Exiting a subway car, walking amidst a crowd of busy Osakans, I realize my daily pre-work routine, albeit in Japan, has become an unconscious ritual. After embracing Osaka with a walk to my local subway station and taking a 30-minute ride, I am shaken out of my daydream by seeing the thriving life of Tennoji Station.
Tennoji Station is like any other major train station in Osaka: huge and congested. I imagine that, of the many forms of culture shock a foreigner can encounter in Japan, the shock provided by a restless, urban station such as this one is a breed of its own. The old video game Frogger comes to mind here, just without the logs and alligators.
Not being a typical station, Tennoji Station is a juncture for the Kintetsu railway, the extensive JR (Japan Rail), the Osaka Loop Line, two subway lines and three major malls. This station is more or less alive, breathing people in and out all day.
The main promenade of the station, complete with a gold-plated, hanging statue of a Thai-style Buddha, is also a human juncture of sorts. By day, all walks of Japanese life traverse through, loiter about, shop, dine or work inside this complex. By night, this station is scattered with the tired, weary, over-worked or over-indulged.
So where do I happen to fit in? After six months spending most of my week in this station, it is realistic to say that I don’t. In Japan, foreigners remain foreigners, no matter how long they have lived in the country. In Osaka, a major city which many foreigners inhabit, I have become more accustomed to seeing people’s open-mouthed stares than they have become accustomed to seeing me in general.
Around lunchtime, small crowds gather around one or two of the entrance points of the station. At the center of these crowds of fashionable young people and curious passers-by are a few amps, a couple of guitars and various street-performing Japanese music groups, all opening their hearts to whoever will listen. Osaka has many hot spots where bands set up and play for free, with no CDs for sale, no change in the guitar case, only a few words about their next gig and an electrifying repertoire. Though I have yet to find the underground rock scene in Osaka, this small, buzzing haven outside of Tennoji Station serves a filling taste of harmony honey with the aftertaste of Osaka’s unique flavor.
Occasionally a homeless man will wander over to take a look at the music crowd. Seeing nothing of interest, he meanders back to his home at the side of the station. Yes, there are homeless in Japan.
Although a few cardboard shelters and beds line a small area at one side of this station, I have seen incredibly elaborate, makeshift abodes of cardboard and tarp and who knows what else throughout this metropolis. While many homeless stay in tents at different parks, I have heard an eyewitness account of a homeless community living in the forests of Kobe. The district of Tennoji itself is one of three main areas in Osaka that are infamous for their homeless populations.
As you may suspect, the homeless in Japan are not shameless beggars of change, hostile, aggressive vagabonds or scheming shoplifters. They tend to stay out of the affairs of others, walk around picking out of waste bins while talking to themselves and even play late-night games of shogi (Japanese chess) against each other.
Always intriguing and interesting to the outsiders looking in, the ordinary Japanese people and lifestyles represented at this station are a reminder that people should always take a step back and look in on their own lives. Day by day, living on the cusp of a society is a significant challenge to foreigners who travel to Japan. I find that I constantly change in my heart and mind like the changes around me, as the influx of a normal day at Tennoji Station now besieges me.