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A Night in Osaka, Japan's Zany Comedy Capital

Our writer discovers that the city's comedy scene is all it's cracked up to be.

The canal at Dōtombori

The canal at Dōtombori is full of bright ideas.

Like German, the Japanese language possesses a trove of simple words to describe complex feelings or situations – words that have no easily translatable equivalent. Wabi-sabi, for example, alludes to the esthetic of finding beauty in imperfection. Age-otori is the horror that comes with realizing you just got a very bad haircut.

Tenjin Matsuri festivities

During the annual Tenjin Matsuri festivities, which date back more than 1,000 years, the fun-loving city parties even harder.

It’s while watching the final nighttime act of Osaka’s annual Tenjin Matsuri festival that I mentally thumb through the more esoteric reaches of my Japanese vocabulary in an effort to put a name to my feelings. I’m standing off to the side of the street as a throbbing mass of yukata-clad men take turns shouldering a mikoshi, a gilded palanquin containing a deity, back to its permanent home at Tenmangu Shrine. Some 20 years ago, when I lived here during my freewheeling post-university years, you would have found me in about the same spot. Elements of the scene transport me back to that time: the smell of grilled eel, the paper lanterns strung above the street, the gregariousness of the people.

Though I’ve arrived in Osaka a little wary of being reminded of the time lost in between, the sentiment fades quickly. This boisterous summer matsuri, with its not-so-sublimated nods to fertility cycles and ancient ritual, doubles as Japan’s biggest street party. Proving the point, a soused, middle-aged man with dreadlocks breaks from the procession to take a generous glug of my beer, then poses, thumbs up, for a picture I didn’t ask to take.

Festival-goers in summer kimonos

Festival-goers in summer kimonos leave the subway.

It’s an in-character moment for a city that prides itself on being the country’s comedy capital, the fount of all things witty, madcap and merrily rude. Comedy is big business in Osaka, home to star-making machinery (theatres, TV shows, talent agents) that churns out each new crop of aggressively promoted Japanese funnymen. (They are almost exclusively men.) The zany Japanese game show, infamous in the West for its outlandishly humiliating scenarios and physical challenges, was invented in this sprawling concrete jungle. The not obviously pretty city is defined by a Rabelaisian sensibility in most things: from food and drink to how its people talk, socialize and entertain. And its 8 million residents have a reputation for being brash, eccentric and informal. Only here could I find a tourist gift shop selling a box of cookies with a popular local comedian on the package – smiling, wearing only underwear and pointing at his crotch.

Ceremonial dress; bold and colourful

Osaka is known for being rollicking, bold and colourful. That’s true of the procession of thousands in ceremonial dress for the Tenjin Matsuri festival.

As the matsuri winds down, I hop on the subway, south to Dōtombori, the neon-lit fun zone that invites comparisons to Blade Runner’s vision of Los Angeles – if that dystopia were cheap, cheerful and carnivalesque. Stretching several blocks along both sides of a canal in Osaka’s southern epicentre of Namba, Dōtombori is a densely packed cavalcade of restaurants and bars, many of them festooned with lovably large and cartoonish figures – a herky-jerky mechanical crab, a giant overhanging blowfish – designed to lure, with all their garishness, the passersby.

I’m meeting an old friend, Akiko Imura, at the famous Glico “running man” billboard. We greet each other in the typical Osaka fashion: “Mokarimakka?” The salutation – “Are you making any money?” – is meant in the spirit of working hard to play harder. “You still look the same,” she says, clearly lying. We head for the cozier confines of Ura-Namba, a warren of narrow side streets stocked with izakayas, standing bars and smoky barbecue joints. The small izakaya we settle on feels like we’re inside some spirit forest from the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki, the wood used for the tables, sake shelves and ceiling beams whimsically retaining its knotty shapes and curves.

Instant ramen; grilled street meats

Cheap and tasty foods ranging from takoyaki to instant ramen to grilled street meats.

Well into our second round of whisky highballs, we’re distracted by the two guys clowning around at the table beside us, one in a baseball cap, the other a fedora. There’s a truism about Osaka, that just to observe two people talking can be a bit like watching a skit, or more precisely a manzai routine. The essence of this local comedy genre is easy to recognize: An uptight straight man and forgetful doofus trade puns and insults in a rapid-fire dialogue of compounded misunderstandings and verbal gags; most routines descend into gratuitous bouts of slapping. Next to us, the louder man in the fedora is soon swatting the brim of his friend’s hat and calling him aho – “idiot” in the local parlance. Around here, it figures, it’s used as a term of affection.

Comedy performances

A host of comedy performances – both professional and impromptu.

How to account for Osaka’s yen for yuks? “This is traditionally a merchant city; it’s part of the culture that people talk more and are more animated,” says Katsura Kaishi when we meet at the Temma Tenjin Hanjo Tei Theatre. A practitioner of rakugo, an old comic-storytelling form, he explains that jokes and stories are ways of strengthening social and business bonds. “Our comedy comes out of that,” he says as he walks off the stage at the small but elegant rakugo venue uptown. He’s just performed a few skits in English – one-man comic plays delivered sitting in a seiza position, a paper fan and handkerchief his only props. Using facial expressions and changes in vocal tone or pitch, Kaishi adopts two or more characters as he acts out his stories.

Kuromon Ichiba Market

The food stalls of Kuromon Ichiba Market have been supplying Osaka kitchens for more than a century.

