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Change in the Japanese Government

August 31, 2009 Leave a comment

A historic change has occurred in Japan: the Liberal Democratic Party has fallen from power for the second time in the postwar period, and the Democratic Party (headed by Hatoyama) has stepped in to take the lead. Even if the Demoratic Party doesn’t make any big changes (personally, I’m skeptical), I look forward to a new prime minister (it’s about time Aso stepped down) and some new policy regarding the United States and China. If they can fix this awful pension system so I have some money when I get old, all the better!

For more details, check out Yomiuri’s article.

Regardless of what they are doing at the national level, I am happy to have Hashimoto as Osaka’s governor 🙂

Horie and Absinthe

August 27, 2009 5 comments

If you are looking for trendy restaurant and bars and you don’t mind you wallet becoming a bit lighter, check out the  Horie neighborhood in Osaka, located within walking distance of Namba, Shinsaibashi and Amemura. Many establishments here offer top-class gourmet cuisine and excellent drinks, and each shop has its own unique style. If you only plan to splurge once when you are in Osaka, come here.

One of my favorite restaurant/bars in the area is Cafe Absinthe. It specializes in Mediterranean fusion cuisine (the cooks here are amazing), and it also sports a wide selection of imported European absinthe. Drinking absinthe here was not my first experience, but Cafe Absinthe’s drinks tasted great and nearly had me out cold after two drinks–one straight, one in cocktail form mixed with Midori–despite my huge dinner and relatively high tolerance. Another great thing about Café Absinthe is the food is up to Horie standards, but the prices are quite reasonable in comparison to many other places nearby. The service is also stupendous.

Cafe Absinthe is open from 11:30 am to 3:00 am, every day except Tuesday. It is located a short distance from Nishiohashi Station (Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line) or Yotsubashi Station (Yotsubashi Subway Line). The Cafe Absinthe website can be found here (directions are listed, you can look at this Google Maps link).You can call them (06-6534-6635) if you get lost walking from the station (they speak both English and Japanese well).

Tenpozan

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Tempozan is a “mountain” located on the shore of Osaka Bay in Minato-ku, Osaka City. I say “mountain” because, while it is officially recognized as so, its summit is at a whopping 4.53 meters. Needless to say, this is Japan’s smallest mountain. Artificially formed in 1831, Tenpozan once had an elevation of about 20 meters and was primarily used as a landmark for ships coming into a the busy trading port. It is currently located within Tenpozan Park, which actually features hills higher than the “summit” itself.

If you climb this beast of a mountain, the Mt. Tenpo Expedition Society will issue you a certificate (for a small fee) indicating that you have done so.

Tempozan can be accessed from Osakako Station on the Chuo Subway Line (about 15 minutes on foot).

Peace Osaka (warning: serious topic ahead)

August 23, 2009 2 comments

 

August is the month when two unfortunate and horrendous historic events, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, are remembered. However, back in 1945 around this time, other tragedies preceded these two. Sixty major Japanese cities were targeted by B-29 bomber squadrons carrying bombs–consisting mainly of incendiary bombs meant to burn down Japanese buildings, which used large amounts of wood and paper in their construction–and most of the cities were almost completely destroyed. Approximately 100,000 people (mostly civilians) were killed by the “firebombings,”  and the economy and infrastructure of the country were reduced to shambles.

I am aware that this is a volatile issue to be writing about. I will convey only one opinion, and it is one that I think (and hope) we can all agree with: peace in this world is much better than the senseless human and material destruction brought about by war.

Which brings me to the main purpose of this post: to tell you about a facility in Osaka that I have a lot of respect for, and one that I think should be visited by everyone. That facility is called Osaka International Peace Center, more commonly known as Peace Osaka. It features a number of exhibits on subjects including the firebombings of Osaka, the expansion of the Japanese Empire in Asia during World War II and its harmful effects in many countries, and other topics. There are video clips taken from the B-29s as the bombs were dropped, images of the city in ruins afterwards, articles salvaged from the ruins, and many good testimonies and explanations of historical events of the time. As Peace Osaka’s name implies, this museum offers an unbiased view of the wartime destruction with the goal that we not forget mistakes of the past. Be warned that some of the images are quite graphic and disturbing, as is generally the case with any honest portrayal of the realities of war.

