Only one week remains until Osaka’s biggest festival, the Tenjin Matsuri. Millions attend this epic event, known as one of the three great festivals of Japan, and also as the greatest boat festival in the world. It reflects Osaka’s mercantile, canal-centric history as Japan’s “city of water.” The Tenjin Matsuri’s history reaches back 1,000 years, and is dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane, who is enshrined and worshipped as the Tenman Tenjin, the god of learning and the arts. Needless to say, it is an important time for Osakans, and is a huge part of Osakan culture.
Along with a tremendous fireworks display, over 100 boats and 3,000 people take part in the festival, and spectators from around Japan and all corners of the world flock to Osaka, clad in yukata and geta for a summer experience they will never forget. The festival technically takes place throughout the month, but the main events are on July 24 and 25. It starts at the Tenmangu Shrine (link to Japanese-only site), and proceeds first by land through the streets and then by water down the Okawa River. Bunraku performances and other events take part throughout Osaka, and of course there are plenty of food stalls and alcoholic beverages for sale along the riverbanks. The boats going down the river is the highlight of the event, with hypnotic rhythms throwing people into a dancing frenzy as the decorated, lit-up vessels cruise down the river and circle the bonfire blazing atop the water’s surface.
Once again, that’s July 24 and 25, 2010. For more information, as well as footage and shots of this spectacular event, check out at Osaka-Info’s website.
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.
Amidst moans and groans about rainy spring weather, talk about budding flowers is increasing day by day. This can only mean one thing: cherry blossom season is almost here! As many of you probably know, one of the biggest seasonal activities of the year is hanami: a chance to have a picnic outside after a long winter, surrounded by fragrant pink and white flowers. Sure, you have to fight stifling crowds, put up with pushy obaasan jabbing you with umbrellas, and patiently wait for some guy with a fancy camera while he takes 20 minutes to snap a picture of a single flower. But in the end, the cherry blossoms of Japan are so beautiful, it’s worth it every single year.
The Osaka Mint Building is the best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka City. Since the 19th century, the Mint has a tradition of opening its garden to the public for one week a year when its cherry blossoms are in full bloom. There are about 350 trees of 120 varieties, and they are even illuminated during the evening to create a romantic feel. The 2010 event will be from April 14 to April 20, open from 10 am to 9 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 9 pm on weekends. This is the best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka.
If it’s picnicking you’re after, you can hop over to nearby Osaka Castle Park. The cherry trees here are also gorgeous, and if you look around for a while, you will most likely be able to find a patch of grass or dirt to lay your blanket out on (I highly recommend an early arrival to stake out a spot if you are serious about picnicking here). Trees may come into full bloom here a little earlier than at the Mint Building, although the periods will most likely overlap to some extent.
The best way to get to either location is by walking from Tenmabashi Station. There are also a number of cruises operating along the flower-lined Okawa River at this time of year from Hakkenyahama Pier, located just behind the station on the riverfront.
General cherry blossom info for Japan can be found (in English) at Japan-Guide’s Cherry Blossom Forecast 2010. According to them, the best time for hanami this year will be late March and early April. You can also see live updates of the “cherry blossom front” every day by watching weather reports on TV.
Access: Both the Osaka Mint Building and Osaka Castle Park are a short walk from Tenmabashi Station (Keihan Lines and Tanimachi Subway Line). The Mint can be reached by crossing the river (follow the signs and crowds), and the castle can be reached by heading in the general direction of Osaka Business Park (OBP).
The winter holiday season is here, and Osaka’s Hikari Renaissance light displays and events have begun! Christmas season is a time for romance in Japan, so this is the perfect chance to take someone special out for a walk by the river and the grand old buildings of Nakanoshima. It can also be fun for expats who miss the holiday cheer of home.
Aside from the lights, there is a large Christmas tree on display, choirs singing, and a musical performance with amazing visuals projected on the wall of the Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library (don’t miss this!). The Osaka University of Arts’ musical groups will also put on a pop music concert. And numerous open-air food stalls are set up on the east end of Nakanoshima Park and at various spots along the riverbank. Finally, there are numerous limited-time, breathtaking river cruises operating at night in illuminated boats around Nakanoshima and other parts of town.
