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Sakai: Kansai’s Lost City

June 17, 2011 10 comments
Old Sakai Lighthouse

Historical Old Sakai Lighthouse, with a smokestack in the background

I can’t count the number of times I have heard foreign nationals complaining about the  tragic loss of traditional Kyoto. It was one of the few major cities in Japan to be spared bombing of any sort at the end of World War II, and the fact that the old wooden buildings and roadways are mostly gone is due to the demands of modernization.

But I don’t think Kyoto is the great tragedy of Kansai. I don’t even think it has really been lost, as most of its culture and traditions are still intact, its arts are still practiced, and it is respected as the cultural center of Japan by almost all, despite the considerable legacies of places such as Edo and Osaka. And regardless of its considerable size and the laws that make preservation of wooden structures difficult, Kyoto has still managed to maintain a significant amount of its architectural legacy. The real tragedy of Kansai is the city of Sakai, which has become a dreary southern-Osaka suburb and a manufacturing center. Urbanization and modernization have not only created a city that is, for the most part, run-down and depressing, its has chiseled away at the cultural legacy of Sakai to such a degree that most Japanese don’t even know of the city’s importance in Japanese history and culture.

One of the more well-known facts about Sakai is that it has historically produced the best-quality blades in Japan, and most consider it to be one of the great centers of blade production (mostly cutlery in modern times) in the entire world. Sakai swords will set you back nearly a life savings, and genuine swords today are considered national treasures, and thus cannot be legally taken out of the country. Sakai was also a pioneer of early bicycle manufacturing in Japan, and even now produces are large amount of Japan’s bicycles. There are many crafts still done by hand in Sakai, including dying of cloth, painting of koi-nobori (Sakai is one of the rare places where this is still done by hand), and wood carving.

And let’s not forget one of the most influential cultural legacies to come of out Sakai, the tea master Sen no Rikyu, who was history’s most influential figure in developing and solidifying the art of Japanese tea ceremony–he was important enough to be the personal tea master of both Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, two of history’s greatest shoguns and rulers. Sen no Rikyu was held in such high esteem that he helped host a tea ceremony for the emperor, and was bestowed with an honorary title as a result. And if Sen no Rikyu isn’t enough to impress you, try opening Google Maps and taking a look at some of the largest ancient imperial tombs in existence (in carefully executed keyhole shapes, large enough to be seen from space), which are scattered here and there throughout Sakai City. When excavated, these tombs contained some of the most valuable artifacts from ancient Japan that have been found, revealing a massive amount of information about ancient Japanese history, art, culture and lifestyle. And the reason these tombs are in Sakai? Because that region is where the emperors first reigned over Japan, long before Nara and then Kyoto became the capitals in the late 8th century AD.

Sakai started as a fishing village–many of the temples and shrines, including the impressive Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, are dedicated to deities said to grant safety at sea. It later developed into a merchant town, much like its bigger neighbor Osaka, except that in the case of Sakai it was an autonomous, self-governed body (a “free city,” or 自由都市)–this was also the case with other cities in Japan at the time, including the thriving merchant town of Hakata in Kyushu. It was during this time that all the skilled crafts and arts, which are still around today but greatly under-appreciated, began to develop rapidly. Sakai was also growing into an important trade hub during this time (mostly domestic trade). Around the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan was following a similar path of “modernization” to that of Europe and the United States, but it had to industrialize more quickly in order to keep up with the world’s other top powers and avoid falling prey to imperialism. This meant that cities like Sakai grew quickly, and factories started sprouting up here and there, polluting the air and making for the start of what would come to be a dreadful cityscape. Like many other cities, Sakai was firebombed by allied forces (mostly American) near the end of World War II–according to Wikipedia statistics, 48.2% of the city was destroyed. The postwar period of high-speed growth in Japan led to further industrial development of Sakai, and today there are many large artificial islands filling the bay. Although it is better than in recent years, Sakai has not seen the shift toward a commercial rather than industrial economy as Osaka has, and smoke and sulfurous smells still fill the air near the bay.

