Everywhere, everywhere Christmas tonight – in Osaka, Japan!

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
OSAKA, Kansai, Japan – Yesterday, the AP and other wire service photographs of US President George W. Bush, posing in Hanoi with his Vietnamese host, Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet, showed the once Superpower President looking tired, uncertain, his brow furrowed. Behind them, of course, was a huge bust of the departed Ho Chi Minh who had booted the Americans out of the country after years of devastating war.

In the end, of course, while North Vietnam and Hanoi won the war, the former South Vietnam triumphed – Messrs. Triet and the new Prime Minister both come from the South.

Even my old friend, former businessman Phan Van Khai, who became prime minister in 1997 and unleashed a series of revolutionary reforms came from the South, maintained a big mansion in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and enjoyed a Parisian lifestyle. In sum, Vietnam – while one must still tread cautiously since Communism’s dialectic sometimes surfaces in unexpected places and some bureaucrats remain money-grubbing types – is on the rise. The current 7 percent surge in the economy must be taken in the context of the mid-1990s when the economy boomed by 8.6 percent until corruption dampened the enthusiasm of investors who had rushed in. As Bloomberg news put it, "the roof more or less caved in and investors fled." Today, they’re back in droves – and Hanoi is determined, this time, not to muff it.

As for Mr. Bush, yesterday’s "ASAHI" news here reported that he turned very few heads in Hanoi when he arrived there Friday for the APEC summit of 21 heads of state. (He’ll meet our GMA for a 45-minute scheduled tete-a-tete either today or tomorrow). This is a cruel world. When a leader is down, he’s down except with loyal friends like Britain’s Tony Blair (whose fortunes are sinking, too) and Australia’s John Howard. This is La Gloria’s moment to tell her friend, Dubya, that the Philippines won’t desert him this time, like she did in Iraq. Those kind words at a time of disappointment would be greatly appreciated.

For when all is said and done, Bush’s Republicans may be down (and, luckily Rummy was washed out by the deluge), but he’s still President of the great USA, and the Democrats will have to cooperate with the G.O.P. stragglers across the aisle for America to formulate an exit strategy from Iraq and resolve nagging domestic problems.
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Perhaps Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will tell Bush that America, too, flies high in Japan – although with a Japanese flavor inserted into the mix.

When I got here Thursday night aboard an efficient Philippine Airlines Airbus 330 which whisked us to the Kansai International Airport from Manila in just three hours and 15 minutes, the first thing arriving passengers spotted when they emerged from the Customs arrival zone was the "STARBUCKS" kiosk in the arrival hall. There are more than sixty, yep 60 – or more – "STARBUCKS" coffee shops in Osaka City alone, even at the foot of the famous Shinsaibashi Bridge which leads to fabled Dotonburi. The coffee shop is even cheekily located in front of the world-famous giant Crab restaurant, and a few score yards up the street from the equally renowned candy-striped bespectacled drummer who’s been robotically beating that drum for 20 years with his eyebrows going up and down.

Everytime I come to Osaka, I make a beeline for Dotonburi and the plate of Okonomiyaki "omelet," the Kansai pancake.

The US "invasion" is evident everywhere. Fifteen years ago, I met Den Fujita who owned the McDonald’s franchise in Japan. He boasted he had 600 McDonald’s outlets all over the land, and had even introduced the Teriyaki-burger to cater to the Japanese palate. Alas, McDonald’s has ruined Japan’s healthy diet of fish (tuna, etc.) and sashimi. The Japanese have taken to "junk food" like ducks to water. There are now more heart attacks than suicides. No gor janai ka, as we used to growl in the old Edo (Tokyo days). A few months ago, my friend Den Fujita had become so successful that he rated an obituary in the International Herald Tribune which reported that he already had 1,400 McDonald’s outlets in Japan by the time he kicked the bucket. Now he’s in Burger Heaven. Dai jobu, Den-sensei, my old tomodachi!

On almost every other corner you’ll find the Golden Arches, Haagen Dazs ice cream, Baskin & Robbins, STARBUCKS, and even "Seattle’s Best" replacing KOHI Nippon – sanamagan. Not to forget that old reliable, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
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In fact, Osaka is celebrating a "Merry Christmas" today with even more boisterous enthusiasm and Christmas carols resounding all over its galleries, than back in Catholic Philippines. The lobby public floors of our Four Seasons’ NIKKO hotel is festooned with Christmas trees, both the evergreen and the white-as-snow variety. It’s Jingle Bells on the intercom, or "We Wish You a Merry Christmas!"

Across the street, in posh SOGO, the entrance sign blares out: "SOGO – The Best Christmas!" The department store features Christmas trees on each of its 14 floors and 15th floor rooftop – with one floor and the MARUZEN branch there selling hundreds of Christmas cards, some of them with Samurai prancing with umbrellas touting "Greetings of the Season" and Kimono-clad maidens proclaiming Merry X-Mas. Pop-up X-mas cards portray Japanese gardens, or choirs of Santa Claus yodeling "White Christmas." Some of them are battery-lighted, with X-mas caroling Santos chorusing under flashing beams of blue or red lights. The Japanese marry electronic genius with season’s greetings – all to make money, of course. They’re not Christians, really, but mostly Shinto and Buddhist believers – but the Osakans, and indeed everybody in the wealthy Kansai plain (Kobe, etc.) believe most in making money.