The lights can be seen every night from 5:00 to 10:00 PM, from December 1st through 25th (although the main events are from December 12th). Most of the lights and shows are located near city hall and Kokaido, as well as throughout Nakanoshima Park. The best way to get here is via subway or Keihan rail lines: get off the train at Yodoyabashi, Kitahama, Naniwabashi or Oebashi Station. The display on western Nakanoshima is most easily reached from Nakanoshima Station (Keihan Nakanoshima Line). If you happen to be near the aquarium (Osakako Station on the Chuo Subway Line), or in Chayamachi (near Hankyu Umeda Station), stop by and check out the lights there also.
Visit Hikari Renaissance’s English-language site for details, river cruise times, and maps.
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.
As I rode the train northward through paddy fields and old wooden houses, the shore of Lake Biwa drew closer and closer as the I entered Nagahama City. This would be one of the two real sightseeing hotspots I would spend time in during the trip–the other being Otsu–and I was looking forward to what Nagahama had to offer.
After detraining, I headed out toward Nagahama Castle, which is about 10 minutes or so on foot from the station, near the lakeshore. Nagahama Castle is not the most impressive structure I’ve ever seen, and even though it’s a modern reconstruction, it has a certain charm to it. Upon looking through the museum inside, I learned that it was at located at a vital location near Sekigahara, a mountain location where the decisive battle between the Tokugawa and Hideyoshi alliances was fought in 1600 to determine the future path of Japan, which ended up being one of long-awaited prosperity and peace for more than 250 years. The castle is small, but the view from the top is impressive, as you can look out over Lake Biwa as well as out toward the rolling hills around Sekigahara. Gazing at the illuminated castle keep that night, I had to admit the odd-shaped structure was not overly impressive, but in my mind its historical significance has left an imprint in my memory that is far bigger than the fortress’ physical stature.
Next I went to Kurokabe Square. This is considered the center of Nagahama, and its name comes from the stately old black-walled (“kurokabe”) building that acts as its centerpiece and gives the district its name. The two-storey building was built in 1899 and served originally as the Daihyaku Sanju Bank building, but today it is a well-known shop selling the famous glassware of Nagahama on the first floor and imported glassware and jewelry on the second floor. The shop’s goods were absolutely amazing, and since I had come all the way to Nagahama, I couldn’t resist buying a few glass animal figurines (which somehow made it home undamaged). The surrounding area also has a number of wooden Edo- and Meiji-Period buildings. I splurged at a restaurant nearby and bought sukiyaki with Omi beef, a regional specialty. Though expensive, this tender, delicious, high-quality beef is worth it. Afterward, I visited a couple of temples in town.
In the morning I got up early to catch the ferry to Chikubushima, an island in the middle of the lake where a temple and a shrine are located. I threw my things in a locker and walked to the ferry pier, only to find that (1) the time schedule in my guidebook was out of date and I had just missed the boat I planned to take, and (2) even though I thought I was clever enough to arrive early in the morning to avoid crowds, so had everyone else in Shiga Prefecture. Thankfully, I got a window seat on the ferry and we set sail across the placid waters of Lake Biwa.
As the boat closed in on Chikubushima, everyone went out onto the deck to take pictures, but I decided to wait until the return trip–which was a smart move, since it wasn’t nearly as crowded on deck during the return trip. The approach reminded me a bit of the time I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco, sans the chill running up my spine. Chikubushima itself was not as good as I had expected, although the imposing old gate of Tsubusuma Shrine and the beautifully carved Buddha statue inside were impressive, and the bright orange pagoda of Hoganji Temple surrounded by vibrant tropical greenery was refreshing. The shrine boasts a unique way of praying: you buy a pair of round ceramic fragments, write your name on one and your prayer on the other using a brush, and then try to throw them both through a Shinto gate (torii) perched below on a rock in the water.
After boarding the ferry back to Nagahama, snapping said photograph, and relaxing in the air-conditioned cabin after a lot of stair-climbing, I started to mentally plan the afternoon. I would ride the JR line around the north edge of the lake and down to Makino on the west side, put my things in a locker there, go sightseeing further south in Katata and Imazu, then return and catch a shuttle to the hotel and find a restaurant to eat dinner at. Little did I know that a combination of incorrect information, misleading information, the reality of the countryside would nullify my plan.
