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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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Umeda Kita Yard Redevelopment Project

April 21, 2010 6 comments
Firstly, I would like to thank all my readers and fellow bloggers for supporting Osaka Insider. This is officially my 50th post, and while Osaka Insider is a still a new face on the Internet, the increasing readership and lovely comments have encouraged me to keep going. Thank you!

Construction started in March 2010 in Umeda’s Kita Yard (北ヤード), an area located directly next to JR Osaka Station that has been used as a freight terminal throughout its history until now. The area has always been an eyesore in the upscale district, and the redevelopment of this area will essentially “complete” the Umeda area. According to the development project’s website, phase one is scheduled to be complete in March 2013. According to various sources, the entire redevelopment will be complete between 2020 and 2025.

Phase one consists of a series of buildings forming a district known as the “Knowledge-Capital” (inappropriate hyphen placement is their English, not mine). It will supposedly be a multi-purpose commercial-residential-research district, focusing on an international gathering of minds combined with cutting-edge technology. Cutting through all the flowery descriptions, the reality will be a mixed office-shopping-residential district, along with facilities for conferences, conventions, research, and knowledge-workers. There will also be green space modeled after Osaka’s current overarching development theme, the “city of water.”

The above is my summary of what the planners envision, but now I’d like to share my personal thoughts. The Kita Yard is a giant eyesore in Umeda, especially when going to the Umeda Sky Building or Yodobashi Camera, and it also acts as an unwelcome reminder of Osaka’s dirty, industrial past. The land in question is probably the most expensive property in Osaka, and I have high hopes that they will redevelop it in such a way as to add more originality and fun to the Umeda district.

I think the idea of a “Knowledge-Capital” will flop, and the new area will essentially be an expansion of Umeda as a shopping district, with new and extremely expensive housing added in. About a third of the area is dedicated to housing and hotel space, another third to offices, and another third to commercial facilities with a smattering of “Knowledge-Capital” commercial zoning. Throughout Japan’s modern urban development history, there have been many attempts to make technology-based districts or districts revolving around vague concepts such as knowledge or internationalization, and all of them have simply turned into upscale commercial districts in the end–I have almost no doubt that this time will be no different.

In other words, this new part of Umeda will simply be an expansion of the current upscale shopping and central business district. What is needed is some originality, something to make Umeda stand out. This cannot be accomplished by simply throwing in a few department stores, overpriced restaurants and brand-name department stores for gold-diggers and himo. Umeda is a fun place, but it has always felt a bit like a Kansai version of Tokyo’s Shinjuku rather than something uniquely Osakan, as places like Namba, Tsuruhashi and Shin-Sekai are.

Furthermore, areas in the central city north of Osaka Castle Park and Utusbo Park are severely lacking in quality parks and pleasant green space (I’m not counting the drab Yodogawa riverfront), so quality parks and open areas rather than a few sad-looking shrubs are sorely needed in Umeda. These would likely raise property values in the area even further (which must be of some interest to developers there). Osaka has some of the most well-planned parks I’ve encountered in Japan, and a new one in Umeda would be a definite plus for residents.

Finally, this development plan coincides with transportation network expansion projects, namely by JR and the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau (public operator of subways and buses in Osaka). JR has long been considering a namboku (“north-south”–name TBD) line going underground from a new Kita-Osaka Station in Umeda, through to the existing JR Namba Station and continuing from there on current tracks to Tennoji Station. This would not only provide an alternative route for regular trains and tokkyu special express trains going north-south (they currently use the loop line), it would provide an alternative route for JR freight traffic, as well as new public transportation along Naniwa-suji (boulevard). Osaka City is considering extending its Yotsubashi Line to connect with Kita-Umeda and continue north through Juso to Shin-Osaka Station (where the shinkansen stops). Although they are still in the discussion phases, these moves could greatly improve the Osaka City and Kansai area rail networks and improve ease of movement around the city.

I have mostly commented on phase one of the plan, because that is the only one where details are clear. Only time will tell what the new Umeda will look like, but I have very high expectations that the positive direction Osaka city planning has taken will continue to pick up momentum with this project.

Take a look at the development project’s website if you are interested in learning more.

Photos by Wikimedia Commons.