Last weekend was the big one for cherry blossom viewing (hanami) in Osaka, but in case you missed it, grab your picnic gear because there is still time left. I mentioned the cherry blossoms of the Mint building and Osaka Castle Park in a recent post; this time I will list a few more scenic places in Osaka to go for hanami.
- Shitennoji Temple: The grounds of this beautiful old temple complex, rich with the culture of Osaka past and present, is a lovely way to take in the sights of spring. Shittenoji is located just a few minutes on foot from Shittenoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station (Tanimachi Subway Line).
- Kema Sakuranomiya Park: This park, located to the northeast of Tenmabashi and the northwest of Kyobashi, stretches along the Okawa River. Beautiful under ordinary circumstances, the scenery here is fantastic at this time of year with fluffy pink and white flowers reflecting off blue waters. You can get here most easily from Sakuranomiya Station (JR Osaka Loop Line).
- Banpaku Kinen Koen (Expo Commemoration Park): This is one of the best sites in Osaka thanks to its superb facilities, beautiful natural scenery and imposing Tower of the Sun. It’s even better during cherry blossom season. Located in Suita, this park can be reached via the Osaka Monorail (get off at Banpaku-kinen-koen Station).
- Daisen Park: Here you can take in cherry blossoms in Sakai, surrounded by the ancient tombs of emperors past. The Sakai City Museum is located just steps away, in case you are interested in learning about the local history. Daisen Park is only a short walk from Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line.
For information on other parts of Japan, check out japan-guide.com’s cherry blossom forecast!
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).
With its long history of merchant and trade culture, canals and rivers have always played important historic and cultural roles in Osaka and served as important symbolic and physical features for its citizens. In the Edo Period (1600-1868), Osaka developed into the main trade and mercantile center of Japan, and it was able to carry out its role stunningly thanks to its vast infrastructure of waterways.
And what does one need when there are a lot of waterways? Bridges, of course! Osaka was well-known for its vast, almost ridiculous abundance of bridges, something that is still apparent today. Each bridge has its own name with a special meaning and history.
Take Aiaubashi (相合橋), for example, which was located along the Dotombori River in what was once a spirited, all-night theatre district (complete with brothels). While the red-light atmosphere of the area hasn’t change much, the theatres are long gone, replaced with bars, clubs, and delicious dining.
The original wooden bridge is from the 1680s, but the current one is made of steel and was built in 1962. Its official name is Aiaubashi, but it is more commonly known as Enkiri-bashi (縁切り橋), or “Break-up Bridge.” During the Edo Period, talk began flying about that anyone who crossed this bridge would destroy the romantic ties with their lover. Ladies involved in the “water trade” feared crossing this bridge at that time, and wedding processions avoid it altogether. Others crossed on purpose, as there was no legal way to divorce at the time. Today, there people who still avoid crossing Aiaubashi. Strangely enough, though, late at night (from 3:00 or 4:00 am onward), it becomes an active business location for modern-day ladies of the evening.
So if you accidentally stumble drunk across Aiaubashi one night, you may want to go buy a nice box of chocolates for your special someone and start hunting for one of Osaka’s lucky bridges. Or perhaps cross again walking backward.
Access: Follow this Google Maps link. The bridge is located between Midosuji and Sakaisuji on Dotombori (closest to Nipponbashi Station). You can also look for the Aiau-suji (相合橋筋) shopping arcade and walk through it until you reach Dotombori River, which will put you at the foot of the bridge.
Image and select information from http://www.city.osaka.lg.jp/kensetsu/page/0000010588.html.
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.
I must have been a stronger person when I came to live in Osaka for the first time. Newly divorced, friendless, jobless, and without orientation in my new environment, I would spend two months watching the numbers in my bank book grow progressively smaller as job interviews came and went uneventfully. I gradually compromised my standards until I was desperate enough to apply for any job that looked remotely bearable. The tiny apartment was barren, with only a floor mattress to sleep on, a folding “floor chair” whose protruding metal bars made the hardwood floor feel merciful, and a cart for the television set scuffed-up Playstation 2. To retain my sanity and sustain myself, I bought cheap sake, Meiji chocolate and instant yakisoba from Super Tamade, the obnoxiously bright supermarket with blaring theme music, cashiers who only spoke Chinese, and suspiciously low prices.
