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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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Kansai International Airport

November 9, 2009 2 comments

Kansai International Aiport (KIX) is the second most important airport in Japan (after Narita in Tokyo) and the main airline hub for the Kansai area, which includes Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Wakayama, and many other large cities. KIX is located on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, near Sennan and Izumisano Cities in southern Osaka Prefecture. It is connected to the land by a 3 km (2 mile) bridge that carries rail and road traffic, and also by ferry services.

The island built for this airport turned Osaka Prefecture, formerly the smallest prefecture in Japan in terms of land area, into the second smallest in Japan, putting Kagawa Prefecture in last. There have been problems with the island sinking slowly each year, but they have been mitigated for the most part, naturally and due to technological innovations. Fear of strong crosswinds affecting rail traffic has also been assuaged through installation of protective barriers. KIX survived severe typhoon winds and the 1995 Great Awaji-Hanshin Earthquake without significant damage.

The airport was designed by world-famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, and the terminal is the longest in the world at 1.7 km in length (it is served by a tram/train). There are two runways, and a third is planned as part of a future expansion. KIX has a good variety of restaurants and facilities, and just across the bridge is Rinku Town, one of the most extensive and entertaining shopping areas in all of Osaka Prefecture. You can also stay in the ANA Gate Tower Hotel at Rinku Town, located in the Rinku Gate Tower Building, the second tallest building in Japan after Yokohama’s Landmark Tower (Rinku Gate Tower is the same height as Osaka City’s WTC Cosmo Tower).

KIX is about 35-45 min. by limited express train (JR or Nankai Railways) from central Osaka City, and JR trains continue through Osaka all the way to Kyoto. Check out KIX’s website here. When you visit Osaka next, come through Kansai International Airport and learn why it is considered on of the best airports in the world.

Here is another good post on KIX that focuses more on the interesting architecture design of the airport and contains a number of terminal-building photographs.

Aqua Bus Tours

October 21, 2009 3 comments
Aqualiner sightseeing boat passing under Tenmabashi Bridge

Aqualiner sightseeing boat passing under Tenmabashi Bridge

Run by the Keihan Group, this sightseeing boat company operates various cruises around the city of Osaka, long known as “the City of Water” due to the historical and importance of canals and rivers in the city. In fact, during the Edo Period (1600-1868), when Osaka was the economic center of Japan, storehouses of the powerful domain lords were in Osaka, as was the futures trading market, and the best way to get between the market and the storehouses (as well as just get around town) was by using the city’s network of canals. Seeing Osaka from the water is one of the ways to truly understand that character of the city, and because cruises feature refreshments for sale and explanations of passing scenery, residents and tourists can also have fun. Furthermore, cruises can be easily integrated into a city-center sightseeing itinerary, as the river routes connect some of the most popular spots in Osaka.
There are a variety of tours available. The Aqualiner services operate quite frequently every day, and they provide river sightseeing cruises that make stops at Osaka Castle, Tenmabashi, Yodoyabashi, and OAP (Osaka Amenity Park). Aqua Mini services cut north-to-south through the narrow Yokohorigawa River canal connecting the Okawa and Dotombori Rivers, and stop at Osaka Castle, Dazaemonbashi (in the center of the Dotombori entertainment district), and Minatomachi (a port near OCAT in Minami). The Himawari service is a restaurant ship that departs from OAP and goes along the Okawa River. The Santa Maria is a replica of the ship of the same name, and it provides sightseeing cruises around Osaka Bay, departing from Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. The company also offers charted cruises and special event cruises.
While the Santa Maria and Aqua Bus tours operate every day, other tours may not. Please check the official website for departure times, days of operation, prices, and other details. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket offices at any of the ports.

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).