mouthfeel. Mine was cold and a mix of fruity and dry, a bit like a Riesling that knows better than to be too sweet.
Soon, we were tucking into savory bowls of udon with a hearty broth and thick, pillowy noodles. Instead of udon, Connor opted for “oyakodon.” Literally, it means “parent and child,” because it’s a mix of both chicken and egg.
“Why are you staying here?” the woman at the table asked us. And staying, she meant, in this work-a-day residential neighborhood in Osaka, as opposed to more of a tourist area.
“We’re staying in Osaka for a month,” Jodie explained. “When we stay somewhere longer, we prefer to be more where people live, and be in more of a community.”
Throughout the evening, laughter flowed. As we paid our bill, the owners invited us back. And the woman at the table asked to swap contact info with Jodie.
Wherever we go, we try to show our respect for and willingness to learn about the culture, people, and place. We like to think that at the very least, that pays off in us learning more about ourselves, the world, and the many ways in which people have figured out what works for them in living life and striving through the day.
But sometimes—sometimes—we earn something else. We like to think that we occasionally earn a show of trust from the folks we encounter in our travels. In Oaxaca, it was an invitation to a birthday party. In Osaka, by the time we’d gotten back to our house, full and warm, an invitation to a “community event” at the restaurant for families was waiting in our inbox.