h e l i o s travels the world: Osaka
(Reading time: 19 minutes)
Most people feel funny about public nudity. But sometimes, it feels right. Now, h e l i o s is going to expose all in this letter to you.
Welcome to the first ever episode of h e l i o s travels the aesthetic world. Join me, h e l i o s, on a journey around the world as I collect all the stamps in my passport to nostalgia. Today, we travel to the far East. Enjoy this wandering multi-part letter to you from Japan, my dear friend. Part guide, part memoir, part dreamy tale. Fasten your seatbelt and let’s explore.
Sometimes, life takes pretty strange turns. I sat naked in a bathtub under the cold Japanese moonlight in march. A steamy tub full of naked Japanese men. It had been an interesting and exhausting three week trip to Osaka, Japan’s most outgoing city. I sat there and thought about the events of my trip as foreign eyes studied my marble statue body.
I’d come to Osaka to answer some important questions. The big question: was Osaka the aesthetic city I’d once dreamed of? I studied the aesthetic, the people, and the vibe. I explored iconic spots and dug up hidden gems. I found my answers in those three weeks.
When I think back on those weeks, the memories of my time in Osaka feel like a dusty old ‘80s movie montage. Manic highs and seedy lows. Epiphanies that brought me home to a place I once loved. A lover. A skyline. A tragedy. A tale of heartbreak and redemption.
Osaka, what’s The vibe?
Is it retro? Is it vaporwave? A LoFi dream? A nostalgic fantasy return flight to a place you’ve never been? Here’s a disappointing answer. After visiting a handful of iconic cities over the last few years, I discovered places just are. One man’s mecca is another man’s boring dessert. It’s up to you to make the vibe.
That said, Osaka is a dream city. It’s got a vibe, look, and feel that will give you butterflies of excitement. To say it had a vaporwave aesthetic wouldn’t be quite right. Let’s start with what vaporwave is. Geek.com sums it up well and gives us a nice definition on which we can base our inspection into Osaka’s vaporwaveness.
“Vaporwave is the muzak that plays in an elevator in a mall in a futuristic Japanese cyberpunk dystopia. It’s the music sedated freaks listen to on the neo-dance floor. It’s the jams your funky smartphone mediates to when it’s running low on power and is cool with it. It’s a word that can’t be shouted, only coolly whispered.”
More specifically on locations:
“Vaporwave isn’t just something you listen to either, it’s something you experience, and experiences include visuals. Vaporwave visual art, simply referred to as “aesthetics,” is varied but tends to honor some core tenets. If you’re looking at something pink and teal with a marble classical bust and a glitchy Windows 95 logo, you’re probably looking at a vaporwave aesthetic. If you’re watching a YouTube video with a title written in a weirdly soothing stretched out font, you’re probably watching a vaporwave aesthetic.
“Vaporwave is what plays in grocery stores on the moon.” Get it? Japan is kinda like the moon. With this definition guiding us, Osaka is and isn’t vaporwave at all.
For starters, It’s a city free of blemishes. It’s fresh and new with little droplets of ancient culture dropped here and there. It’s quiet. I walked around in the busiest centers of the city many nights in an eerie, surprising silence. When you visit the city’s infamous Dotonbori, you will feel like you dropped right into a LoFi music video. This hotspot is teeming with imagery and visuals you’ll be dying to take pictures of. Neon-lit, foreign lettering. People seemingly juxtaposed from the past, present, and future. Everyone has the same novel excitement plastered on their faces.
There are a few ways in which Osaka is classically vaporwave though. There is a distinct feeling of coldness and numbness. Not a physical coldness but a deep cold of a somewhat futuristic and inorganic city. If you travel alone, you may feel this. I couldn’t sleep for a few nights (about six). One morning, I set out to find sleep medication. This proved to be ridiculously hard. When I got through the ordeal, I decided Japan (as a country) didn’t suffer from sleep problems. Like they could power down and power up whenever they wished. Stress was far too human and selfish.
