For those who haven’t experienced it, the fiery colors of changing autumn leaves in Japan are a magnificent thing to behold. Momiji-gari (autumn-leaves viewing) is just as popular as cherry blossom viewing in the spring, and televised weather reports include the status of leaves in Japan as they change–a sort of “autumn leaves front” moving from north to south through Japan.
For information on when the leaves will be at their best for each region, as well as detailed information and up-to-date reports, check out the helpful info at Japan-guide.com, one of my favorite resources for anything related to sightseeing in Japan. Although this site does not list information on Osaka (although it does include surrounding areas such as Kyoto and Nara), I can personally recommend Minoh Park as a great spot to see autumn leaves. If you want to stay in Osaka City, Osaka Castle Park is a good option.
November is the best time for viewing in Kansai.
Osaka Castle was built originally by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s revolutionary leader in the late 16th century who rose from peasantry to become one of the three unifiers of Japan and put an end to a long, bloody period of feudal warfare. Completed in 1597, the castle was the largest, most intimidating castle in Japan at the time, and it overlooked and provided the catalyst for the rapid growth of Osaka, which would become the “merchant’s capital” and economic engine of Japan during the Edo Period (1600-1868). Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori, would resist the forces of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who took power after Hideyoshi’s death. Hideyori would defend against two assaults using Osaka Castle as a base before committing suicide with his mother when the battle was lost.
Hideyoshi’s castle was destroyed after the battle, and the rebuilt version once again during a fire; the current structure is a faithful reconstruction (except for use of concrete) from the 1930s, renovated in 1997 to express the feel of original more closely. The moats and walls are almost all original, and one of the turrets is also an original. The inside of the castle has been turned into an in informative and interesting history museum, and the view from the top of the keep provides a great way to see the whole city. Osaka Castle Park is lovely, especially when the cherry blossoms are blooming, when the plum blossoms are blooming, and when the autumn leaves are changing. You can also see Hokoku Shrine, one of the many temples built to honor Hideyoshi, within the park grounds.
While some criticize Osaka Castle because it is a re-creation, I would argue, without getting into a deep discussion about the true significance of historical monuments, that it is still fulfills the roles it was primarily intended to play–namely, that of impressing visitors and of acting as a symbol of Osaka. Some scoff at the elevator attached to provide access to the entrance, but from my perspective, it provides an equal chance for all people, no matter their physical condition or health, to visit this important site.
In summary, Osaka Castle is a must-see for any visitor to the city, and its park (one of the most beautiful and well-planned around), its event facilities and its sightseeing boat dock pier make this one of the most important sightseeing spots in the city.
Access: Directly outside Morinomiya (Chuo and Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Lines, JR Loop Line), 5 min. walk from Tanimachi 4-chome Station (Tanimachi and Chuo Subway Lines), 5 min. walk from Tenmabashi Station (Tanimachi Subway Line, Keihan Subway Line), 10 min. walk from Osakajo-kitazume Station (JR Tozai Line), 10-15 min. walk from Kyobashi Station (JR Loop Line, JR Tozai Line, JR Gakkentoshi Line/Katamachi Line, Keihan Lines, Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line), 5 min. walk from Osaka Business Park Station (Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line), or 5 min. walk from Osakajo-koen Station (JR Osaka Loop Line). Many of the Aqua Bus sightseeing boats stop at the park, also. A PDF version of the map in English, which includes many of the stations mentioned, is available here.
Costs: Osaka Castle Museum costs 600 yen per adult, and is free for guests 15 years of age or younger. There are also group discounts. Entrance to the park is free.
Hours: Osaka Castle, which has a museum and an open-air observatory from the top, is open 9 am to 5 pm (closed from Dec. 28 to Jan.), and guests are admitted until 30 min. before closing time. The park is open at all times. Castle facilities are open until 7 pm during the summer (July 17 to Aug. 29).
For more information about the museum, call 06-6941-3044. Also check out Osaka Castle’s website.
