i make three good decisions before ian and i leave for japan. i purchase a japan rail pass. i order a pocket wifi. and i leave mr. james in texas.
it is an accepted universal truth that it is hard to be away from your baby. but i didn't actually feel torn up about it the first time i went on a weekend trip at the 3 month mark. there was no mom guilt, no anxious nail-biting or constant facetiming. and i didn't stress about it even at the 3 week mark, when i was hospitalized for sepsis after my c-section incision burst open unceremoniously and sprayed gouts of blood across the living room floor. we've routinely enjoyed date nights on weekends when james is happily paraded around in my parents' house. i feel like i am borderline sociopathic in my carefree approach towards alloparenting.
but even still, it is hard to depart to the other side of the world without my big boi. after all, he is no longer a potato. he is vivacious, curious, animated, talkative. he is a real dude, not just a flailing ball of fat rolls and eyelashes. he wears socks and shoes and knows how to climb up on furniture with the aid of footstools. he is a person with thoughts and emotions, and i worry that he will miss us and wonder why we've abandoned him in favor of takoyaki and timely trains.
i write up an anxious evernote for both sets of grandparents with instructions regarding his meals, sleep, and safety. ian deems it correctly as fully annoying.
he's gonna have a great time! my husband reassures me, with his usual dose of placid optimism.
and as always, he is right. james suffers through the tail end of a cold, but happily soaks up the undivided attention of his grandma, grandpa, aunt bekah, 爷爷, and 奶奶. he is spoiled beyond belief and probably forgets about us entirely. when we facetime him in kyoto, he is entirely distracted by a wicker cabinet full of toys and books.
we talk about his ridiculous grin and round belly nearly every day in japan, but we are also perfectly at ease on vacation.
i have never willingly checked luggage. unlike my sister, who checks multiple bags for the shortest weekend jaunts, or my parents, who fill suitcases with costco candy buckets for their trips back home, i travel light. it is not a principled stance on minimalism, because i say gross consumerist shit like, i can just buy it there if i need it- i am just not into hauling around baggage. so i bring a small carry-on and a purse. ian brings a weekender bag with room for my extra shoes. i remind myself to take an annoying photo of my passport, headphones, and leica q for a basic bitch instagram #travel vibe. i immediately forget to do this.
the leica q isn't mine, of course. i rent it for this trip, because i remember how much i hated lugging around my nikon df and lenses last year in beijing. despite my poor photography skills, this is absolutely worth the expense- i fill two memory cards and purchase a third in the span of a week. i seriously consider outright purchasing this camera, but am dissuaded by the possibility of explaining to james that he can't afford to attend college because mom couldn't stop spending on outrageously expensive hobbies like photographing her own butt.
of course, i am sick on day one. i wake up on our travel day with a sore throat, smoldering its way up with the ominous threat of illness. when we land in vancouver, i buy a weird canadian version of zyrtec in the desperate hope that it may be allergies that can be kept at bay.
in the vancouver airport, i get to flex on these priority pass cards that are a perk of our chase sapphire reserve account. this is only worth noting because the premiere lounge receptionist initially rejects us, being momentarily confused by our names. as it turns out, our legal names now look remarkably similar- ian and i both have first names that begin with n and are rather long (9 and 11 letters, respectively), followed by the same surname. lookin' like a real squad out here.
vancouver to osaka is a 9 hour flight, which does not faze me. i fly back to the prc annually, have very short legs, and am armed with a bottle of xanax. ian is not as well-suited or prepared for a long flight, and resigns himself to watching the help for 9 hours.
we arrive at kansai international airport at 3 pm the next day. our first victory is locating the post office despite having interpreted the airport map incorrectly. i pick up the japan wireless package that is being held for me- a pocket wifi hotspot with unlimited data. while i wait in line, i send ian to do a small currency exchange. i immediately regret this decision, because we make no arrangements for meeting back up. i momentarily lose my husband in the airport and desperately wonder how people ever lived before smartphones.
but we finally find each other and eventually also find the exit corresponding to "airport limousine." this is deceptive nomenclature- the limo is actually just a bus. we are thrilled with ourselves for figuring out how to buy tickets for this bus, which isn't actually very hard because the ticket machine has an english language option. still, we high five. we did the bare minimum- we found our way out of the airport.
