As we stepped out of the train station and into the attached undercover market that snakes towards the centre of Tsuruhashi, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. I was literally dripping, too – it had been sheeting down all morning and I’d long ago surrendered in the battle of the thousand umbrellas.
The array of mismatched shops that line the roofed walkway, selling everything from linen to handbags to crockery, reminded me of the Oriental Plaza in Johannesburg. The 360-store shopping center was a supporting character in the story of my childhood; every so often we’d make the trip into ‘town’ to profit off its bargains and spend our savings on samosas and roti.
Here, the smell of curry was replaced with barbecue and the signs hanging above each of the stores were not tamil or hindi, but kanji. Still, it was a different side of Osaka – older, quieter, poorer and distinctly un-Japanese. The Tsuruhashi District in Ikuno-ku is home to one of the country’s biggest Korean resident populations and its “Koreatown” is becoming increasingly popular locally and abroad.
There is no Japanese word for ‘hipster’, which, ironically, is about as hipster as you can get. The closest you’ll find to the Western pejorative here is “ultra individual” (超個性的) or “one who loves novelty” (新しがり屋). But there is a term for the stuff hipsters love to buy.
Zakka (雑貨) refers to all those miscellaneous items you’d find in Urban Outfitters – the ones that cost an arm and a leg but that you buy anyway because they’ll totally improve your appearance and lifestyle, transforming you into the epitome of cool.
But we’re not talking mere household hodgepodge here – zakka is as specific and vague as the subculture it serves. As the New York Times explains it, “a plastic ashtray will not qualify as a zakka but a plastic ashtray picked up in a flea market in Paris with “Pernod” inscribed on top, is zakka at the maximum level.”
It’s a ¥4 million market that is thriving in the trendy neighbourhoods of Japan’s larger cities – Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa and Koenji, and Osaka’s Nakazakicho.
Like most South Africans, I grew up snacking on Maggi Two Minute Noodles. Before the contamination scares and poison scandals and MSG controversy, the instant ramen favourite was a quick, tasty treat that took care of hunger pangs when our parents were away.
It was only as I got older (and subsequently wiser) that I began to realise the nutritious dish from my childhood was anything but. Still, I figured my taste buds had undergone the necessary training for my big move to Japan, where I’d get to try the real deal. It’s only unhealthy because it comes in a packet, right?
Wrong. After my first couple of samplings here, I realised that what others see as a delicious, warm bowl of comfort is actually just a swimming pool of oil and salt that has made my stomach lurch on more hangovers than I’d like to recall. Ramen is, please forgive me, kind of gross.
Millions of Japanese (and college students around the world) would disagree, of course: ramen is love, ramen is life. But what is it about the dish, exactly, that keeps people coming back for more? I went with Mark to a museum in Osaka dedicated entirely to the wheat noodles to find out.