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.
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.
Shin-Imamiya, Shin-Sekai, and Nishinari–these three places are known by people throughout Kansai as dangerous places. Guidebooks parrot the same mindless hearsay, advising people not even to set foot in these neighborhoods. I, for one, believe their reputation for being “dangerous” is undeserved, or at least highly exaggerated.
Let’s start with Shin-Sekai, the home of Tsutenkaku, Spa World, and delicious fugu and kushikatsu. This place has a reputation for being “dangerous,” but in all seriousness, there is almost nothing dangerous here. People talk about Yakuza presence, but it has been gone for decades. Of course, it is not the kind of place a woman would want to walk through alone at night, but for the most part it just smells bad because of all the homeless people living in the covered shopping arcades.
Then there’s Shin-Imamiya, that awful-looking, awful-smelling area at the bottom of the loop line, near the Airin labor center. There are many homeless people and generally creepy people, but there is minimal danger near in this station-front area. It is actually a popular place among backpackers and budget travelers from abroad, as many of the doya* that day laborers used to live in have been converted to extremely cheap youth hostels (2,000 yen or so a night), and the location is convenient for sightseeing in and around Osaka, as well as for nights out in Minami. The day laborers themselves are, for the most part, not bad people–many of them were workers who fell victim to economic downturn, were members of outcast groups, or else were “salarymen” and the like who couldn’t cut it in corporate culture and had no family to help them. Of course there are also alcoholics, criminals, and the like mixed in, but I don’t think that’s the norm. An interesting bit of Shin-Imamiya culture: on the south side of the JR station and west of the Nankai tracks, at around 5:00 am or so every morning, homeless, poor, and regular residents of the area put on a flea market, selling all sorts of interesting things they pick up from around town. While there’s nothing there really worth buying, it’s fun to browse through.
Lastly, there’s Nishinari. This ward became famous in 1991 when the Nishinari Riots occurred, stemming from dissatisfaction on the part of day laborers and homeless in the area and also in response to their unfair (and sometimes brutal) treatment by police. This sort of violence rarely occurs on such a large scale in Japan, a country that is considered extremely safe, and as a result Nishinari came into the spotlight as a “dangerous place.” Now, I’ll admit that Nishinari is not a very nice part of town by any means, and it really isn’t a very good place to live, but for the most part it’s safe as long as you know where to go and where not to go. (Tip: stay out of the southeast area, where Yakuza actually are still active.)
I spent about two years living in these areas (one year in Ebisucho just a short walk from Shin-Imamiya and right next to Shin-Sekai, and one year in Nishinari itself on the other side of Shin-Imamiya), so I have seen a lot of the good and the bad. These are poorer parts of town, but I truly think their reputation for being extremely dangerous is exaggerated, although their reputation for being filthy and dirty is spot-on. Although these areas are probably less safe than other parts of town, a little common sense is all you need to avoid trouble. Perhaps my attitude is related to my different perception of what is “dangerous,” having grown having grown up visiting American cities where real danger is easily encountered.
Furthermore, there is a really sense of community in these areas, whether it be in the Shin-Sekai neighborhood (an old neighborhood with pride in their history), among the homeless and day laborers, or among the many non-Japanese and other people who don’t quite fit in to society as a “normal” Japanese person might.
Before speaking so badly of a place, I think it should be visited and evaluated in person.
*Doya (ドヤ) is a slang term used by day laborers for facilities where small rooms can be rented out for short- or long-term stays. These facilities are used by many day laborers who stay when they have enough money (or when the weather is too cold), and sleep outside at other times. The term comes from the common word yado, which means home or lodging, but with the two Japanese letters ya and do put in reverse order (宿→ヤド→ドヤ). In order to stay in business among changes in day laborer demographics, owners of many doya have converted their facilities into youth hostels targeting backpackers from abroad and other budget travelers.
There are numerous ranters on the Web who moan and groan about the unjust treatment they receive while living abroad. Once the initial novelty wears off, they gradually become bitter, even hateful, and begin to despise their adopted country.