The studio apartment was a seven-minute walk from Shin-Imamiya Station, located in what seems to be the largest agglomeration of homeless people in Osaka. Also nearby was the covered arcades of Shin-Sekai and Den Den Town, where smelly old men wandered the streets or simply slept on them, day or night. The neighborhood I lived in was Ebisucho, and my apartment building Rapanjiiru Ebisu III—Rapanjiiru is “Rapunzel” in Japanese. When I was first introduced to the apartment, it was through an agency that catered specifically in to foreign customers, because even today many apartments will reject non-Japanese.
After looking at a series of rancid, decrepit rooms, living in a cardboard box in Osaka Castle Park was starting to look attractive—until we reached that seventh-storey room in Rapunzel Ebisu III. It was clean, conveniently located near the subway station, and close to the city center. I made up my mind when I first stepped out on the balcony and saw a somewhat dingy, yet oddly familiar, metal tower.
“Um, this isn’t…”
“Tsutenkaku? Yeah,” said the agent, laughing derisively at the aging urban landmark.
Then it came back to me: my university professor, who specialized in Osakan history, had mentioned this tower. “So that over there is Shin-Sekai?”
The agent looked surprised. “Yeah! How did you know that?”
But could this really be the Shin-Sekai I had learned about? Was this the fashionable entertainment district of Taisho-period Osaka? Impossible. But there it was, in plain sight: Shin-Sekai, with the landmark Tsutenkaku tower right smack in the center.
In the early modern period, as Japan rapidly “modernized” to try to gain equal footing, politically and otherwise, with Europe and the United States, planners developed Shin-Sekai (which means “new world”). The area was half modeled after New York City, and half after Paris, with the Eiffel-Tower-inspired Tsutenkaku (the name means “tower reaching the heavens”) as the centerpiece. There was an immensely popular amusement park, Luna Park, located there from 1912 until its closing in 1923. Tsutenkaku was connected to Luna Park by aerial cable car, another modern marvel at the time, and ching-ching of streetcars could be heard from the nearby boulevards. The neon nights, clattering of wooden-shoed feet and giggling of youthful kimono-clad women in Shin-Sekai continued day and night. The brilliant glow of Tsutenkaku could be seen from anywhere in a metropolis that was not yet dominated by high-rise buildings. Shin-Sekai was, to Osakans of the time, truly a marvelous new world.
After the war, however, when most of Osaka had been burnt clean to the ground and the original Tsutenkaku heartlessly dismantled for parts in desperate support of the war effort, Shin-Sekai had seen its final days as Osaka’s glamorous entertainment district. Almost no effort was put into redeveloping the area in the postwar period, and it diminished into a run-down residential neighborhood. Yakuza gangsters operated in the area until the 1990s, giving Shin-Sekai a reputation as being dangerous that still lingers to this day, and after the Yakuza left, the homeless moved in to occupy the space, which did nothing to improve its image. A faint smell of piss mixed with rotting garbage had come to permeate the air of this former playground for the young.
But all was not lost. Surviving citizens of the neighborhood had not forgotten the glamour of the former Shin-Sekai, and even though the district was physically not what it used to be, the pride and culture of the area remained unscathed. Thanks largely to the efforts of neighborhood donations and volunteers, Tsutenkaku was rebuilt in 1956 in a slightly altered form from the original tower, and began to draw attention as a tourist attraction. Hitachi began sponsoring the tower in 1957—and still does today—dressing it with neon lights that the company renews periodically. This resulted in Tsutenkaku becoming a beautiful thing to see at night, in contrast to the dull, metallic spectacle it provided during the day. The tower was not only a piece of local history; it had become a beacon of hope for wartime recovery. It was also an encouraging companion for this lost American who, alone on his floor mat in Rapunzel Ebisu III, looked out at the shining monolith in the dark and felt a faint stirring in his heart.
