By Damian Flanagan
"Minami ni ikanai ka?" ("Do you want to head south?")
I'm sitting on a bullet train heading west out of Nagoya in central Japan with one of my oldest Japanese friends when he launches the question. We've spent the morning with other friends wandering in the rain and mist, gently taking in the tea garden, castle and main street of the historic, charming town of Inuyama. But toward late afternoon, we peel off from them at the major city Nagoya and go to look at the Atsuta Shrine, one of the most important in Japan.
It's been a long weekend and he knows that I'm now headed like a bullet home. But he's just produced the one word that can stop me in my tracks and make me reconsider: "Minami," my beloved Minami (south). Oh, how I long to head south.
He's talking about south Osaka, a place that tourists to Japan rarely stop, and yet which for the initiated old hands is a by-word for some of the best fun Japan has to offer. South Osaka has the bars, restaurants, nightclubs, the swish shops, the hostesses and old-time dens, the youth culture and the pimps, the naughtiness, the earthiness, the maze of delights and discoveries. Everything that makes life worth living.
For years and years, I headed south every day and night and could recite like a holy rosary the name of every street heading south from Senba to Nanba and take you on my connoisseur's tour of the best hideaway bars and restaurants contained within them. There's a pocket of happiness I tap into whenever I walk the streets of Minami which is unlike anything I feel anywhere else.
I can't honestly argue that Minami is objectively better than the pleasure quarters of Tokyo, Kyoto or a raft of other cities. But none of them interest me, connect to me, thrill me in the way that Minami does.
I realise that it must be something to do with the "outsider" status of Osaka that appeals to me -- its constant ebullient opposition to the establishment power centers of Tokyo and Kyoto. Yet even within Osaka, it's not just any part of Osaka -- I'm not interested in the businessman playgrounds of the north or the suburbs of the east. It has to be Minami.
And so, of course, we went. We discovered some new underground restaurant-cum-bar-cum-bookshop and then disappeared into some hole-in-the-wall Indian diner that was so tiny it could fit not more than 12 people. We had a pint of the black stuff in an Irish bar and I stuck my head in an old time "snack" bar.
My spirit soared in an odd sense of freedom, happiness and homecoming. And I reminded myself once more that every time I come to Japan, the one thing I must never neglect to do is head south.
(This is Part 15 of a series)
In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.
Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).