A similar robotic experience, a telling vaporwave symptom, happened when I spilled my coffee in a cafe. I sat there shoulder to shoulder with a Japanese woman. The coffee flooded the table but her reaction was emotionless, polite, and (for an empath like h e l i o s) artificial. She kept saying “it’s fine. It’s fine, it’s fine” in a voice stripped of authenticity. “It’s okay,” I thought. “It clearly is not fine for me to drench you in coffee. It’s okay for you to tell me how you really feel.” This makes Osakans friendly. They will offer to help you though. They will give your directions. They might even help you find a place to sit in a crowded cafe even after you’ve spilled your coffee on them.
There are a few very unvaporwave aspects of Osaka. There’s nothing abandoned about the city. There are no forgotten malls. There is no dying materialism. Shopping centers teem with activity. Beautiful angels in the malls greet you with easy smiles, however fake they are. Materialism is still enjoyable. Japan continues to ride the wave of innovation and materialism without the awkward self-conscious existentialism the west has. In other words, they’re still able to buy new, nice things as a society without the hopeless, what’s-the-point-of-all-this feelings present in many millennial American lives. Perhaps, I was blind to it as I looked at the culture from well outside.
I arrived and left before the classic cherry blossoms. I was a week early for these flowers in full bloom that symbolize death and rebirth. By the time I took the train to the airport, they were starting to sprout. A sign of the changing seasons and the shortness of youth.
How To Find Your Sweet Spot For Aesthetics, Retro, And Nostalgia
I must apologize, my friend. I didn’t exhaust myself in finding each and every spot in Osaka to visually feast my eyes upon. After three weeks, these were the top choices for anyone wanting to travel to Osaka and have an aesthetic experience (whether that was a vaporwave bath, a LoFi energy, a nostalgic twinge, or a surface-level vacation.)
I traveled to Dotonbori my first night and then pretty much every day thereafter. It was right near my apartment. In the loneliness of solo travel, it’s where I went to be among the citizens and travelers, to have a coffee, and to find myself in a conversation with someone, anyone. It’s a joy simply to walk through the tight streets with signs crawling up the sides of buildings. You’ll find plenty of restaurants, tourist spots, places to take pictures, places to drink, and places to dance. One could compile a dense collection of interesting neon signage photography from this area alone.
Kyoto and Nara
While technically not in Osaka, these two spots are inspirations for some LoFi dreaming. I didn’t make it to Kyoto but I heard good things from enough people that I wanted to share it on this list. People used various words to describe an energy that exists within Kyoto. Spiritual, peaceful, holy, traditional, godly, and more. Kyoto is less of a city and more like opening a chapter in a lovely old book. It has so much charm and I’ve only seen it in videos. Nara is outside the city but close enough to be considered Osaka. There’s not much in Nara beside the picturesque herds of deer that roam there. Green pines rise into the air. It’s surreal. It’s peaceful.
Osaka Castle gives you that stunning traditional Japanese vibe. Its soft, bright colors. Its juxtaposition in the city. A fortress smack dab in the middle of the city. I went there on the coldest day (and there’s more to the Osaka Castle story but we’ll get to that later). It’s an important place. Plain and simple. Lots of areas to explore, wander, wonder, and think. It’s a great place to throw on your favorite album, put your earplugs in, and float in the magic. Sadly, I wish I had visited the majesty during the cherry blossom season.
Umeda Sky Tower
Going to the rooftop of Umeda Sky Tower is like the beginning of a techy synthwave video. You might imagine there’s some kind of flying Blade Runner car on the roof waiting for takeoff. The building itself is a postmodernist monolith. Once you ascend to the top, you’ll find yourself in a very aesthetic vantage. The view is one of my favorites in the world. Fluorescent black lights bathe the roof in a purple glow. The orange city lights spread in all directions. Planes pass overhead deep in the atmosphere. It was so breathtaking that I had to take some alone time. There’s a walking path around the circular rooftop with glowing stars under foot.
(Arcade and Sumo photo provided by the beautiful, stylish @lydiachenuhhuh)
There were places in the city that popped up as having an incredibly unique aesthetic. Images forever trapped in my mind. One such image was an arcade I passed in a place called Shinsaibashi. Another iconic perspective was walking through the anime video game district as work let out and the salarymen filled the streets.
This list is anything but complete. I’d was hoping to hear your opinion (in a comment below) about what special places you witness if you visit Osaka. That way, I can make another visit.
