At the end of lunch with an old friend, I point out yet another hole in my Swiss cheese knowledge of Japan.
“I’ve never really understood this whole ‘Kansai/Kanto’ thing. I mean, sure, I’ve traveled to Kyoto, Osaka and so on. But I’ve never figured out what’s so different. Kansai? Kanto? Tokyo? Osaka? It all seems the same to me.”
Her jaw drops. She swoons and grips the table for support. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” A small word that kicks down a big door. “I can’t believe you are so dense. Kansai and Kanto! That’s like night and day! Oranges and apples! Lightning and lightning bugs!”
“I take it you sense a difference?”
“And you don’t!?”
So now the door is blasted to smithereens. And she begins to instruct me on how to detect residents from the Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe area, a lecture I hereby entitle, “The Seven Warning Signs of Kansai.”
“OK, first there’s the dialect. You can hear that, of course.”
I tell her I am not into dialects. “My Japanese language skills are pure meat and potatoes. I don’t do exotic food.”
“Well, it’s easy. First, the pitch is different.”
And with that she unleashes a stream of what I assume is Kansai dialect. Different pitch. Same results. I swing and miss.
“Then you can surely hear the different particle endings. Like ‘wa.’ “And for emphasis she adds, “Wa wa wa wa!”
“Are you sure that’s Standard Kansai? It sounds more like Standard Poodle.”
“Plus,” she says, “There are all the lexical changes. Like ‘okini‘ for ‘arrigato‘ or ‘aho‘ for ‘baka‘.”
“Oh I’ve heard that last one.”
“I bet you have.” On now to difference No. 2.
“Listen,” she says, gesturing to our Tokyo lunchroom. “Can you hear it?”
“The sound of no one laughing. Tokyo people are staid and reserved. But people from Kansai are gregarious, talkative and funny!”
“Remarkably funny! Unbelievably funny! Funnier than . . .” And she pauses, searching for the right word. So I help.
“Snot? It’s the funniest thing I know.”
“They are funny beyond any metaphor. That’s how funny.” And then she laughs so hard, sounding very much like “Wa wa wa wa!” that she has to wipe her nose. So I laugh too.
Third? “Third is the Kansai food! The scrumptious okonomiyaki pancakes and takoyaki octopus balls!”
“Um. We have those here.”
“Yes, but they’re yummier there. And Kansai people use a bit different soy sauce and fish stock.”
“Oh, I must be stupid. It’s so different. Like night and dark. Oranges and tangerines. Circles and zeroes.”
She growls like a poodle. And moves on to No. 4. “The Hanshin Tigers baseball team! Everyone in Kansai adores them. And their stadium — Koshien — is like Japan’s baseball heaven. Kansai people love nothing more than going to heaven and watching their Tigers annihilate the Tokyo Giants.”
“And so how does that help? People from Kansai all wear Tigers’ caps? Angel wings? Or what?”
“Yell ‘Go Giants,’ and see if someone slugs you.” The waiter brings our bill and I am tempted to test this. But he has biceps like softballs, so I all I can say is . . . “What’s No. 5?”
“Driving! People in Kansai drive like maniacs! It’s sort of like personal relationships. Tokyoites are meek and reserved. Osaka people will run you over, literally.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t been hired by the tourism office. You paint such a lovely picture. Like Edvard Munch.”
She screams at this. “I am trying to educate you! To fill in that cultural gap between your ears. AKA the Bland Canyon.”
“OK, OK. What then is big cultural difference No. 6?”
“Well . . .” She leans forward with excitement. “In Kanto people stand on the left side of the escalator, but in Kansai they stand on the right.”
“. . . Oh.”
“See! It’s so different!”
“OK, let me get this straight. If I spot someone driving down the right side of the escalator with an octopus ball in his mouth and a Tigers’ cap on his head, while laughing like a loon and shouting, ‘Get out of my way, you aho!’ then — there’s a chance then that maybe, perhaps, he could be from Kansai.”
She leans back. We share the sound of no one laughing.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “You have clarified things indeed. I feel culturally uplifted. A feeling I usually only get from beer.”
“There is one more difference,” she says. “But first you have to tell me if you consider yourself a good representative of Kanto.”
“Of course. I am as Kanto as they come.”
“What? You want proof? Go grab me an escalator and see where I stand.”
“This, then, is yours.” And she hands me the bill. “Kansai people haggle over money. They quibble and wrangle to the last coin. But Tokyoites just pay the price.”
Ouch. The trap has sprung. I finger the bill and feel my thin wallet getting thinner. I feign crying: “Wa wa wa wa.”
“See,” she says, “You’ve learned something after all.”