The roots of rakugo go back 1,000 years, when travelling Buddhist monks began incorporating narratives, often comic in nature, into their sermons. While Tokyo would also develop its own rakugo tradition, Osaka’s won a greater share of fans across the country, becoming a mainstay of its vaudeville houses during the Edo era (1603–1867). “Remember that Tokyo was the city of samurai,” Kaishi tells me, “while Osaka was mostly merchants and working-class people. Tokyo rakugo expressed this samurai spirit, making it more tragic and serious.” Kaishi pulls on his face as though to mock a sad samurai. “In Osaka it was simply about entertainment, just telling jokes or parodying life and upper-class culture.”

Kinryu Ramen chain; Buz design store

Left to right: The Kinryu Ramen chain corners the market in Dōtombori; Buz design store in the neighbourhood of Horie has reading materials.

But thanks to television, Osaka’s wild brand of manzai eventually overtook the more family-friendly rakugo in popularity. Manzai is now so identified with the city that even snooty Tokyo types adopt Osaka’s distinctive accent when they’re trying to be funny. I get some of that shtick when I meet four members of the mostly gaijin (foreigner) comedy troupe Pirates of the Dōtombori later that evening at a kitschy octopus-themed restaurant called Tako Tako King, in Shinsaibashi. The Pirates recently celebrated their 10th anniversary of improv, a fairly new arrival to Japan that’s found its most receptive audiences in Osaka. (Western-style stand-up has never really caught on.) “When we do shows in Tokyo, we get a colder reception than we do here,” says the group’s leader, Bill Reilly, a 32-year-old originally from New Jersey. “In Osaka, everything goes over better.”

Katsura Kaishi performs rakugo, Temma Tenjin Hanjo Tei theatre

Katsura Kaishi performs rakugo, a traditional form of comedic storytelling, at Temma Tenjin Hanjo Tei theatre.

The difference comes down to one of Osakans’ defining characteristics: their willingness to play along with a gag, even if they’re the butt of it. “There’s this silly bit I love from Japanese television,” says Reilly. “The host stops people on the street and says, ‘There’s a call for you.’ Then he hands the person a cucumber. If it’s a person from Tokyo, they go, ‘What the hell, that’s a cucumber!’ But if it’s a person from Osaka they grab the cucumber like a telephone and answer, ‘Moshi moshi!’ Then they pretend to have a conversation.”

The inventions Osaka is best known for speak volumes about its unpretentious sensibility. Aside from street foods like takoyaki and okonomiyaki, the city invented instant ramen, conveyor-belt sushi bars, a cuisine of grilling the least desirable off-cut meats and a delicious method of deep-frying meats, vegetables and seafood on skewers called kushikatsu. As I rediscover, all of the above illustrate a certain lack of fussiness – and they pair exceptionally well with beer. No surprise that since Japan lifted its prohibition on microbrewing in the 1990s, Osaka has emerged as the heart of the country’s artisanal, craft-beer movement.

Tenjin Matsuri festival; Kosuiten restaurant ramen

Left to right: Rooted in ancient ritual, the Tenjin Matsuri festival is a seriously good time; and Kosuiten restaurant has seriously good ramen.

On my last night, I wander the back streets of Umeda, bypassing its steroidal department stores (one has a giant Ferris wheel affixed to its roof) in search of Bar Marciero, a wood-panelled 12-seater run by Hideaki Yoshii, a former IT guy whose pub is spoken of among local craft brewers with the kind of reverence usually reserved for sushi chefs. I take a seat at the bar next to a skinny fortysomething sporting the largest Japanese afro I’ve ever seen. His name is Takashige Nakagawa, and he offers to guide me through the eight taps on offer, half of which are domestic (the other half are American or European). “Yoshii-san is very respected among beer people in Osaka,” Nakagawa tells me, “but he doesn’t want Marciero to become famous.” When I mention that Marciero has already gotten a nod in The New York Times, the entire bar gasps in that Japanese way of being impressed. (“That’s so typical he didn’t tell anybody,” Nakagawa laughs.)

Tenma; kappo: Shoben Tangotei, in Hozen-ji Yokocho

Left to right: Lanterns light the narrow streets in the old quarter of Tenma; kappo, the Osaka version of a kaiseki meal, is the specialty at Shoben Tangotei, in Hozen-ji Yokocho.

Yoshii busies himself behind the bar, preparing my order of tempura whitefish with asparagus. By the time he places it in front of me a few minutes later (it’s impossibly delicate and satisfying against my light IPA), Nakagawa and I have bonded over our uncannily symmetrical tastes and obsessions: No Wave music, Japanese pop-art provocateur Tadanori Yokoo, ugly foods that taste good). It’s as though I’ve returned to Osaka after all these years to discover my Japanese double, who just happens to wear a palatial afro.

Nakagawa helps me find the word I’ve been searching for since the matsuri. “Natsukashii,” he says. I Google it on my phone: “of some small thing that brings you suddenly, joyously back to fond memories, not with a wistful longing for what’s past, but with an appreciation of the good times.” I realize that the bar epitomizes what I miss about Osaka – Japan at its most unguarded. When I tell this to Nakagawa, he responds with a proverb. “When our sleeves touch, it’s karma.” Here, the karmic chances only multiply.

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JAPAN     OSAKA    

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