Am I Alone In Feeling This Vaporwave Desolation Or Can You Hear Me?
Vaporwave is a double-edged sword. When the nostalgia reached overwhelming levels within me, the marble statue came out and took a new form. March in the land of the rising sun was the most exciting purgatory h e l i o s had ever experienced. A halfway point in a journey. On one side, the end of a beautiful phase in his life. On the other side, a mystery. Don’t let people lie to you, time is most accurate inside your own mind.
He boarded the plane to Osaka two weeks before his birthday. He arrived alone in a cold, rainy city on a Sunday. He bought an umbrella and took a walk. He drank three huge beers and ate rice at a diner where everyone sat at the counter and faced the same direction. On his first night, he hopped in line for the one club open on Sundays. He tried to make small talk with two Japanese girls. They smiled and said they didn’t speak English. A guy named Guillermo introduced himself and they hung out all night. “You just need to make them feel beautiful,” he shouted over the music.
Neon melted into the rainy streets by the time he walked home. Reflecting off of everything, into the puddles and the glass and the mist, until it was everywhere. There was a river cutting through the center of the city. A place where many chapters had opened and slammed shut. A flow of water that never seemed to move and had no sense of connection to a deeper body.
The next morning, he had a hangover. He walked to Spa World, a giant building filled with spas, steam rooms, pools, saunas, restaurants, gyms, and countless things you didn’t think you needed. A true traditional Japanese bathhouse experience. He found his home among the nudity. Each room in the bathhouse had its own theme, everything from fake Turkish bathhouse to traditional Japanese-style outdoor hot spring. Marble statues, naked men, refreshments, and reinvention each time.
He stayed in the anime and video game district. He passed through a gauntlet of teenage girls dressed in costumes handing out flyers every time he walked home late at night. Various cafes, including the ones where these girls dressed as sexy maids and answered to the beck and call of any lonely man, were all over the city. A land of fantasy bordering on delusion.
Sunsets bled all over the sky every evening. He made a point to watch each one. He picked plates of sushi off of conveyor belts in busy restaurants. He tried whale sashimi but it left him feeling indifferent. He went back to Spa World over and over again and sat naked under the moonlight. His birthdays were getting weirder with age. He went to Outback Steakhouse with a Japanese woman who sold prescription drugs to doctors. The restaurant had the largest fan he’d ever seen and he couldn’t focus on the conversation he was having.
There was a sumo tournament in the city. Huge, distinguished, revered men lumbered around the city between training and competition. They wore yukata and seta sandals with split-toed tabi socks.
He never once thought about how small his life must look from miles above. On the coldest winter night, he imagined what the summer must be like. Who knows? More skin to look at? More restlessness in the air? Much like any other city, he imagined. One day, he took a train in a loop around the city and stared at the puffy clouds miles away.
Another day at Spa World to drip away the nerves. The emperor was retiring. A figurehead of a distant time and culture. He watched the news in the sauna. A little kid couldn’t take his eyes off of h e l i o s. What does an emperor do in 2019? h e l i o s has been asking himself this question for centuries.
He stretched naked on his balcony overlooking the orange glow of the night. Buildings as far as the eye could see, each with a hundred or more windows. Each window held a tiny little life, someone’s home. A place where a tiny mundane drama unfolded daily. His apartment was too hot. When he stepped outside, the sweat froze to his bare skin. The two beds in the room were too small on their own. When he pushed them together to make one big bed, all he felt was loneliness.
He heard a nagging voice tell him he shared this feeling with many others in the city that night. Osaka was becoming more and more vaporwave the longer he stayed. Looking out at the flat, angular surfaces of the buildings extending to the horizon, the city felt so still it must have been dead. Unmoving. He longed for the motion of a great sea. He longed for instability. Surprises.
The Weather Always C h a n g e s
At first, the visual aesthetic of a city enthralls you. Then, the energy seeps inside you. One day, you take a walk. You tell someone you don’t feel well. Maybe it’s the beers you’ve been drinking. The late nights. The insomnia.
“Because of the weather change?” someone asks you. You shrug it off and go back to the productive rumination about your past and future. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe not. Maybe you don’t feel well. Maybe you’re dead. Maybe you have the immune system of a marble slab.
