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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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Ebisubashi Bridge (aka Hikkake-bashi)

October 11, 2010 1 comment

HikkakebashiEbisubashi Bridge was built around the same time the digging out of the Dotombori River (canal) it passes over was completed, the year 1615. The current Ebisubashi was completed in 2007, and was built to replace the former 1925 incarnation. While some theorize that the name Ebisu comes from the long-established Imamiya-Ebisu Shrine, located south of Namba, this has not been proven. It has acquired numerous names throughout the years: in the Edo Period, it was called Ayatsurishibai-bashi (puppet show bridge) because of the small puppet theatre supposedly located on the south end; it was changed in 1867 by the Shogunate government to Naganari-bashi, a very typical name, because the word “ebisu” carried the negative meaning of “foreign barbarian” at the time; today, it is often called “nampa-bashi” (“nampa” means to pick up/hit on girls, and sometimes vice versa), but its most common nickname–more commonly known than the bridge’s actual name, in fact–is “hikkake-bashi” (literally “ensnare/trap,” but in reality it has a similar connotation to “nampa”), in reference to the decked-out “hosts” who attempt to woo girls for business purposes or to hire them for temporary jobs.
Besides acting as an important bridge connecting the famous Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Arcade and the other shopping arcades and entertainment and gourmet venues of Namba, this bridge itself is a tourist attraction. The Dotombori River area centers on Ebisubashi, and such famous sites as the Glico “Running Man” neon signboard (one of the three symbolic sights of Osaka, along with Tsutenkaku and Osaka Castle), the Shochikuza Theatre (originally built in 1923, and the last of Namba’s old theatre buildings), Osaka’s beloved Kani-Doraku restaurant complete with mechanical moving crab on top, and of course the Dotombori arcade and river cruises. The bridge was designed in a plaza-like fashion, which encourages street performances and enables a large number of people to cross (and a large number of tourists to take pictures) at the same time. And with recent riverside boardwalk renovations, you can now walk down gently sloping ramps from the bridge and sit along the famous riverside, perhaps with a chu-hi and some okonomiyaki or takoyaki bought from one of the many food stalls nearby. This is also a great area for people-watching, especially if you can get a window seat at the Starbucks located at the south end.
Despite popular belief among expats new to Osaka, this is not actually a good place to pick up girls, despite the nicknames. So don’t waste your time 😉

More information is available in Japanese here.

Tenjin Matsuri 2010

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Being an Expat

May 12, 2010 7 comments

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

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

Photos from Nipponbashi Festa 2010

March 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I attended the Nipponbashi Festa 2010 in Den Den Town, Osaka, this weekend for the first time, and I must say it was quite an experience. Crowds filled the streets from Ebisucho to Nipponbashi, and fans and shop promoters alike went all-out with costumes representing their favorite anime, manga, movie and video game characters. In case you didn’t make it to the festival, check out the photos and videos (including footage of the maid parade!) at my Flickr photostream.

Why I Live Here

February 3, 2010 7 comments

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.

2. Livability
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.

Tsutenkaku and the New World

January 20, 2010 5 comments

I must have been a stronger person when I came to live in Osaka for the first time. Newly divorced, friendless, jobless, and without orientation in my new environment, I would spend two months watching the numbers in my bank book grow progressively smaller as job interviews came and went uneventfully. I gradually compromised my standards until I was desperate enough to apply for any job that looked remotely bearable. The tiny apartment was barren, with only a floor mattress to sleep on, a folding “floor chair” whose protruding metal bars made the hardwood floor feel merciful, and a cart for the television set scuffed-up Playstation 2. To retain my sanity and sustain myself, I bought cheap sake, Meiji chocolate and instant yakisoba from Super Tamade, the obnoxiously bright supermarket with blaring theme music, cashiers who only spoke Chinese, and suspiciously low prices.

The studio apartment was a seven-minute walk from Shin-Imamiya Station, located in what seems to be the largest agglomeration of homeless people in Osaka. Also nearby was the covered arcades of Shin-Sekai and Den Den Town, where smelly old men wandered the streets or simply slept on them, day or night. The neighborhood I lived in was Ebisucho, and my apartment building Rapanjiiru Ebisu III—Rapanjiiru is “Rapunzel” in Japanese. When I was first introduced to the apartment, it was through an agency that catered specifically in to foreign customers, because even today many apartments will reject non-Japanese.