the glow of our first success as two idiots abroad is immediately vanquished by the bus attendant, who speaks to us rapidly in japanese and displays a luggage tag printed with a list of hotel names. conrad osaka is not on this list. i curse myself for not learning any japanese prior to this trip, out of a weird admixture of this compulsion to avoid any weeby behaviors, along with a fear of disrespectfully butchering vocabulary. the next ten minutes is an agonizing stretch of pantomiming, feverish googling, and repeating ourselves. a younger man in line behind us intercedes helpfully with only slightly more english, and i am not exactly sure how the confusion is resolved at all- but our luggage is eventually sorted onto the bus and we sit tight for an hour-long ride in osaka.
we pass a long stretch of an wildly dense and complex factory that looks exactly like the chemical plant zone from sonic the hedgehog 2.
our taxi driver at osaka station also has no idea what i mean by "conrad osaka" but google maps eventually prevails and we arrive at a the foot of a posh skyscraper in the nakanoshima area, a narrow sandbank sandwiched by two rivers to its north and south. it is not a touristy vibe, surrounded by museums and office buildings, but it's adjacent to some rich people shit and this newest conrad property lives up to its brand.
the lobby smells really good. there are also visually arresting custom art installations and incredible city views, but i am mostly still wondering how i can get my hands on whatever air freshener situation they're working with.
there is a nespresso machine in the room, which i think is also a sign of fanciness.
fresh off a long travel day filled with dejected airline food, i am hype to dig into our first meal- i have endless tabelog aspirations. we wander north, unknowingly, into the kitashinchi nightlife area. the city on friday night is the best kind of vibrant- bustling, but not busy. ian is visibly exhausted and i am stupidly traipsing awkwardly in my kindest louboutins, but we do our best to make our first meal a memorable one. i want to make it count.
as it turns out, it is hard to find a restaurant you have only previously identified on tabelog, with no firm grasp on kana recognition. my confidence falters, as gps leads us in errant circles and it dawns on us that one address might house like 14 different restaurants, stacked upon each other and digging into deeper basement levels like a tantalizing layer cakes- every square foot probably delicious but which one are we looking for?
we finally find my first choice, and are rejected politely and immediately. maybe for lack of reservation, but most likely because we are obviously idiotic tourists in unsuitable shoes. i despair. after much anxious ambling, we finally slink dejectedly to an italian restaurant that looks approachable. there, we drink quietly and scrabble hungrily at a dish of unidentified tapas that are all some form of seafood or potato salad. it is good, but we are ravenous. we people-watch the passersby outside the bar and ian finally asks what's up with all these old men with much younger girls? i protest maybe they're all dads and daughters.
it is at this point that i discover i've left my wallet- and our yen- back at the hotel. luckily, cucina cucina accepts ian's credit card. but we are hungry boys, and a milligram of potato salad does nothing to sate us. i have my eye on a ramen joint- chikamatsu- that is allegedly nearby. it takes us an embarrassingly long period of wandering to locate it. i finally break down and ask a nightclub doorman where the restaurant is. and by ask, i mean show him the tabelog page and also my dumb puzzled face. he gestures us helpfully to the building right across the street, and then jogs over to guide us even more acutely when it becomes clear that we are literally incapable of anything. chikamatsu is tucked away in a nondescript basement level with no obvious signage. they do not take cards.
we admit defeat. my feet are in agony. i am unwilling to face a third rejection from a restaurant and ian is barely awake, so we trudge back to the hotel and only get lost twice along the way. when we return to the conrad, i break down and order room service. it costs $100 smooth american dollars for a burger and fish & chips.
the next day is a triumphant 180 from the hopelessness and ineptitude of our first night in japan. well-rested with an early wakeup, we start a long, adventurous day in osaka that makes 12 hours feel like 36. our renewed vigor coupled with no real itinerary provides us with a string of little gems: a delicious caffe mocha, a detour to the modern art museum, a trendy ramen joint, a hearty bowl of unadon, a leisurely stroll through the tenjimbashisuji shopping arcade, and most importantly- a woman shampooing her barn owl outside on the sidewalk. the only predetermined destination- a sushi restaurant highly recommended by tripadvisor- turns out to be a long queue followed by an underwhelming experience.