Amidst moans and groans about rainy spring weather, talk about budding flowers is increasing day by day. This can only mean one thing: cherry blossom season is almost here! As many of you probably know, one of the biggest seasonal activities of the year is hanami: a chance to have a picnic outside after a long winter, surrounded by fragrant pink and white flowers. Sure, you have to fight stifling crowds, put up with pushy obaasan jabbing you with umbrellas, and patiently wait for some guy with a fancy camera while he takes 20 minutes to snap a picture of a single flower. But in the end, the cherry blossoms of Japan are so beautiful, it’s worth it every single year.
The Osaka Mint Building is the best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka City. Since the 19th century, the Mint has a tradition of opening its garden to the public for one week a year when its cherry blossoms are in full bloom. There are about 350 trees of 120 varieties, and they are even illuminated during the evening to create a romantic feel. The 2010 event will be from April 14 to April 20, open from 10 am to 9 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 9 pm on weekends. This is the best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka.
If it’s picnicking you’re after, you can hop over to nearby Osaka Castle Park. The cherry trees here are also gorgeous, and if you look around for a while, you will most likely be able to find a patch of grass or dirt to lay your blanket out on (I highly recommend an early arrival to stake out a spot if you are serious about picnicking here). Trees may come into full bloom here a little earlier than at the Mint Building, although the periods will most likely overlap to some extent.
The best way to get to either location is by walking from Tenmabashi Station. There are also a number of cruises operating along the flower-lined Okawa River at this time of year from Hakkenyahama Pier, located just behind the station on the riverfront.
General cherry blossom info for Japan can be found (in English) at Japan-Guide’s Cherry Blossom Forecast 2010. According to them, the best time for hanami this year will be late March and early April. You can also see live updates of the “cherry blossom front” every day by watching weather reports on TV.
Access: Both the Osaka Mint Building and Osaka Castle Park are a short walk from Tenmabashi Station (Keihan Lines and Tanimachi Subway Line). The Mint can be reached by crossing the river (follow the signs and crowds), and the castle can be reached by heading in the general direction of Osaka Business Park (OBP).
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so I have decided to compile a list of romantic spots around town for those who may be in need of such advice. This can also be used as a White Day reference.
Namba Parks: This fantastic shopping center is connected directly to Nankai Namba Station and the Namba City building, and connected underground to subway, private and JR train lines. On the roof is a fantastic garden–or park, if you will–cascading down the terraced building, with numerous woodsy walking paths and romantic nighttime views. There is a movie theatre inside Namba Parks, as well as a wide selection of great restaurants. This tends to be a popular dating spot all throughout the year, so expect to wait (or make reservations) if you plan to pass the evening here. There are many love hotels on nearby Yotsubashi-suji, too. Access: You can get to Namba Parks using any train or subway that stops at Namba.
Hankyu 32-bangai and HEP FIVE: While the HEP FIVE shopping center itself is generally popular among students, the red Ferris wheel atop the building is a great nighttime attraction and will make your date that much more magical. I recommend starting out with dinner at Hankyu 32-bangai, a high-rise gourmet area (“Sky Gourmet”) where almost all establishments feature stunning, expansive views of the surrounding Umeda downtown area. Toho Cinemas is right next door in case you want to pop in for a movie, and the area of Chayamachi surrounding Loft, illuminated by blue lights, makes a great spot for a nighttime stroll. Access: The nearest stations are JR Osaka Station, Hankyu Umeda Station and Umeda Station (Midosuji Subway Line).
Tenmabashi and Vicinity: There are some great restaurants on the top floor of Keihan Mall with romantic views. After eating here (there is a wide variety of options), you can either proceed down to the newly renovated Okawa Riverfront–nighttime river cruises are an option here–or walk 10-15 minutes to Osaka Castle Park, where the soft murmuring of water and the warm glow of the illuminated castle at night will create an cozy atmosphere for the two of you. Just in case your forgot the chocolates, check out the basement level of Keihan Mall, where Godiva and other chocolate brands are for sale. Access: Temmabashi Station on the Tanimachi Subway Line or Keihan Lines.