I went to Nagahama Station and saw that the next train would be leaving in a half hour. As the departure time approached, an announcement from the platform speakers informed us that the trains were now delayed a couple of minutes, followed by another that they were delayed by 30 minutes, meaning I would be waiting an hour just to get on the train. The train finally arrived, 40 minutes late, which just goes to show how dangerous it is to rely on JR (in West Japan, JR seems to have trouble handling busy travel weekends). I had to switch at Imazu-Shiotsu station for the Kosei Line, but thanks to that lovely delay, my train had left one minute before and I now needed to wait another hour until the next one came. After about 35 minutes I got impatient and decided to go call a taxi, so I went down the longest station staircase I have ever seen inside a train station and asked the station attendant for the nearest taxi company’s phone number. As luck would have it, the train arrived at that very moment (apparently the Kosei Line was delayed, too), so I ran up the longest staircase ever with my bags in hand and barely slipped through the door and into a vacant seat before it departed. We soon cut through a tunnel and rushed out into the breathtaking, verdant scenery of northern Biwa.
Despite the information on JR’s website, when I asked the station attendant where the coin lockers were, he gave me the “are you insane?” look and told me there were none. I couldn’t very well go sightseeing with my bags in tow, so I called the hotel, but despite their claim to be a lakeside resort, they didn’t even have a pickup service from the station. This meant I would have to haul my stuff 15 minutes to the place. Furthermore, there was nothing resembling a restaurant near the station–mostly just old houses and paddy fields. With a groan, I put one foot in front of the other. With trains that arrived only once and hour (and unpredictably delayed), my arrival at Makino several hours later than planned, and my legs worn out by the time I walked through the hotel’s front entrance, it seemed as if things that day would not go as planned.
Fortunately for me, when it comes to trips, I thrive on unpredictability. Stay tuned for part 3.
Dotombori is one of the three spots most symbolic of and well-known in Osaka–possibly the most famous of them. It is order in chaos, a maddening mix of people and lights and sounds that will assault your senses. Lonely Planet went as far as comparing it to the futuristic cityscape of Blade Runner.* But in my opinion, Dotombori has no comparison, because it is simply the City of Osaka unapologetically being its over-the-top self.
The name comes from the Dotombori River, a canal that runs east to west through the middle of the Dotombori district. A theatre district starting in the 17th century, Dotombori is primarily a nighttime entertainment district today, so there are numerous bars, izakaya, restaurants, food stalls, and entertainments facilities (karaoke, bowling, pool, etc). The city has recently been doing construction work to boost tourism in the area, focusing on beautifying the canal-side boardwalks. Namba’s “love hotel” district can be found on the west end of Dotombori (near Yotsubashi-suji), if that’s what you’re looking for.
Famous landmarks include the giant crab with moving pincers (there are actually three, but the center-most one is the most popular) and the surrounding lights and buildings, the night view of the Glico “running man” billboard, Ebisubashi Bridge (informally known as Hikkakebashi, meaning “pick-up bridge,” as it is a popular spot for hosts who attempt to pick up girls passing by), and the Ferris wheel attached to the side of the Don Kihote shop. There is a Starbucks at the most crowded point in Dotombori, which offers a great view if you like people-watching or just want to take a breather. There are boat tours that go along Dotombori River and connect to other parts of Osaka, as well. And finally, don’t forget to stop at Kinryu, the famous ramen shop that has multiple shops in the district, followed by some cheap and delicious okonomiyaki and takoyaki (fried dumplings with octopus in the middle) from the outdoor food stalls near the river—both of these are Osaka specialties.
The best way to reach the center of Dotombori is from Namba Station (Sennichimae and Midosuji Subway Lines, Kintetsu Lines, Hanshin Namba Line, Nankai Lines), but you can also get to the west part of Dotombori from Namba Station on the Yotsubashi Subway Line, and to the east part from Nipponbashi Station (Sennichimae and Sakaisuji Subway Lines). Dotombori is a 3-5 min. walk from Namba Station on the Midosuji and Sennichimae Subway Lines.
*Lonely Planet: Japan 8th edition, p. 387.