world beer summit and the floating world

15Oct05

At the end of the first week of classes, Richard, Bob, and I headed over to the Umeda Sky Building (one of the seven famous viewing towers in Japan) for the annual World Beer Summit. It was a cloudy evening, but there was a great orange hole in the sky and sunset light was pouring in as we made our way toward the Sky Building. I had never been to the tower and so was excited to see the view for the first time from the famous Floating Garden Observatory. The Umeda Sky Building is essentially two glass and steel towers topped by a bridging deck between the two, with an enormous hole in the center. It’s a bit like a square donut, I suppose, with two chopstick escalators leading up into the hollow center so you get a chance to ride to the top of the building through the airy center between the two towers on either side. It’s quite exhilarating, especially since it begins with a fast ascent inside a freestanding glass elevator shaft. When you find yourself at the top of the tower you have four directions of unimpeded views, with the especially interesting interior view where you can see the hole of the donut below you, but not the supporting towers, so you really do get the illusion that you’re floating on air. Of course, at the very top of the tower you’re able to stand out in the open air and we stood out in perhaps one of the most glorious sunsets I’ve ever seen. It had been raining for several days, but now the sky opened up all the way to Osaka Bay and we were able to watch the sun going down over the city skyline and the Yodo River and it’s bridges. We were also able to watch several airplanes heading in to land at Itami Airport, the regional airport near Toyonaka campus where we teach. There were several groups of tourists at the top of the towers, including a group of high-school boys from Hokkaido who loaded us up with ten different cameras so we could take pictures of them. Oh yes, and I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the propaganda pamphlet you get with the price of admission states that “The view has been selected as one of Japan’s one hundred most famous sunsets.” But what’s the actual ranking? The pamphlet fails to reveal.

The basement of the Umeda Sky Building is occupied by the Takimi-koji underground “restaurant mall” and features “A nostalgic reproduction of Japanese streets in the era of Modernism of the early Showa period.” It’s a weird area, for sure, with early 20th century Japanese popular music being piped in on speakers as you wander through what feels like a stage set. There are phone booths with early trumpet-style phones, some reproductions of early modern era advertising posters (including the RCA dog), an old three-wheeler Daihatsu truck, and one of those trompe l’oiel scenes with holes cut out for your heads so you can be Mr. and Mrs. Showa era in a photograph. First I was the Mrs. and Richard the Mr., and then we traded off, our images transported magically to the tiny netherworld of Bob’s cameraphone. The really strange thing about the Takimi-koji underground was that the restaurants are positioned in such a way that they are both places for eating, and places of display. As you walk by you’re beckoned in by restaurant workers, but you also can’t help looking into the restaurants as if they were part of some odd “living museum.” The fact that the ‘streets’ were mostly abandoned only added to the uncanny sensation that was making its presence felt somewhere along the back of my neck. Cutting into this basement level, however, is a beautiful circular rock garden that is intended to mirror the cut-out in the tower viewing area, as if it were cut out of the tower itself and let fall there, in the open area next to the basement level. This garden is almost perfect — there is a still pool at the edge of the garden with a sculptural rock display that reflects nicely in the mirror surface. You can walk over a small bridge and then into a small and nicely island-like wooded area with a creek flowing through the middle. The only downside to this garden, which would otherwise be perfect, is this strange “reverse waterfall” that they’ve constructed using high-pressure sprayers to spray the water backwards up a wall of rocks. You can see the ends of the pipes coming out of the streambed, and rather than looking like fountains it looks like a bunch of high-pressure pipe-hoses spraying their nozzled sprays into the air. In fact, it looks downright cheap. Which is a shame. Luckily if you stay on the outside of the garden you never have to witness this cheapness and can instead be mesmerized by rocks, reflections (the tower itself is reflected in the water), woods, and bamboo.

After our tour through the underworld we returned to the Summit where we were able to walk from booth to booth where we sampled Moroccan beer, Scottish beer, Belgian beer, and German beer, as well as schwarma, beef shish-kebob, sausages, and some incredibly delicious mussels prepared by the chef of a Dutch restaurant. We ran into Yamada-san, one of the regulars at The Hartland, and he joined us for much of the evening, though he did end up having to go home early since he had to work the next day. Even though it had been raining earlier in the day there was a good crowd present, as well as a stage that featured Moroccan dance, a good flamenco performance, and about 20 dancers from Thailand who also performed in a Thai fashion show at the end of the evening. Our evening ended when we were invited to go salsa dancing at the top of the tower with three women who we had been talking with at one of the tables set up for the Summit. It turns out that there was a live band playing in the Floating Observatory, but sadly they could only get four songs in before management came in and shut them down for the evening. Of course, it takes three songs to warm up to dancing, so just as everyone hit the dance floor on song number four it was over. I ended up dancing with a woman named Eri who does web design for Astra Zenica, which has offices in the Sky Building. She turned out to be a really great dancer, which was good for me because I’m a totally fake dancer in the sense that I can look good on the dance floor but only with someone who realizes I have no idea what I’m doing and can cover for me. Alas, after our one dance, the evening was over.

The end of the evening was marked by the walk back to the train station, which is a walk through a quarter-mile long tunnel that runs beneath the dozens of tracks that lead into JR Osaka train station. There were hundreds of people headed home from the summit, walking through this lightly glowing tunnel, a kind of massive drifting sensation in action, dreamlike and streamlike.

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