Universal Studios Japan: This one is only for those who don’t mind ridiculous crowds. For men who follow traditional Valentine’s Day customs (in Japan, women take men out on Valentine’s Day, and men take women out on White Day), your girl will definitely love a visit to USJ. There are some nice hotels right next to the park, too, if you feel inclined to fork out a little extra cash. Nighttime-only passes for the park are also for sale if you don’t intend to spend the whole day there, and special Valentine’s Day plans are available on the 14th as well. Access: Universal City Station on the JR Yumesaki Line / JR Sakurajima Line.
Long before the city of Osaka existed, there was an imperial capital called Naniwa. It first served as the seat of the emperor and his grand palace in 645, and for the second time in 744 (capital cities tended to move regularly as new emperors took power). Thanks to its strategic location, Naniwa developed into an important seaport for trade and cultural exchange not only between different regions of Japan, but with Korea and China as well. Even after the first permanent capital was established in 710 in Heijo-kyo (modern-day Nara), and in 794 in Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto), Naniwa acted as the seaport for imported customs and traditions that Japan integrated with its own to form the civilization we know as Japanese.
Besides sea routes, Naniwa was the trading hub for overland routes, much as it remains today. Militant Buddhist influence was be strong here, centering on the Honganji sect, but would finally be violently crushed by Oda Nobunaga in the late 16th century, and in the 17th century Toyotomi Hideyoshi would establish the great merchant’s capital of Osaka.
The name “Naniwa” remains in place names, such as Naniwa-ku (Naniwa Ward), Naniwa-bashi (a bridge on Nakanoshima island), Namba (the famous entertainment district, whose name is a modern reading of the same kanji characters (難波) for Naniwa).
Naniwa-no-miya, which was built two times on two different sites, was one of the grandest palaces in ancient Japan, and when its role as the imperial government center had ended, it served as a diplomatic meeting and lodging place for high-ranking overseas dignitaries visiting Japan. Only a small portion of Naniwa-no-miya remains, which can be seen in a small park adjacent to Osaka Castle Park. Next to the ruins is the Osaka Museum of History, which is the best museum in Osaka and one of the most enjoyable museums I have visited period. It is not only informative but engrossing, as it appeals not just to history buffs but average people who may not know anything about Osaka’s deep history. Additionally, you can enjoy a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the grounds of Osaka Castle and the Naniwa-no-miya remains from the tenth floor of this building. Both of these can be accessed from Tanimachi 4-chome Station (Chuo and Tanimachi Subway Lines).
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
As I rode the train northward through paddy fields and old wooden houses, the shore of Lake Biwa drew closer and closer as the I entered Nagahama City. This would be one of the two real sightseeing hotspots I would spend time in during the trip–the other being Otsu–and I was looking forward to what Nagahama had to offer.
After detraining, I headed out toward Nagahama Castle, which is about 10 minutes or so on foot from the station, near the lakeshore. Nagahama Castle is not the most impressive structure I’ve ever seen, and even though it’s a modern reconstruction, it has a certain charm to it. Upon looking through the museum inside, I learned that it was at located at a vital location near Sekigahara, a mountain location where the decisive battle between the Tokugawa and Hideyoshi alliances was fought in 1600 to determine the future path of Japan, which ended up being one of long-awaited prosperity and peace for more than 250 years. The castle is small, but the view from the top is impressive, as you can look out over Lake Biwa as well as out toward the rolling hills around Sekigahara. Gazing at the illuminated castle keep that night, I had to admit the odd-shaped structure was not overly impressive, but in my mind its historical significance has left an imprint in my memory that is far bigger than the fortress’ physical stature.
Next I went to Kurokabe Square. This is considered the center of Nagahama, and its name comes from the stately old black-walled (“kurokabe”) building that acts as its centerpiece and gives the district its name. The two-storey building was built in 1899 and served originally as the Daihyaku Sanju Bank building, but today it is a well-known shop selling the famous glassware of Nagahama on the first floor and imported glassware and jewelry on the second floor. The shop’s goods were absolutely amazing, and since I had come all the way to Nagahama, I couldn’t resist buying a few glass animal figurines (which somehow made it home undamaged). The surrounding area also has a number of wooden Edo- and Meiji-Period buildings. I splurged at a restaurant nearby and bought sukiyaki with Omi beef, a regional specialty. Though expensive, this tender, delicious, high-quality beef is worth it. Afterward, I visited a couple of temples in town.