at sunset, we visit the conrad's 40 sky bar- a swanky bar & lounge off the lobby featuring an impressive crystal sculpture and assessing a bonkers cover charge after 7 pm. we are 40 floors above the osaka skyline at dusk and it is unbelievably beautiful. ian sips through a whiskey flight while i drink a cocktail that i later discover cost $24. i mar the elegance of this moment slightly by complaining vociferously about my worsening sore throat.
it feels like i am swallowing glass shards, so this ignites a wild chase through one of osaka's underground shopping malls. i resort to the clumsy hesitancy of a pocket translation app, keeping my thumb firmly planted on where is the all-night pharmacy? and i have a sore throat. devoted readers of my pointless blog will remember that i am a grade a tittybaby about ailments, and it should come as no surprise that i divert our romantic happy hour to a pharmacy hunt. the beleaguered receptionist at the luxe festival tower west office building adjacent to the conrad makes a call and finds the nearest drugstore that is open for the next 15 minutes- she says something that sounds like kokomin and directs us to the dojima shopping mall. this is one of many long, fascinating stretches of underground retail and restaurants leading to a subway station- in this case, nishi-umeda station. we race past bakeries and cheap men's suits, but can't locate a drug store. finally, a kind woman walks us directly to the kokumin, which i initially mistook as possibly a japanese sephora.
i think, for a moment, that i can finally stop being totally inept and figure something out on my own now that i'm facing down a selection of otc drugs. the shelves are full of packaging festooned with cartoon animals that look upset, but i feel confident when i select a box with a more clinical illustration of a man's silhouette with an angry red target at his throat. however, a store clerk arrives shortly to inform me- by way of pantomime- that this is for cough. i end up with a throat numbing spray featuring a vexed hippopotamus.
it is a miracle that at this point, my husband has not served me with divorce papers. ian is as imperturbable and amiable as always, despite my whining. after this exciting detour, we finally head to touristy ass dotonbori.
i am immediately thankful that i didn't book the cross hotel in namba for the sole purpose of being close to dotonbori. this area is a mess. it is a crushing, swarming mass of bodies and their respective cameras and we do not fuck with this level of noise at all. the lights are so bright and omnipresent that even at nighttime, the iso required for photography might as well be for broad daylight. i pay $9 for two small pieces of crab that taste mostly like carbon. this is what i deserve for being seduced by a giant animatronic crab display. i take some photos of the famous glico man ad but don't even bother editing them because it is impossible to capture a shot that isn't filled to the brim with tourists. a hundred thousand selfie sticks, a hundred thousand goofy glico man poses. at one point, i wait patiently for 12 minutes through several meiji chocolate ads for the chance to see myself on a jumbotron screen, but am immediately swarmed by less polite passersby.
eventually, we struggle out of the light and haze to find ourselves in an empty takoyaki joint that is mostly doing brisk delivery business. the friendly young guy manning the pan asks us if we are on our honeymoon. the takoyaki balls are so good- one of my favorite bites in the whole trip- that i am momentarily driven to distraction by the scalding hot, lush batter and unbelievably tender octopus. wait, why are we on vacation? i forget about my 30th birthday. i forget about parenthood. all i care about are these takoyaki balls. i swipe ian's portion while he is preoccupied with his gin and soda.
at the end of a very long night, we trek back to the hotel. i feel like i have mastered the osaka subway system. i have mastered walking endlessly in flats. i have not mastered my sore throat or its accompanying harbinger of increasing malaise, but i solemnly promise myself that i will stop whining about it for the sake of my dear, patient husband who deserves better. ian falls asleep immediately and reliably when we return to our room. i stay up a few more hours to indulge in my other three loves- a soaking bathtub, japanese kit-kats, and campy historical fiction.
i eat a piece of meiji chocolate that i purchased solely due to the brainwashing influence of those jumbotron ads, but it tastes like crumbly cardboard.