In a broad sense, in Japan at least, there are generally two types of responses among expatriates to these attitudes and behaviors: they tell whiners to go home if they can’t take it, or else they band together and try to fight inequality. Don’t get me wrong–I am against inequality, and I think the world would be a great place if we assumed that others want the same fair, considerate treatment that we ourselves want. But one person usually can’t change the world, and I think fighting against all of Japan is a losing battle.
The key components to surviving as an expat in Japan are a thick skin (ability to survive adversity), a good reason for being here (hint: you can make one if you don’t have one yet), and the ability to see the good in the people around you rather than focus on the flaws. And adjust your expectations before you even get on the plane.
But enough negative talk. Below are some things I think make the expat experience a positive and worthwhile one. There will always be hard times, but if you focus on positives such as these, you will realize that what you are doing is unique and worthwhile.
- You get new perspectives on the world that most people don’t have
- You learn more about yourself, including your limits and abilities
- As a representative for your country, you can improve the image of your people
- There’s no shortage of challenges to help you grow–you get more out of life by not simply taking a “safe” route
- You can experience a fascinating culture with an even more fascinating history
- As an expat in Japan, you are in a unique position to easily meet other expats and visitors from all corners of the earth
- You have a chance to master a difficult language and become one of the few in the world from outside Japan who can speak it well
- You will come to better understand the position of foreign nationals in your own country, and respect their strength
- You can travel from Japan to many other countries very easily
- You will have two places to call home
- Sometimes, it’s just a lot of fun
I am often asked what I like about living in Osaka. And because I have also lived in Tokyo, I am also asked whether I prefer Osaka or Tokyo. Besides the fact that my job and life are here, there are four primary reasons I prefer to live in Osaka over any other place in Japan:
1. The People
This is the number one reason Osaka is the most livable place I have found in Japan. People here are the most open-minded (including their attitudes toward foreign residents), are willing to help out strangers, and are basically warm and approachable. It is easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger almost anywhere you go, and if you need help because you are lost or unsure of something, just ask someone nearby and you will almost never be ignored. The “people” factor is not only my top reason for staying here; ask anyone here and you will likely hear the same thing.
With a metropolitan population of approximately 3 million, Osaka City is big but not too big, and despite the tri-city metro area population of approximately 20 million, it does not (for the most part) have the hellish commutes, snail-like traffic and infuriating crowds of cities like Tokyo or Seoul. There are many of small shops and businesses mixed in with department stores and chain stores, so you can easily find something that suites your tastes — the inexhaustible number of hidden places to explore is one of the city’s best features. Unlike its historical rival, Tokyo, Osaka is planned well, so you won’t get lost wondering the streets (I dare you to try explaining the order behind the urban planning and subway system of the capital). The cost of living is also more than reasonable in comparison. Finally, Osaka has many well-designed parks and waterfront spots, making for a pleasant urban environment. Despite its past reputation as a dirty, industrial city, Osaka has become a massive commercial center and one of the cleanest and most livable cities you will find.
3. Rich Culture and History
Osaka has played many roles throughout its history, including that of the imperial capital (as Naniwa-kyo), an important trade port and point for importing cultural innovations, a diplomatic host for Chinese and Korean visitors when the capital moved first to Nara and then Kyoto, the base of Toyotomi military power, the prime economic center and site of the world’s first futures market during the Edo Period, a major manufacturing center during the early modern period and period of high-speed growth, a temporary capital when Tokyo was burned to the ground in the fires of the 1923 earthquake, a primary commercial and trade center since the postwar period, and now an increasingly international city and central hub for Japan and East Asia. This rich history has given rise to a unique culture and a number of rich, deep-rooted traditions. Osaka is also the transportation hub of Kansai, the cultural center and birthplace of Japanese civilization, so you can reach places such as Nara, Kyoto, and Himeji in no time.
4. The Food
Osaka is historically known as “the nation’s kitchen” for its role in supplying and acting as a hub for the food industry. It is also famous for its cuisine — not luxury cuisine, mind you, but “B-level” (B-kyu) cuisine. The quality of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, ramen, soba, kushikatsu, sushi, and other foods people eat on a regular basis is outstanding. In addition, the large number of non-Japanese living in the city means there is a huge selection of international cuisine, too — Korean food in Tsuruhashi, for example. Delicious food at surprisingly low prices is definitely one of the city’s strongest points.