In the morning I got up early to catch the ferry to Chikubushima, an island in the middle of the lake where a temple and a shrine are located. I threw my things in a locker and walked to the ferry pier, only to find that (1) the time schedule in my guidebook was out of date and I had just missed the boat I planned to take, and (2) even though I thought I was clever enough to arrive early in the morning to avoid crowds, so had everyone else in Shiga Prefecture. Thankfully, I got a window seat on the ferry and we set sail across the placid waters of Lake Biwa.
As the boat closed in on Chikubushima, everyone went out onto the deck to take pictures, but I decided to wait until the return trip–which was a smart move, since it wasn’t nearly as crowded on deck during the return trip. The approach reminded me a bit of the time I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco, sans the chill running up my spine. Chikubushima itself was not as good as I had expected, although the imposing old gate of Tsubusuma Shrine and the beautifully carved Buddha statue inside were impressive, and the bright orange pagoda of Hoganji Temple surrounded by vibrant tropical greenery was refreshing. The shrine boasts a unique way of praying: you buy a pair of round ceramic fragments, write your name on one and your prayer on the other using a brush, and then try to throw them both through a Shinto gate (torii) perched below on a rock in the water.
After boarding the ferry back to Nagahama, snapping said photograph, and relaxing in the air-conditioned cabin after a lot of stair-climbing, I started to mentally plan the afternoon. I would ride the JR line around the north edge of the lake and down to Makino on the west side, put my things in a locker there, go sightseeing further south in Katata and Imazu, then return and catch a shuttle to the hotel and find a restaurant to eat dinner at. Little did I know that a combination of incorrect information, misleading information, the reality of the countryside would nullify my plan.
I went to Nagahama Station and saw that the next train would be leaving in a half hour. As the departure time approached, an announcement from the platform speakers informed us that the trains were now delayed a couple of minutes, followed by another that they were delayed by 30 minutes, meaning I would be waiting an hour just to get on the train. The train finally arrived, 40 minutes late, which just goes to show how dangerous it is to rely on JR (in West Japan, JR seems to have trouble handling busy travel weekends). I had to switch at Imazu-Shiotsu station for the Kosei Line, but thanks to that lovely delay, my train had left one minute before and I now needed to wait another hour until the next one came. After about 35 minutes I got impatient and decided to go call a taxi, so I went down the longest station staircase I have ever seen inside a train station and asked the station attendant for the nearest taxi company’s phone number. As luck would have it, the train arrived at that very moment (apparently the Kosei Line was delayed, too), so I ran up the longest staircase ever with my bags in hand and barely slipped through the door and into a vacant seat before it departed. We soon cut through a tunnel and rushed out into the breathtaking, verdant scenery of northern Biwa.
Despite the information on JR’s website, when I asked the station attendant where the coin lockers were, he gave me the “are you insane?” look and told me there were none. I couldn’t very well go sightseeing with my bags in tow, so I called the hotel, but despite their claim to be a lakeside resort, they didn’t even have a pickup service from the station. This meant I would have to haul my stuff 15 minutes to the place. Furthermore, there was nothing resembling a restaurant near the station–mostly just old houses and paddy fields. With a groan, I put one foot in front of the other. With trains that arrived only once and hour (and unpredictably delayed), my arrival at Makino several hours later than planned, and my legs worn out by the time I walked through the hotel’s front entrance, it seemed as if things that day would not go as planned.
Fortunately for me, when it comes to trips, I thrive on unpredictability. Stay tuned for part 3.
Kansai will soon be alive with the fiery colors of the changing autumn leaves. In Japan, momiji-gari (autumn leaf viewing) is just as popular as cherry blossom viewing in the spring, and televised weather reports include the status of leaves in Japan as they change–a sort of “autumn leaves front” moving from north to south through Japan.