Hankai Streetcar

Hankai streetcar rounding a corner near Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine

Today, Sakai aims to become a model environmental city for Japan, and the national and local governments have put money and effort into achieving this end. Promising projects, such as the collaborative solar plant and factory project recently built by Sharp and Kansai Electric Power, do make it seem as if real effort is being made, but a visit to the city makes it painfully clear that Sakai still has decades (at least) before it can revert back to being a cultural icon and highly livable city. Personally, I don’t think building more is the answer; I think reducing polluting industries, expanding transportation infrastructure, enhancing technologies to cut down on pollution, and drawing in non-polluting business will be a start toward the model “green city” goal. The building of a new national (and international) soccer training facility in Sakai is seen by some as a promising new direction, especially considering its convenient location near Osaka City and Kansai International Airport.

Sakai has also made strong efforts to promote tourism in recent years, including producing sightseeing-related materials. If possible, this is something I want to promote as well. Sakai is friendly city with a fascinating and unique history, and many of its older citizens are struggling to keep its fading culture and customs alive despite disinterest among youth. Considering how tough things have been for the tourism industry after the recent earthquakes and tsunamis, and also the fact that Sakai is located right next door to bigger attractions such as Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka,  it’s not going to be an easy fight. But for those of you who want to delve deeper see a more unique side of Japant, here are some places I recommend visiting:

  • Nanshuji Temple: A Zen temple with a rich history, a 5-7 min. from Goryo-mae Station on the Hankai Streetcar Line
  • Mozu Tumulus Cluster: The ancient keyhole-shaped tombs of great emperors, scattered throughout the city (many are concentrated near Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line)
  • Sakai City Museum: An interesting and to-the-point museum that provides an overview of Sakai’s history, a 5 min. walk from Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line (near the imperial tumuli)
  • Myokokuji Temple: The site of a famous samurai suicide and a 1,100-year-old cycad tree, a 5 min. walk from Myokokuji-mae Station on the Hankai Streetcar Line or a 10-15 min. walk from Sakaihigashi Station on the Nankai Koya Line
  • Old Sakai Lighthouse: A lighthouse on Osaka Bay that was originally built in 1877, a 10-15 min. walk from Sakai Station on the Nankai Main Line
  • Hankai Streetcar: Hankai is the only remaining streetcar operator in Osaka, and there are two lines running from Osaka (starting at Tennoji and Ebisucho) down into Sakai

Let’s not let this unique and fascinating gem of Japan slip away through negligence. I truly hope that  Sakai, a casualty of development and centralization, will one day return to its former glory. At the very least, I hope it will not be forgotten.

Check out the Sakai Tourism and Convention Bureau’s sightseeing guide and Sakai City’s sightseeing guide, or stop by a tourism information center at one of the major JR or Nankai train stations where information is available in English and other languages.

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Ebisubashi Bridge (aka Hikkake-bashi)