I was a student of Japanese history in university and have continued my studies on my own since, and it has always pained me to study World War II because of nearly unimaginable suffering, and the racism and hatred underlying all of it. Additionally, it pains me to remember that people in many countries I have learned to love an respect were bitter enemies at the time. But I think places like Peace Osaka are incredibly important. History has made it clear that humans tend to repeat the same mistakes time and time again, but perhaps we can avoid an even more horrendous war (or stop the ones we are involved in now) by educating ourselves. Memories of World War II in particular have taken on a strong “good guy-bad guy” flavor, which is a dangerously moralistic and illogical way of looking at history and teaches us to hold onto destructive attitudes of the past. Just like the informative and heartbreaking Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and other such facilities around Japan, Peace Osaka plays a noble role by delivering a strong anti-war message.

Peace Osaka can be accessed most easily from Morinomiya Station on the Chuo subway line or Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi subway line (about 3-5 min. on foot from exit 1, or 2 min. on foot from exit 3B). It is located on the edge of Osaka Castle Park, a visit to Peace Osaka can be easily combined with a visit to the Castle, the Osaka Museum of History, and other sightseeing spots within walking distance. Hours, cost, and general museum information can be found here.

Osaka’s Underground

August 21, 2009 1 comment

Crysta NagahoriIf there’s one thing that Osaka has more of than any other city in Japan (in fact, there are many things), it’s underground. First of all, let me remind readers that Japanese cities developed differently than many cities in the West, and there is generally more than one “city center” or “downtown.” In Osaka, the two largest are called Umeda and Namba, often called Kita (“north”) and Minami (“south”) by locals because of their geographical locations.

Even Frommer’s claims that “Osaka must rank as one of the world’s leading cities in underground shopping arcades.” According to Wikipedia numbers, of the top five underground shopping districts in Japan, two are in Osaka (Crysta Nagahori at 81,765 m² in size and Japan’s biggest, and Diamor Osaka at 42,977 m²), and the total number of underground shops/restaurants exceeds 1,200. Namba and Umeda have at least as much, if not more, underground as they do above ground and in the sky. Almost any main street has corridors running underneath it with restaurants, arcades, cafes, bars, and shops of all varieties, and layered underneath those are subway lines, rail lines and parking lots. If it’s raining outside, or if you are in the midst of a sweltering Kansai summer there’s really no need to worry because you can often get from the train station to your destination without ever seeing the sky.

Some of the larger underground complexes include Whity, Diamor, Dojima, Gare, and the Hilton shopping complex in Umeda, Namba Walk and Nan-Nan Town in the Namba area, and Crysta Nagahori running between Shinsaibashi and Nagahoribashi Stations (underneath Nagahori-dori). Other complex such as OCAT, Namba City, and Hankyu Sanbangai have portions above- and below-ground. There are also a number of ground-level, outdoor, covered shopping arcades, the most famous being the Shinsaibashi, Tenjinbashi, and Hankyu Higashi-dori shopping arcades and the Kuromon fresh food market. The outdoor Shinsaibashi arcade is so crowded that it is air-conditioned in the summer.

These trends follow the general theme in Osaka: many of the best things about this city are not readily visible, but if you are willing explore a little, amazing experiences are waiting just below the surface.

Hozanji

August 17, 2009 Leave a comment
Hozanji Temple

Hozanji Temple

This weekend I stayed in a temple lodging on Mt. Koya to escape the heat and relax, and that got me to thinking about Hozanji Temple, a great place I discovered this past winter.

Coming across Hozanji was a pleasant surprise, and really opened my eyes to the fact that the best places are not always the most well-known. This old temple on Mt. Ikoma, known to locals but almost unknown outside of Kansai, has an elegance, dignity, and impact I have encountered at few other places (and I have visited hundreds of temples and shrines in my travels). After stepping through the main gate, I was struck by a feeling of awe, similar to feeling I had the first time I visited Toshogu in Nikko, the impressive Shinto shrine and mausoleum of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

This mountain temple truly feels like a mountain temple, and part of it (a small shrine) totters on a terrifyingly narrow precipice above. Rather than the bright vermilion colors typical of Buddhist architectural design, Hozanji shows a rich mix of natural wood hues, which make the age of these graceful buildings readily apparent and help it melt seamlessly into the forested mountain scenery. The thatched roofs are beautiful, resembling those of ancient Shinto shrines more than those of the typical Buddhist temple.