You text a Japanese girl you like. You tell her you’re walking to Osaka castle from your apartment. She asks why but you ignore her message. After many miles of walking, you see the castle. Originally, the castle was black with gold accents. You’re relieved to see it is now white with greenish-blue accents. A dash of gold remains here and there. This color fits the aesthetic vibe much better. In a city of inorganic, smooth, glassy buildings, the castle is unusual. It pops from a distance.
You reach the first gate. Then, another. Getting into the castle’s main area is a series of turns and pathways and gates. Huge moats and formidable walls. The sheer size is impressive. After several minutes, you’ve lost yourself while walking inside. Entering this silent, peaceful place, your guard drops. Soon, this whole castle journey starts to feel like a metaphor for accessing your trapped emotions. Through stone passages, wooden gates, and up steep hills.
Have you ever felt such a peaceful place? A peace so penetrating it eventually calmed you to the core? Had your life become the blissful, aesthetic music video you once dreamed of? Was this ancient castle the key to confronting the haunting nostalgia? We’re getting close.
You inhale the vaporwave. You breathe in the nostalgia. The castle gives you all the vibes you wanted. You find a quiet corner of the grassy yard overlooking the southwest stretch of the city. The sun is setting. You think about how long you’ve had this dream. To come here. To come to Japan. To see the world. You think about how the voice in your head almost talked you out of coming here. Which voice? It doesn’t matter. Only you know the voice that buries the dream. What do you do next? You stand facing the setting sun. You cry. You skip the subtle, damp eyes and go fully cathartic. Your intuition was right. The castle was a metaphor. It seems strange to cry but it makes sense to you. In this ancient castle’s serenity, you are free.
In your head, you’re thinking “I knew there’d be days like this. I knew there’d be days where my fist crashed against the wall and I screamed ‘no, this can’t be my real life!’ There’d be days where I felt like what I once dreamed of now meant nothing. There’d be days when the world felt worse than it felt good. The world would convince me of lies. Like, it was strong and I was weak. It was healthy and I was broken. Its opinion of me mattered more than my own. Is this breeding resentment and bitterness?” you ask yourself.
You know better now. On those days where you start thinking like that, you’ll remember what you saw at Osaka Castle. The setting sun. The quiet people. The contrast. The solitude. The strength. You’ll remember this city. You’ll remember the epiphany. You are not weak. You are not broken. You’ll remember the world you got to see once upon a time, when you were young and followed your aesthetic heart.
It’s enough to keep you going. It’s enough to bring you full circle.
The sky is dark now and you leave the corner on the fortress wall. You walk toward a crowd. You find a place where blue lasers are being projected across the castle wall. The lights dance around like you’re inside a vaporwave dream. They cascade the ground, the trees, your face, and your body. You begin to enjoy the vaporwave vibe once again. Welcome to your metamorphosis.
A Japanese voice blares out of a PA system as you collect yourself. You’re not sure if the castle is closing but you’ve already picked up the pieces of your self off the floor. You leave the castle through another exit. Like a psychedelic journey, you go in one way and leave another. Enter with one mindset and leave with another.
The walk home is fresh. A new feeling paints the rest of the trip from that day forward. As if you’ve changed the soundtrack and brightened the color.
Are You Living In Another World?
If you should find yourself in Osaka, here’s my advice: enjoy the ride. Appreciate the feeling of a new city, even when the vibes feel overwhelming or empty or strange beyond all recognition. If a city strikes you as hollow like a vaporwave meme, enjoy it for what it is. Life is like a vaporwave playlist. At times, it’ll drain you of emotion. But rest assured, an injection of bliss, nostalgia, and emotions is coming.
Osaka (and Japan at large) might not be the vaporwave aesthetic you imagined. That’s all the reason to go there yourself. To explore. To be alone. To be a ghost. To disappear and find yourself again.
When the cold wind whips down an empty alleyway or you feel the curious eyes seeping into your identity or you hear hushed “sugoi, sugoi!” when you enter a room, you’ll be smack dab in a new reality. A new aesthetic. This is where your metamorphosis begins.
"see you on the other side, butterfly" h e l i o s
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