This is a list of personal recommendations, based on my own travel experiences and the advice of others (professional and otherwise). Many of them apply to travel in general. Following these tips will help you experience life-changing journeys and discover not only more about the world, but about yourself.
- Travel cheap: This is not just a budgeting tip. Traveling cheap lets you see the things normal people see, and following more conventional routes reveals the “real” Japan that you might otherwise miss. I personally do not recommend bus tours and the like run by the big companies, unless you want to relive elementary-school field trips. In fact, packaged tours are usually more expensive and less fun than tours you can plan yourself by doing a little research.
- …but don’t plan everything: In other words, leave room for the unexpected. A trip where everything goes as planned is like visiting Chinatown and saying you went to China. Research travel times, locations, and create a reasonable schedule of things you want to see each day, as well as a list of other things you may want to see. Most importantly, do not feel the need to stick to that schedule. If something down a side street catches your eye as you walk, go take a look. If you want to linger at the zen garden and ponder your thoughts an hour longer, do it. Trying to orchestrate an experience too closely causes it to become shallow.
- Try things you wouldn’t otherwise do: Especially if you are an introvert, this is a perfect chance to try things you wouldn’t otherwise. Nobody knows you there, and you do not live there, so try coming out of your shell and let the experience change you. Travel is not just about seeing something new, but about letting yourself grow. Note that I am not recommending doing anything indecent, illegal, obnoxious, rude, etc.–don’t forget to use common sense. And don’t forget that you are a guest in Japan.
- Forget what’s going on at home: You will get the most out of your experience if you leave your worries and daily concerns behind as much as possible (this includes checking e-mail, updating blogs, etc.). Use the chance to not only relax, but immerse yourself fully in a fascinating new world.
- Stay awake on trains: Some of the most beautiful and interesting sights you see will be from the train window. Get enough sleep in the hotel, and stay awake on the train (or bus).
- Rent a bicycle: Particularly in rural areas, getting around by bicycle lets you see hidden-away things you would otherwise never have the chance to see otherwise. It also gives you more opportunities to meet interesting people. Not to mention exercise never hurts. Bicycle rental is cheap, and shops are generally easy to find.
- Don’t just hit tourist traps: I recommend going to small attractions or simply roaming around without a purpose every once and a while. Going to Kansai and just visiting Kyoto and Himeji Castle, for example, is like going to Paris and only seeing only the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The best experiences I’ve had came from walking down random streets, taking small side paths, and visiting small, family-run restaurants and shops.
- Try to speak Japanese: The ability to speak the language of the country you are visiting enhances the experience by a huge degree. By speaking only English, you are limiting yourself to what has been translated and people who can speak English, which means you are not really seeing Japan for Japan. Take a few weeks to study if you have time, or try out a few guidebook phrases when you have the opportunity–Japanese people love to praise foreigners with terrible Japanese in particular. And at the risk of sounding too preachy: disillusion yourself of the belief that everyone in the world knows English and nobody minds having to use it. It’s more consider to at least try to speak the country’s langauge and respect its culture, as opposed to expecting them to accomodate you–even if you can only say “konnichiwa” and “arigato,” you will be respected for trying.
- Eat local specialty foods: Every region of Japan and most cities and towns have their own specialty foods. You will not only get a wide sampling of Japanese cuisine, but have a richer travel experience, if you try local specialties along the way. It also makes picking a menu item simple!
- Go out drinking: There are few better ways to meet and talk to locals than getting drunk with them. Research local bars if possible before setting out on your journey, and follow the recommendations of other expatriates in Japan.
- Stay at an onsen (hot spring): I know it’s probably scary to think of getting naked around other people, but hot spring baths are one of the most wonderful parts of Japan, and they are pretty much everywhere. Schedule one night at a hotel, ryokan, or resort with hot spring baths (or even just regular shared baths) and enjoy yourself–outdoor baths in the fall and winter are particularly lovely. Some hotels have the option of using kashikiri-buro, which are reserved baths you can use privately with family, friends or loved ones for a set amount of time. Just remember: wash yourself thoroughly before entering bath, as the bath is for soaking only.