Hozanji is an ancient and relatively secluded place, dating back to the beginnings of Japanese civilization, that was often used as a training ground for Buddhist monks. The current Hozanji was reopened in the 17th century, at which time its popularity grew significantly. While technically in Nara Prefecture, it lies very close to the Osaka-Nara border, and in my opinion can be considered a destination belonging to either—prefectures didn’t exist in Japan until the 19th century, after all.

From Ikoma Station, take the Kintetsu cable car line up the mountain to Hozanji Station, and from there follow the narrow little streets for about 15 minutes (be warned, it’s almost all uphill) until you reach the temple’s main gate. After you see the main temple, I recommend taking a stroll along the  forested paths beyond the main complex (if you are still in the mood for climbing) to see a number of smaller temple buildings and shrines.

Okonomiyaki

August 13, 2009 9 comments

Today I thought I would write a little about Japanese food. I found another interesting blog with a good description of okonomiyaki, one of my favorite foods and also one of the most famous foods of Osaka. As described in the page I linked to above, onokomiyaki (which can be literally translated as “cook what you like”) is shaped liked a large pancake and contains eggs, dashi, cabbage and other vegetables, and usually pork or seafood of some sort. It is topped with mayonnaise, sauce,  aonori (dried seaweed flakes), and katsuo dashi (bonito flakes), and sometimes cheese. This is Osaka-style okonomiyaki.

The two places that are known for their okonomiyaki are Osaka and Hiroshima (sometimes Tokyo, but I don’t think Tokyo’s monjayaki can compare to these other two). Hiroshima is also quite good, and debates can become intense when comparing the merits of Osaka- and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (personally, I go with the former).

If you are in Osaka, I personally recommend eating at Bonhan (ぼん繁), which has shops in Tenmabashi and Kitahama. Bonhan also does take-out orders.

Tondabayashi Jinaimachi

August 10, 2009 2 comments
Tondabayashi Jinaimachi

Tondabayashi Jinaimachi

Recently, I have been spending a lot of time going around Osaka Prefecture to places I haven’t visited in order to evaluate and collect information for my upcoming website, Osaka Insider. One of the places I visited was Tondabayashi City’s jinaimachi (寺内町). For you non-Japanese-speakers out there, that means “temple town,” and that describes the historical origins of this site. Its development centered on Koshoji Betsuin, the temple partially pictured above, which was established in the 16th century. From the 17th century (the Edo Period) onward, it developed into a rural trade town and lost much of its religious character, instead taking on the merchant culture seen most clearly in Osaka at the time. Many of the mansions are preserved today, and the jinaimachi’s urban landscape has changed little since that time, making it a truly valuable cultural asset to Osaka Prefecture.

While there, I was able to tour two merchant residences, the huge Sugiyama residence and the somewhat more modest Katsuma residence. The Katsuma residence was actually my favorite, as it still had people living inside and retained a more homey atmosphere–sitting in the guest room drinking tea while looking out at the garden on a hot summer day was quite pleasant. The impressive Sugiyama residence, on the other hand, was set up more like a museum (and rightly so). Both residences are very close to each other, and both deserve a visit.STP60488

Very few people were interested in visiting Tondabayashi, despite it being relatively good weather and a Saturday. It is one of my goals to provide tourist information for truly unique places like this, with its Edo-period cityscape and feel, and its friendly little shops scattered here and there amongst the old wooden buildings. I want to promote Osaka, which until recently has received very little attention as a tourism destination (even now, most focus lies on Osaka City itself, rather than the relatively poorer prefectural towns like Tondabayashi). However, I am a bit worried that, someday, peaceful little places like this may become stifled by tourists as is often the case in destinations such as nearby Kyoto and Nara. I suppose the selfish part of me wants to have the streets of this charming little temple town all to myself. 😀

At any rate, I hope all readers will visit Tondabayashi once. While you are there, I also recommend (especially for the ladies) you visit “Jinaimachi terra,” a little family-run shop near the jinaimachi’s information center.

STP60436

Yours truly inside the Kastuma Residence

Hi

August 10, 2009 1 comment

This is my new blog, which I will use to share my travel and cultural experiences while living in Japan. I will also be putting up a website to accompany it, Osaka Insider, as quickly as I can. The website will be an Osaka-focused travel and living guide to fill the void of passable Osaka-related resources. In this blog, my focus will mainly be Kansai (where I live), but I will document other travel experiences I have around Japan as well.

Anyhoo, hope you will all enjoy reading! Be on the lookout for updates coming soon!

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