One of my favorite sites, Japan-guide.com, prepares a detailed report to let you know when and where to go to see the beauty of the changing seasons in Japan. Check out Japan-guide.com’s autumn leaves report now and start planning for some stunning Kansai scenery. Although this site does not list information on Osaka (although it does include surrounding areas such as Kyoto and Nara), I can personally recommend Minoh Park as a great spot to see autumn leaves. If you want to stay in Osaka City, Osaka Castle Park is a good option.
The best time for momiji-gari in Kansai will be November.
I wrestled with the other travelers boarding at Osaka Station, knowing as they did that if I didn’t get a seat now I would be standing for the next hour and a half. It was a rare five-day weekend, and everybody in Japan was off to their own destination, mad with travel fever. As the train rushed out of Osaka, through Kyoto, and into the mountain tunnel leading to Shiga Prefecture, I felt the tension built up over a week of overtime work go out of my body and a smile float to my lips. I had this trip all planned out–or so I thought.
This was not my first time in the Lake Biwa area. I had previously spent a night in Omi-Hachiman and toured the area, including the beautiful canal district, and the mountaintop temple called Chomeiji (lit. long life temple). These are two truly wonderful places–the canal district for its beautiful old townscape that puts Kyoto’s Gion district to shame, and Chomeiji for its grand old buildings dotting the slopes surrounding serene Lake Biwa. Omi-Hachiman was truly an amazing experience, and I ended up spending the whole day there rather than continuing on to Azuchi as I had originally planned. My pleasant surprise at Omi-Hachiman and my unfulfilled goal of visiting Nobunaga’s former stronghold in Azuchi was my inspiration to spend the long holiday making a full loop around Lake Biwa.
Azuchi is the place where Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of medieval Japan, built his lavish castle to display his power and wealth. It was covered in gold and the paintings inside were done by the best artists of the day. Unfortunately, it was mysteriously burnt down just three years after its completion, but it still remains in people’s memories as the symbol of over-the-top, luxurious Momoyama-Azuchi culture. Not much remains of the castle (mostly just some old walls), but the surrounding area and the view of Lake Biwa the site commands are still impressive. I rented a bike near Azuchi station, rode out to the mountain, and proceeded to make the steep climb to the top. Biking around is the best way to see the sights of Azuchi, and after going about five minutes from the train station, I found myself riding through crisp, clean air among bright green rice fields almost ready for harvest. The climb to the castle ruins is quite beautiful, and you can see Nobunaga’s (uncharacteristically) humble mausoleum along the way. Afterward, I swung by a few museums, including the Nobunaga no Yakata museum which has a recreation of the castle itself that was formerly displayed at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain.
The woman working at the tourist information center was a great help when I first arrived in Azuchi, and on the way back, I stopped again at the information center for ice cream and a rest. The two of us chatted for a while in the (mercifully) air-conditioned room, and I learned that they are currently showing a film about Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, which explained why television crew had been filming live at the museums I visited.
I stayed the night in nearby Omi-Hachiman, in a business hotel run by an elderly couple that was located between the station and the historic district. Having just come from Osaka, I was shocked at how quiet the city was at night. After taking a short nap, I headed out to find something to eat, but couldn’t find any restaurants except for McDonald’s, Lotteria, a really depressing food court with one restaurant that was closed, and a couple of izakaya. I finally came across as small bar located on a side street, and went in to take a look. It was a reggae bar not unlike something one would encounter in Namba, and there were only two staff members. The food was good and the drinks were standard fare, but unfortunately nobody else was in the place the whole time I was there. Even more odd, the staff never even struck up a conversation with me, but silently watched me eat, which made me more than a little uncomfortable. I have been in empty bars in Osaka, and it’s always been a great chance to get to know the staff better, but this was just awkward. Despite this experience, I had met mostly friendly people that day–something that would change as I moved north into the more rural parts of Lake Biwa.
But I was already thinking about tomorrow and my next destination, the coastal castle town of Nagahama. This was the first moderaly long trip I had taken almost entirely alone, and I was ready to see all that I could see.