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New Online Store and New Guidebook for Fukuoka

December 2, 2013 Leave a comment

book covers

Following the release of Finding Fukuoka: A Travel and Dining Guide for the Fukuoka City Area, I have launched an online store over at FindingFukuoka.com. This means that my newest work as well as Osaka Insider: A Travel Guide for Osaka Prefecture are now available to customers in Japan. Both works can also be purchased together as a set for a discounted price.

Furthermore, customers in Japan have the option of adding and author signature and/or a personalized message to the book(s) they order. For customers in Europe and the United States, both Finding Fukuoka and Osaka Insider are still available as usual on amazon. Click on the appropriate link in the “My Publications” of the sidebar on the right or else visit to online store for links to relevant pages on Amazon in your country.

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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.

Osaka Insider Progress Report 2

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s come time to make my second progress report on the status of the Osaka Insider website.

But first I would like to call attention to two new features I have added to this blog: the e-mail subscription and RSS feed subscription buttons near the top of the sidebar. Using either (or both) of these features, you can conveniently monitor updates to my blog. The subscription function for individual post comments is still available as before. You can also find me on Twitter (username: osakainsider). I hope these features will make it easier for you, the reader, to follow and enjoy Osaka Insider.

The Osaka Insider website has not progressed as fast as I’d like, but that is mostly because I am not willing to cut corners and leave out information that may be useful to potential readers. The number of sightseeing spots and facilities to be included on the site at launch is approximately 120, which includes not only individual facilities and sites, but large sites comprising various facilities within (Banpaku Memorial Park, Namba underground shopping, etc). I have completed about 95% the pages for these sightseeing spots. Further, I have scrapped the labor-intensive idea of trying to make my own access maps for each place, and instead decided to use customized Google Maps for this feature–the folks over at Google obviously make way better maps than I can. I am starting to focus more on the gourmet and nightlife sections now, which is the bulk of the work remaining for the site. Speaking of nightlife and gourmet, I welcome any recommendations by Osaka residents or former residents, as I believe word of mouth is one of the best ways to get good information.

The purpose of my website is to provide a comprehensive database of information that can be easily accessed and utilized anytime by those who are in, plan to visit, or have interest in Osaka. I took much of my inspiration for this from japan-guide.com, which is an excellent site that provides concise and useful tourist information. This blog will become part of that site, providing a dynamic and flexible forum to report new things, write articles about Osaka and Japan in general, and supply fresh information. By combining the dynamic format of this blog with the extensive information provided by the website, I hope to create the best source of information. There is a tremendous lack of information regarding Osaka in English, and I hope to be the one who changes that. The site will, of course, expand beyond its already wide scope once I get the beast online. I have more than 100 other spots that I am not currently using at the site because there is not information available on them, I have not physically visited them, or because I am still evaluating them to see if they meet standards (I refuse to post poor recommendations just to inflate my sightseeing list).

I am also putting more effort into increasing traffic on this blog, and researching SEO stuff in preparation for my future site launch. One of the best resources for not only increasing blog readership but gaining inspiration and just entertaining myself throughout the week has been my fellow bloggers, whose links who can find in my blogroll on the right-hand side. It is these people who establish standards of quality to strive for, and who make the online community such a rich place.

You can read all website progress reports here.

As always, suggestions, comments, or ideas for what you want to see on this blog or on the website are welcome.

osakainsider AT gmail DOT com