Monday, August 3, 2009

Tales of the Urban Explorer

I ate dinner at Denny's last night. Eating at Denny's is such a quintessential Japanese experience. They're everywhere here and so engrained in the culture I've actually shocked-- shocked-- people by telling them it was originally an American restaurant chain. What? That's crazy! With close to six hundred restaurants nationwide, Denny's is as Japanese as baseball, Mongolian sumo wrestlers and curry rice for dinner!

Actually, Denny's Japan is part of the wild-n-crazy Ito Yokado/7-Eleven corporate family. 7-Eleven convenience stores used to be wholly American. Way back before you were born, a Japanese company licensed the name. They were hugely successful, opened a ton of stores, then bought controlling interest (65%!) in the American 7-Eleven 1991 when it went into bankruptcy. While the American 7-Eleven branch still has its corporate headquarters in Dallas, the bosses there answer to IYG Holding Company, which is owned by Seven & I Holdings Co., Ltd. (the consolidation of Ito-Yokado Co., Ltd. and Seven Eleven Japan... I think). This "lifestyle conglomerate" also owns Denny's Japan. These days, you don't get much more Japanese than that.

Something similar happened with Tower Records Japan. It went independent from the parent company via management buyout in 2002 and when the American Tower stores all went under, it became fully established as a Japanese entity as well.

The food at Denny's has been Japanized. I never ate at a Denny's in the States, but somehow I doubt the American menu offers "hamburg steaks" with fried eggs or sausages on them, miso soup, various kinds of ramen and tempura. You can get pancakes with ice cream on top, though. Japanese Denny's offers cheap, fairly delicious food, fast service and a clean, pleasant place to sit and chat with friends, so much so the verb deniru ("to hang out at Denny's") entered the teeny-bopper lexicon for a while.

Right now, though, McDonald's appears to be the en vogue venue for teenaged chilling. That's what the kids tell me. In the current Japanese economy, even high schoolers have to economize, and Makkudo offers an even cheaper alternative to Denny's. But I'm old school, so it's Denny's for me. I like to read and dine in quieter company these days.

After dinner, I decide to do some bike exploration. A few weeks ago, I finally found Shizuoka University and just beyond it lies a bridge that intrigued me. I had this idea I could cross it and end up in a rural environment, with nothing but rice paddies and maybe a few tiny houses and orange trees scattered here and there, and mountains ringing it all panoramically. Instead, I found more suburban sprawl. Hamamatsu resembles an American city in that respect-- a central downtown area and a vast ring of suburbs with shopping centers, fast food franchises, bowling alleys and used car lots. Traffic can be a nightmare.

I did find a vantage point for a spectacular view of Hamamatsu's downtown skyline, dominated by the mighty Act Tower. This is a landmark you can see from miles away. In fact, it's so huge after I turned east and went four or five blocks and looked back, it appeared to be essentially unchanged. The same size. That's big.

It's fun to bike into virgin territory, to be the only foreign face. You never know what will pop up in front of you. An old woman riding a bike, a lone high school girl in her uniform pedaling along, a car driving on the sidewalk. Eventually, I found myself back in familiar surroundings. The raised Enshu Railway tracks on my right, where the famous akaden (red train) runs. A middle-aged man in a gray three-piece suit putting his bicycle in a rack outside a small apartment building. The Yamaha factory complex. Two silver-haired men wearing three-button polos and golf slacks chatting casually, their arms folded across their chests. A stylish young woman happily talking to a friend on her cellphone at the street corner, ending her conversation with a cheerful, "Bai bai!"

Then I picked up a few snacks at the Circle-K convenience store where the younger of the two clerks seemed to be thoroughly enjoying a one-sided conversation with a hump-backed, pot-bellied old woman who had something on her mind and wanted to share it.

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