October 11, 2010 1 comment

HikkakebashiEbisubashi Bridge was built around the same time the digging out of the Dotombori River (canal) it passes over was completed, the year 1615. The current Ebisubashi was completed in 2007, and was built to replace the former 1925 incarnation. While some theorize that the name Ebisu comes from the long-established Imamiya-Ebisu Shrine, located south of Namba, this has not been proven. It has acquired numerous names throughout the years: in the Edo Period, it was called Ayatsurishibai-bashi (puppet show bridge) because of the small puppet theatre supposedly located on the south end; it was changed in 1867 by the Shogunate government to Naganari-bashi, a very typical name, because the word “ebisu” carried the negative meaning of “foreign barbarian” at the time; today, it is often called “nampa-bashi” (“nampa” means to pick up/hit on girls, and sometimes vice versa), but its most common nickname–more commonly known than the bridge’s actual name, in fact–is “hikkake-bashi” (literally “ensnare/trap,” but in reality it has a similar connotation to “nampa”), in reference to the decked-out “hosts” who attempt to woo girls for business purposes or to hire them for temporary jobs.
Besides acting as an important bridge connecting the famous Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Arcade and the other shopping arcades and entertainment and gourmet venues of Namba, this bridge itself is a tourist attraction. The Dotombori River area centers on Ebisubashi, and such famous sites as the Glico “Running Man” neon signboard (one of the three symbolic sights of Osaka, along with Tsutenkaku and Osaka Castle), the Shochikuza Theatre (originally built in 1923, and the last of Namba’s old theatre buildings), Osaka’s beloved Kani-Doraku restaurant complete with mechanical moving crab on top, and of course the Dotombori arcade and river cruises. The bridge was designed in a plaza-like fashion, which encourages street performances and enables a large number of people to cross (and a large number of tourists to take pictures) at the same time. And with recent riverside boardwalk renovations, you can now walk down gently sloping ramps from the bridge and sit along the famous riverside, perhaps with a chu-hi and some okonomiyaki or takoyaki bought from one of the many food stalls nearby. This is also a great area for people-watching, especially if you can get a window seat at the Starbucks located at the south end.
Despite popular belief among expats new to Osaka, this is not actually a good place to pick up girls, despite the nicknames. So don’t waste your time 😉

More information is available in Japanese here.

Osaka Castle

June 10, 2010 3 comments

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.

Aiaubashi (aka “Break-up Bridge”)

March 3, 2010 1 comment

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.

Midosuji Subway Line

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment
Tennoji

Tennoji Station

First opened in 1933 between a temporary Umeda Station and Shinsaibashi Station, the Midosuji Line is Japan’s second oldest subway line (after Tokyo’s Ginza Line) and the first state-operated subway line in Japanese history. Coinciding with a massive widening and redevelopment of Midosuji Boulevard–transforming it from a narrow street into a sweeping boulevard, and the first north-south street capable of handling modern traffic in the city–this first section of the subway line was dug by hand. The project was intended not only to further modernize Osaka’s transportation and communications infrastructure, an important step in a fast-rising interwar Japan, but it was also meant to give jobs to the laborers of Osaka as part of wide-ranging efforts to improve the lives of and provide more opportunities to the city’s working class. By the outbreak of war in Asia and the subsequent Pacific War with the United States, the line had been extended through Namba down to Tennoji.

The following is video footage from the 1930s, starting with the construction work on Midosuji Boulevard from 1930 and concluding with the launch of the subway itself in 1933.

The current Midosuji Line, operated by the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau, spans 20 stations, running from Suita City in the north, southward to Nakamozu in Sakai City. It is the most heavily used subway line in Japan, which may be because Osaka has the most dramatic daytime/nighttime population change of any city in the country–the amount of commuters from outside is so great that the daytime population increases by about 50% on weekdays. The subway line runs along Osaka’s the most important boulevard, through the most developed areas, and its ten-car trains (a huge contrast from the almost comical single-car trains of 1933) come at intervals of approximately 30 to 60 seconds during the rush hour, packed wall to wall. The crowded Midosuji Line was also where the concept of the ladies-only car started in response to groping incidents on crowded trains: this innovation has reduced the number of incidents greatly and is used throughout large cities in Japan today.

While Japanese people tend to be very polite for the most part, don’t expect anything of the sort when riding the Midosuji Line during rush hour. Here you will encounter a wide variety of bad manners as people pack into the stifling train cars and shove their way through stations to get to work in time. For residents such as myself, this is nothing new, as I long ago learned to sleep standing up with someone’s elbow jammed into my back; for tourists, I urge you to avoid the peak hours. I’m sure you will otherwise find the Midosuji Line to be a convenient, quick, and even enjoyable way to get around Osaka.

Photo by WikiCommons

Tsutenkaku and the New World

January 20, 2010 5 comments

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.)

Naniwa: Ancient Capital of Japan, Roots of Modern Osaka

November 19, 2009 1 comment

Naniwa-no-miya Remains, with the NHK building and Osaka Museum of History in the background

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.