The everyday greeting, as a matter of fact, is: "Mokarimakka?" (Not good morning, or good day) but "Are you making any money?"

Osakans are proud of their blunt, forthright, down-to-earth sensibilities – considering themselves from the uptight, conceited, bureaucratic Edokko, the denizens of Tokyo, the capital. Osaka-ben, the earthy dialect of the Osakans, is full of guttural roll and tumble.

Coming back to "Christmas," the store windows are full of Santa Clauses, tannenbaums, snow-white Christmas scenes. Barkers in the galleries hold up signs, crying out: "Come in, terrific Christmas Sale!" Yes, they sell belens, replicas of the Christmas manger, and everything Christian – those cunning fellows. And what’s more, the Japanese themselves enjoy Christmas as one of their jolliest holidays.
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Nowhere is the Christmas spirit more evident than in "UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN." You bet. In Tokyo, they’ve for years been raking it in with Disney World Tokyo (24 million Japanese Miki-Mouse lovers arrived there annually) and, in the past six years with parallel theme park, Disney Sea.

In Osaka, they’ve cloned "UNIVERSAL STUDIOS" from Los Angeles, complete with the globe turning around with the "Universal" logo – as you see in the Spiderman movies. You can pose for a photo in front of it, like Arnold Schwarzie in Terminator (there’s even a "Terminator" Ride there).

Inside the theme park, you can enjoy a boat ride with "JAWS," that gigantic shark suddenly rising out of the water to snap at you, or do the back-joggling "Back to the Future" ride through the Dinosaur’s maw and the center of the earth; or a fantastic ride called "The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman" with Spidey and his various antagonists literally coming at you through your 3-D lenses as your gondola sails through each ear-popping scene.

There’s "Jurassic Park" ride – but beware, you dare venture on this ride, the finale takes you down the volcano into the water, a splashdown which – despite your plastic raincoat – will get you thoroughly soaked. Luckily, the kind-hearted doorman at the gate warned me of this, and suggested I go to the bayside to see the finale from a guardrail – and I gave that pneumonia-imperiling "thrill" a miss.

There was "Snoopy’s Playland," "E.T. Adventure," "Peter Pan’s Neverland," "Waterworld," "Shrek’s 3-D adventure – by golly, this is recommended highly – those special effects are really superb.

In any event, we paid for our own tickets, surprisingly, the ticket girl recommended the special Ilocano rate (in Japan, they’re very helpful, courteous and polite – in sharp contrast to their wartime ferocity of another era).

You don’t even have to book a tour. Just follow your subway and Japan Railway map, and for a few hundred yen you’ll find your way there – with the last two laps aboard a special Universal Studio train.

What’s exciting is that Christmas is now the universal theme. The bags when you purchase anything proclaim: "UNIVERSAL WONDER CHRISTMAS," with the Sesame Street moppets merrily waving at you, from aboard a Santa sleigh pulled by prancing reindeer and a huge Christmas tree blazing behind.

The music everywhere trumpets: "We wish you a merry Christmas," or "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and every beloved carol. One thing is sure: the cash registers are singing, as Japanese visitors snap up every cute, Christmassy toy. Everything is in Nippongo, naturally, even Shrek speaking pure Nihongo, and not one character from Spidey to E.T. or Peppermint Patty sprouting a word of Eigo (English). On a large stage, in front of a towering Christmas tree, however, a choir belts out Christmas carols in English then go into Japanese, too.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS Japan will turn five years old next year, and it’s going strong. And the American flag flies high there – with even the post office boxes stating: U.S. Post Office. They even have a Chirardelli square and Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. When the Japanese clone anything, they do it perfectly.

PAL flies five times a week to the Kansai International Airport – a marvelous terminal and runways tagged KIX – and you really get a KIX out of going there. Years ago, this writer was invited to the inauguration of KIX, which had been put up on an island completely man-made in the middle of Osaka Bay. An efficient system of railroads, trains, buses, and a superhighway over water speeds you into Osaka, where you can also turn off into the railway to Kobe, or nearby Kyoto.

I hadn’t been back in Japan for more than five and a half years, but I’m happy I decided to come this time. The Japanese have not changed, although their gadgetry (not just Play Station 3) has skyrocketed in quality, imagination and reach. They remain friendly, courteous, scrupulously polite, helpful to strangers – and, by golly, they queue up with total discipline, nobody trying to break ahead in a queue. Even their kids must be the best-behaved on earth – not the little monsters you find in many societies. I guess they pick up this sense of discipline, good deportment, and etiquette from their parents – and, despite their good manners, you see the kids are really having fun.

Merry Christmas – from Osaka! I’d say. Let the good times roll.











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