The winter holiday season is here, and Osaka’s Hikari Renaissance light displays and events have begun! Christmas season is a time for romance in Japan, so this is the perfect chance to take someone special out for a walk by the river and the grand old buildings of Nakanoshima. It can also be fun for expats who miss the holiday cheer of home.
Aside from the lights, there is a large Christmas tree on display, choirs singing, and a musical performance with amazing visuals projected on the wall of the Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library (don’t miss this!). The Osaka University of Arts’ musical groups will also put on a pop music concert. And numerous open-air food stalls are set up on the east end of Nakanoshima Park and at various spots along the riverbank. Finally, there are numerous limited-time, breathtaking river cruises operating at night in illuminated boats around Nakanoshima and other parts of town.
The lights can be seen every night from 5:00 to 10:00 PM, from December 1st through 25th (although the main events are from December 12th). Most of the lights and shows are located near city hall and Kokaido, as well as throughout Nakanoshima Park. The best way to get here is via subway or Keihan rail lines: get off the train at Yodoyabashi, Kitahama, Naniwabashi or Oebashi Station. The display on western Nakanoshima is most easily reached from Nakanoshima Station (Keihan Nakanoshima Line). If you happen to be near the aquarium (Osakako Station on the Chuo Subway Line), or in Chayamachi (near Hankyu Umeda Station), stop by and check out the lights there also.
Visit Hikari Renaissance’s English-language site for details, river cruise times, and maps.
Run by the Keihan Group, this sightseeing boat company operates various cruises around the city of Osaka, long known as “the City of Water” due to the historical and importance of canals and rivers in the city. In fact, during the Edo Period (1600-1868), when Osaka was the economic center of Japan, storehouses of the powerful domain lords were in Osaka, as was the futures trading market, and the best way to get between the market and the storehouses (as well as just get around town) was by using the city’s network of canals. Seeing Osaka from the water is one of the ways to truly understand that character of the city, and because cruises feature refreshments for sale and explanations of passing scenery, residents and tourists can also have fun. Furthermore, cruises can be easily integrated into a city-center sightseeing itinerary, as the river routes connect some of the most popular spots in Osaka.
There are a variety of tours available. The Aqualiner services operate quite frequently every day, and they provide river sightseeing cruises that make stops at Osaka Castle, Tenmabashi, Yodoyabashi, and OAP (Osaka Amenity Park). Aqua Mini services cut north-to-south through the narrow Yokohorigawa River canal connecting the Okawa and Dotombori Rivers, and stop at Osaka Castle, Dazaemonbashi (in the center of the Dotombori entertainment district), and Minatomachi (a port near OCAT in Minami). The Himawari service is a restaurant ship that departs from OAP and goes along the Okawa River. The Santa Maria is a replica of the ship of the same name, and it provides sightseeing cruises around Osaka Bay, departing from Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. The company also offers charted cruises and special event cruises.
While the Santa Maria and Aqua Bus tours operate every day, other tours may not. Please check the official website for departure times, days of operation, prices, and other details. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket offices at any of the ports.
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.