I imagine the way I felt looking out at the tower every night from my window was the same way many local residents must have felt when the tower’s reconstruction was finished and it once again soared in the sky. Through all the good times and all the tribulations, this simple, elegant tower waited for my return home every evening. Even during that first lonely Christmas full of regret and uncertainty, lying next to the cheap plastic tree from the hundred-yen shop, the warm rays of Tsutenkaku softly stealing through the windowpanes provided some semblance of comfort. Shin-Sekai may be a thing of the past, but its spirit, and the spirit of the Osakans who loved it, live on in this tower to the heavens.(Tsutenkaku, Shin-Sekai, and Den Den Town can be reached from Ebisucho Station on the Sakaisuji Subway Line.)
Bar Zerro (map here) is a sure place to go on a Saturday night (or Friday, if it’s late enough) to find drunken fun in Osaka’s Minami district. It advertises itself as falling somewhere between a bar and club, but I would call it more of a bar that knows how to cut loose. They host DJ events every Saturday night, as well as a number of other events and parties. They also have a Fussball table (no longer for free, unfortunately) and celebrate foreign holidays such as Halloween…speaking of which, Zerro offers “roast dinners” (turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, etc.) on Sunday nights, so if you are an expat sad about missing your Thanksgiving eats this year, drop by next weekend! The drinks are not cheap here, but the customers are always varied and friendly, and the bilingual bartenders help create a great atmosphere.
Zerro is conveniently located near Dotombori, Shinsaibashi, Minami’s Hub Pubs, and other bars such as Blow and Balabushka. The closest stations are Shinsaibashi and Namba subway stations. Zerro can be contacted by phone at 06-6211-0439.
Dotombori is one of the three spots most symbolic of and well-known in Osaka–possibly the most famous of them. It is order in chaos, a maddening mix of people and lights and sounds that will assault your senses. Lonely Planet went as far as comparing it to the futuristic cityscape of Blade Runner.* But in my opinion, Dotombori has no comparison, because it is simply the City of Osaka unapologetically being its over-the-top self.
The name comes from the Dotombori River, a canal that runs east to west through the middle of the Dotombori district. A theatre district starting in the 17th century, Dotombori is primarily a nighttime entertainment district today, so there are numerous bars, izakaya, restaurants, food stalls, and entertainments facilities (karaoke, bowling, pool, etc). The city has recently been doing construction work to boost tourism in the area, focusing on beautifying the canal-side boardwalks. Namba’s “love hotel” district can be found on the west end of Dotombori (near Yotsubashi-suji), if that’s what you’re looking for.
Famous landmarks include the giant crab with moving pincers (there are actually three, but the center-most one is the most popular) and the surrounding lights and buildings, the night view of the Glico “running man” billboard, Ebisubashi Bridge (informally known as Hikkakebashi, meaning “pick-up bridge,” as it is a popular spot for hosts who attempt to pick up girls passing by), and the Ferris wheel attached to the side of the Don Kihote shop. There is a Starbucks at the most crowded point in Dotombori, which offers a great view if you like people-watching or just want to take a breather. There are boat tours that go along Dotombori River and connect to other parts of Osaka, as well. And finally, don’t forget to stop at Kinryu, the famous ramen shop that has multiple shops in the district, followed by some cheap and delicious okonomiyaki and takoyaki (fried dumplings with octopus in the middle) from the outdoor food stalls near the river—both of these are Osaka specialties.
The best way to reach the center of Dotombori is from Namba Station (Sennichimae and Midosuji Subway Lines, Kintetsu Lines, Hanshin Namba Line, Nankai Lines), but you can also get to the west part of Dotombori from Namba Station on the Yotsubashi Subway Line, and to the east part from Nipponbashi Station (Sennichimae and Sakaisuji Subway Lines). Dotombori is a 3-5 min. walk from Namba Station on the Midosuji and Sennichimae Subway Lines.
*Lonely Planet: Japan 8th edition, p. 387.