In Nagoya’s Osu district there lives a gaijin who has become as recognizable as the Osu Kannon temple itself. From local history and obscure Japanese phrases to the best shop to get a beer and some sashimi, one foreigner has all the answers: Stephen Carter, The Wizard of Osu!
NAGMAG: Tell us about yourself. What brought you to Japan and how long have you lived in Osu?
Stephen Carter (SC): I was born in the US and grew up around the country – East Coast, West Coast, and a lot of time in the Southwest.
I first came to Japan when I was 17, and spent a year as an exchange student at a high school in Sapporo.
Later, while in college, I got involved with a Japanese classmate who was finishing up her studies and going back to her hometown of Nagoya, so I followed her here in the fall of 1985. The relationship didn’t work out, but I’m still here!
NAGMAG: What drew you to Osu? What about the place interests you?
SC: Not long after I arrived in Nagoya I got hired as an in-house translator by a company in Masaki-cho, a neighborhood near Osu. Back then Osu’s main draw for me was the huge array of shops for electronic components and computer parts, most of which have since disappeared. At the time I couldn’t afford a desktop computer, but I spent hours window-shopping, and often ended up lost in the maze of streets and alleys.
A while later I got hired by a company based in Osu, near the ice-skating rink, and started spending even more time around the area.
When I set up my own company in 1993, I decided to stay in the neighborhood I’d grown to know and like, and gradually got to know other residents and business owners in the area.
NAGMAG: You act as an information guide for the arcade’s merchant association. How did that start and what does it entail? Have you met any interesting people since you started doing this?
SC: For a couple years now I’ve been a volunteer guide in Osu two or three times a month.
The volunteer Osu guide system is in its fourth year, and I was asked to join mainly because of my involvement with the festivals. There are about 16 Osu guides, all of whom are Japanese except for me. We do our thing on weekend and holiday afternoons. With some 1,200 shops and other businesses in the area, and high turnover to boot, Osu can be a pretty confusing place. Visitors can find it pretty easy to get lost!
NAGMAG: Locals seem to refer to the area as Osu, not Osu Kannon. Why do you think they make this distinction between the temple and the area?
SC: It does get confusing: the address the post office uses for the area is “Osu,” but the name “Osu Kannon” is used for the temple that houses the Buddhist Kannon icon. Also, the subway station next to it borrows the temple’s name, so some people use “Osu Kannon” as the name of the area as well. For many locals, I think, there’s the sense that the Osu district is bracketed and defined by two temples – Osu Kannon in the west and Banshoji in the east – and so for them the distinction comes naturally.
NAGMAG: How has the area evolved over the time you have lived in Osu? Have the changes been mostly good or do you see some of the changes as adversely affecting the character of the area?
SC: Businesses in the arcade pay a monthly fee that’s pooled and used for general upkeep and renovations, and in my view the merchants’ association has done a good job of using these funds to make the area a better place. For example, replacing the old arcade roofs with new ones that have skylights has greatly enhanced the overall ambience from dank and grungy to bright, airy, and inviting.
One recent trend that not everyone is happy about is a surge in the number of maid cafes – I know of at least 15 in the area now. There sure seems to be a lot of lonely people out there.
NAGMAG: What is one thing you think most people would be surprised to know about Osu? Does it have any secrets?
SC: The merchants’ association has firm rules about what kind of businesses are allowed to operate in the arcade proper, and one rule that not many people know about – but which I think has been instrumental in helping to sustain Osu’s unique character – is that no nonlocal franchises are permitted. McDonald’s would no doubt love to have a location in the arcade, but as long as this rule is in place, it ain’t gonna happen!
NAGMAG: What is the best thing to eat in Osu?
SC: Lately I’ve been eating ethnic a lot. I really like the Indian curry at Inpal and the Thai food at Hom Mali, and one new place I’ve been hitting often is Herb Kebab, which I think is the only place to get falafel in Osu.
Yamakita is an izakaya off the arcade with a nightly special that’s hard to beat: two kinds of sashimi, two other food items, and a giant stein of beer (or iced oolong tea) for ¥1,050. You can bet I’ll be spending a few evenings there this summer!
NAGMAG: What is the strangest thing you have seen in Osu?
SC: Oh man, I’m terrible at remembering stuff like that, but let’s see. There are lots of little WTF sights that everyone in Japan learns to expect, like a man who walks his poodle with the dog riding his shoulder like a pirate’s parrot, and another man who brings his rabbit to the arcade. And of course the odd Engrish – yesterday I saw a man in a t-shirt that said “FUCK OFF CELERY.” Another was a twelve-foot-high walking robot with metal skin and laser-beam eyes that called itself “Bionic Satan” – quite a sight to see strolling through the arcade!
I’m sure I’ll think of six other things as soon as this interview is over!