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.
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.
Ebisubashi 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 😉
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.
Last weekend was the big one for cherry blossom viewing (hanami) in Osaka, but in case you missed it, grab your picnic gear because there is still time left. I mentioned the cherry blossoms of the Mint building and Osaka Castle Park in a recent post; this time I will list a few more scenic places in Osaka to go for hanami.
- Shitennoji Temple: The grounds of this beautiful old temple complex, rich with the culture of Osaka past and present, is a lovely way to take in the sights of spring. Shittenoji is located just a few minutes on foot from Shittenoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station (Tanimachi Subway Line).
- Kema Sakuranomiya Park: This park, located to the northeast of Tenmabashi and the northwest of Kyobashi, stretches along the Okawa River. Beautiful under ordinary circumstances, the scenery here is fantastic at this time of year with fluffy pink and white flowers reflecting off blue waters. You can get here most easily from Sakuranomiya Station (JR Osaka Loop Line).
- Banpaku Kinen Koen (Expo Commemoration Park): This is one of the best sites in Osaka thanks to its superb facilities, beautiful natural scenery and imposing Tower of the Sun. It’s even better during cherry blossom season. Located in Suita, this park can be reached via the Osaka Monorail (get off at Banpaku-kinen-koen Station).
- Daisen Park: Here you can take in cherry blossoms in Sakai, surrounded by the ancient tombs of emperors past. The Sakai City Museum is located just steps away, in case you are interested in learning about the local history. Daisen Park is only a short walk from Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line.
For information on other parts of Japan, check out japan-guide.com’s cherry blossom forecast!
With its long history of merchant and trade culture, canals and rivers have always played important historic and cultural roles in Osaka and served as important symbolic and physical features for its citizens. In the Edo Period (1600-1868), Osaka developed into the main trade and mercantile center of Japan, and it was able to carry out its role stunningly thanks to its vast infrastructure of waterways.
And what does one need when there are a lot of waterways? Bridges, of course! Osaka was well-known for its vast, almost ridiculous abundance of bridges, something that is still apparent today. Each bridge has its own name with a special meaning and history.
Take Aiaubashi (相合橋), for example, which was located along the Dotombori River in what was once a spirited, all-night theatre district (complete with brothels). While the red-light atmosphere of the area hasn’t change much, the theatres are long gone, replaced with bars, clubs, and delicious dining.
The original wooden bridge is from the 1680s, but the current one is made of steel and was built in 1962. Its official name is Aiaubashi, but it is more commonly known as Enkiri-bashi (縁切り橋), or “Break-up Bridge.” During the Edo Period, talk began flying about that anyone who crossed this bridge would destroy the romantic ties with their lover. Ladies involved in the “water trade” feared crossing this bridge at that time, and wedding processions avoid it altogether. Others crossed on purpose, as there was no legal way to divorce at the time. Today, there people who still avoid crossing Aiaubashi. Strangely enough, though, late at night (from 3:00 or 4:00 am onward), it becomes an active business location for modern-day ladies of the evening.
So if you accidentally stumble drunk across Aiaubashi one night, you may want to go buy a nice box of chocolates for your special someone and start hunting for one of Osaka’s lucky bridges. Or perhaps cross again walking backward.
Access: Follow this Google Maps link. The bridge is located between Midosuji and Sakaisuji on Dotombori (closest to Nipponbashi Station). You can also look for the Aiau-suji (相合橋筋) shopping arcade and walk through it until you reach Dotombori River, which will put you at the foot of the bridge.
Image and select information from http://www.city.osaka.lg.jp/kensetsu/page/0000010588.html.
First opened in 1933 between a temporary Umeda Station and Shinsaibashi Station, the Midosuji Line is Japan’s second oldest subway line (after Tokyo’s Ginza Line) and the first state-operated subway line in Japanese history. Coinciding with a massive widening and redevelopment of Midosuji Boulevard–transforming it from a narrow street into a sweeping boulevard, and the first north-south street capable of handling modern traffic in the city–this first section of the subway line was dug by hand. The project was intended not only to further modernize Osaka’s transportation and communications infrastructure, an important step in a fast-rising interwar Japan, but it was also meant to give jobs to the laborers of Osaka as part of wide-ranging efforts to improve the lives of and provide more opportunities to the city’s working class. By the outbreak of war in Asia and the subsequent Pacific War with the United States, the line had been extended through Namba down to Tennoji.
The following is video footage from the 1930s, starting with the construction work on Midosuji Boulevard from 1930 and concluding with the launch of the subway itself in 1933.
The current Midosuji Line, operated by the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau, spans 20 stations, running from Suita City in the north, southward to Nakamozu in Sakai City. It is the most heavily used subway line in Japan, which may be because Osaka has the most dramatic daytime/nighttime population change of any city in the country–the amount of commuters from outside is so great that the daytime population increases by about 50% on weekdays. The subway line runs along Osaka’s the most important boulevard, through the most developed areas, and its ten-car trains (a huge contrast from the almost comical single-car trains of 1933) come at intervals of approximately 30 to 60 seconds during the rush hour, packed wall to wall. The crowded Midosuji Line was also where the concept of the ladies-only car started in response to groping incidents on crowded trains: this innovation has reduced the number of incidents greatly and is used throughout large cities in Japan today.
While Japanese people tend to be very polite for the most part, don’t expect anything of the sort when riding the Midosuji Line during rush hour. Here you will encounter a wide variety of bad manners as people pack into the stifling train cars and shove their way through stations to get to work in time. For residents such as myself, this is nothing new, as I long ago learned to sleep standing up with someone’s elbow jammed into my back; for tourists, I urge you to avoid the peak hours. I’m sure you will otherwise find the Midosuji Line to be a convenient, quick, and even enjoyable way to get around Osaka.
Photo by WikiCommons