After looking at a series of rancid, decrepit rooms, living in a cardboard box in Osaka Castle Park was starting to look attractive—until we reached that seventh-storey room in Rapunzel Ebisu III. It was clean, conveniently located near the subway station, and close to the city center. I made up my mind when I first stepped out on the balcony and saw a somewhat dingy, yet oddly familiar, metal tower.

“Um, this isn’t…”

Tsutenkaku? Yeah,” said the agent, laughing derisively at the aging urban landmark.

Then it came back to me: my university professor, who specialized in Osakan history, had mentioned this tower. “So that over there is Shin-Sekai?”

The agent looked surprised. “Yeah! How did you know that?”

But could this really be the Shin-Sekai I had learned about? Was this the fashionable entertainment district of Taisho-period Osaka? Impossible. But there it was, in plain sight: Shin-Sekai, with the landmark Tsutenkaku tower right smack in the center.

In the early modern period, as Japan rapidly “modernized” to try to gain equal footing, politically and otherwise, with Europe and the United States, planners developed Shin-Sekai (which means “new world”). The area was half modeled after New York City, and half after Paris, with the Eiffel-Tower-inspired Tsutenkaku (the name means “tower reaching the heavens”) as the centerpiece. There was an immensely popular amusement park, Luna Park, located there from 1912 until its closing in 1923. Tsutenkaku was connected to Luna Park by aerial cable car, another modern marvel at the time, and ching-ching of streetcars could be heard from the nearby boulevards. The neon nights, clattering of wooden-shoed feet and giggling of youthful kimono-clad women in Shin-Sekai continued day and night. The brilliant glow of Tsutenkaku could be seen from anywhere in a metropolis that was not yet dominated by high-rise buildings. Shin-Sekai was, to Osakans of the time, truly a marvelous new world.

After the war, however, when most of Osaka had been burnt clean to the ground and the original Tsutenkaku heartlessly dismantled for parts in desperate support of the war effort, Shin-Sekai had seen its final days as Osaka’s glamorous entertainment district. Almost no effort was put into redeveloping the area in the postwar period, and it diminished into a run-down residential neighborhood. Yakuza gangsters operated in the area until the 1990s, giving Shin-Sekai a reputation as being dangerous that still lingers to this day, and after the Yakuza left, the homeless moved in to occupy the space, which did nothing to improve its image. A faint smell of piss mixed with rotting garbage had come to permeate the air of this former playground for the young.

But all was not lost. Surviving citizens of the neighborhood had not forgotten the glamour of the former Shin-Sekai, and even though the district was physically not what it used to be, the pride and culture of the area remained unscathed. Thanks largely to the efforts of neighborhood donations and volunteers, Tsutenkaku was rebuilt in 1956 in a slightly altered form from the original tower, and began to draw attention as a tourist attraction. Hitachi began sponsoring the tower in 1957—and still does today—dressing it with neon lights that the company renews periodically. This resulted in Tsutenkaku becoming a beautiful thing to see at night, in contrast to the dull, metallic spectacle it provided during the day. The tower was not only a piece of local history; it had become a beacon of hope for wartime recovery. It was also an encouraging companion for this lost American who, alone on his floor mat in Rapunzel Ebisu III, looked out at the shining monolith in the dark and felt a faint stirring in his heart.

I imagine the way I felt looking out at the tower every night from my window was the same way many local residents must have felt when the tower’s reconstruction was finished and it once again soared in the sky. Through all the good times and all the tribulations, this simple, elegant tower waited for my return home every evening. Even during that first lonely Christmas full of regret and uncertainty, lying next to the cheap plastic tree from the hundred-yen shop, the warm rays of Tsutenkaku softly stealing through the windowpanes provided some semblance of comfort. Shin-Sekai may be a thing of the past, but its spirit, and the spirit of the Osakans who loved it, live on in this tower to the heavens.

(Tsutenkaku, Shin-Sekai, and Den Den Town can be reached from Ebisucho Station on the Sakaisuji Subway Line.)