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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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Naniwa Yodogawa Fireworks Festival 2010

July 30, 2010 3 comments

One of the biggest and most beloved fireworks festivals in Osaka, the Naniwa Yodogawa Fireworks Festival (なにわ淀川花火大会) has been held along the Shin-Yodogawa River every year since 1989, and despite its size, the festival is put on almost entirely by the local residents and businesses of the Juso neighborhood. Attendance each year is approximately 500,000 people, and the fireworks display is massive. The 2010 festival will be held on Saturday, August 7: the fireworks start launching at 7:50 pm and the show lasts until around 9:00 pm, but unless you have a reserved seat somewhere, I suggest bringing your tarp and staking out a place along the river in the afternoon if you want any chance of sitting. Most people dress up in yukata and have picnics beforehand, making it an all-day event.

The closest stations to the festival are Tsukamoto Station (JR Kobe/San’yo Line) and Juso Station (Hankyu Kobe, Kyoto and Takarazuka Lines). Admission is free unless you want reserved seats. The festival’s homepage (Japanese only) can be viewed here.

Note: Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Beaches Near Osaka

July 26, 2010 5 comments

Shirahama, Wakayama

One thing metropolitan Kansai is not blessed with is an abundance of beaches, and when the hot season comes around, many people find themselves stumped when searching for places to enjoy sand and surf. So here are a few of my recommendations to help people living in the Osaka area enjoy this toasty summer weather with a relaxing time on the beach.

Suma

This is probably the most popular beach in the Keihanshin tri-city area, and also attracts many people from the Chugoku region. Located west of Sannomiya in Kobe, it is easily accessed via Suma Station on the JR Kobe Line/San’yo Main Line (it’s right outside the station). While it can be a bit crowded, this compact beach has a nice atmosphere, and a number of beach parties and DJ events are held here throughout the summer.

Tarui

If you’re looking for something a bit more secluded and less crowded, try “Tarui Southern Beach,” located about 15 min. on foot from Tarui Station on the Nankai Main Line (about 50 minutes from Nankai Namba Station). Even though it’s small, this beach offers rental parasols, food and drinks, and all the amenities you would find a larger beach.

Awajishima

This Biwako-shaped island located out in Osaka Bay/the Seto Inland Sea can be easily accessed via Kobe by ferry or bus, and has a number of small beaches lining its shores. There are also some sightseeing draws in the area, such as the Naruto Whirlpools out in the Seto Inland Sea.

Shirahama

This famous beach/hot spring resort area, located on the southern part of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture (facing the Pacific Ocean), is known for is beautiful white sands (imported from Australia), scrumptious seafood and luxury resorts. The beaches here are relatively clean and quite beautiful, and there are also some tourist attractions (many geared toward children) in case you are going as a family or on a date. It’s a couple hours from Osaka by JR limited express (Shirahama Station), so Shirahama is more of a weekend getaway than a day trip destination.

Isonoura

Located in Wakayama City, this is a large, rather crowded beach that’s popular among Kii Peninsula residents and Osakan alike. While it won’t offer the peace and quiet of a small beach, it does have a fun atmosphere and lots of chances to people-watch. Not to mention Wakayama has great food in general, so the chance to explore the city afterward is a plus. This beach can be accessed via Nankai Railway’s Isonoura Station.

A small safety note: Jellyfish tend to arrive in large numbers during the later part of summer, so please exercise caution from August onward if you plan to go swimming in the ocean.

A Personal Note: Please be sure to collect any trash that belongs to you to help keep Japan’s beaches clean. Coming from Oregon, where beaches are heavily protected and kept in a very natural state, I am always shocked at the amount of trash people leave behind on the sand, and I hope everyone will avoid this sort of behavior.

Umeda Kita Yard Redevelopment Project

April 21, 2010 6 comments
Firstly, I would like to thank all my readers and fellow bloggers for supporting Osaka Insider. This is officially my 50th post, and while Osaka Insider is a still a new face on the Internet, the increasing readership and lovely comments have encouraged me to keep going. Thank you!

Construction started in March 2010 in Umeda’s Kita Yard (北ヤード), an area located directly next to JR Osaka Station that has been used as a freight terminal throughout its history until now. The area has always been an eyesore in the upscale district, and the redevelopment of this area will essentially “complete” the Umeda area. According to the development project’s website, phase one is scheduled to be complete in March 2013. According to various sources, the entire redevelopment will be complete between 2020 and 2025.

Phase one consists of a series of buildings forming a district known as the “Knowledge-Capital” (inappropriate hyphen placement is their English, not mine). It will supposedly be a multi-purpose commercial-residential-research district, focusing on an international gathering of minds combined with cutting-edge technology. Cutting through all the flowery descriptions, the reality will be a mixed office-shopping-residential district, along with facilities for conferences, conventions, research, and knowledge-workers. There will also be green space modeled after Osaka’s current overarching development theme, the “city of water.”

The above is my summary of what the planners envision, but now I’d like to share my personal thoughts. The Kita Yard is a giant eyesore in Umeda, especially when going to the Umeda Sky Building or Yodobashi Camera, and it also acts as an unwelcome reminder of Osaka’s dirty, industrial past. The land in question is probably the most expensive property in Osaka, and I have high hopes that they will redevelop it in such a way as to add more originality and fun to the Umeda district.

I think the idea of a “Knowledge-Capital” will flop, and the new area will essentially be an expansion of Umeda as a shopping district, with new and extremely expensive housing added in. About a third of the area is dedicated to housing and hotel space, another third to offices, and another third to commercial facilities with a smattering of “Knowledge-Capital” commercial zoning. Throughout Japan’s modern urban development history, there have been many attempts to make technology-based districts or districts revolving around vague concepts such as knowledge or internationalization, and all of them have simply turned into upscale commercial districts in the end–I have almost no doubt that this time will be no different.

In other words, this new part of Umeda will simply be an expansion of the current upscale shopping and central business district. What is needed is some originality, something to make Umeda stand out. This cannot be accomplished by simply throwing in a few department stores, overpriced restaurants and brand-name department stores for gold-diggers and himo. Umeda is a fun place, but it has always felt a bit like a Kansai version of Tokyo’s Shinjuku rather than something uniquely Osakan, as places like Namba, Tsuruhashi and Shin-Sekai are.

Furthermore, areas in the central city north of Osaka Castle Park and Utusbo Park are severely lacking in quality parks and pleasant green space (I’m not counting the drab Yodogawa riverfront), so quality parks and open areas rather than a few sad-looking shrubs are sorely needed in Umeda. These would likely raise property values in the area even further (which must be of some interest to developers there). Osaka has some of the most well-planned parks I’ve encountered in Japan, and a new one in Umeda would be a definite plus for residents.

Finally, this development plan coincides with transportation network expansion projects, namely by JR and the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau (public operator of subways and buses in Osaka). JR has long been considering a namboku (“north-south”–name TBD) line going underground from a new Kita-Osaka Station in Umeda, through to the existing JR Namba Station and continuing from there on current tracks to Tennoji Station. This would not only provide an alternative route for regular trains and tokkyu special express trains going north-south (they currently use the loop line), it would provide an alternative route for JR freight traffic, as well as new public transportation along Naniwa-suji (boulevard). Osaka City is considering extending its Yotsubashi Line to connect with Kita-Umeda and continue north through Juso to Shin-Osaka Station (where the shinkansen stops). Although they are still in the discussion phases, these moves could greatly improve the Osaka City and Kansai area rail networks and improve ease of movement around the city.

I have mostly commented on phase one of the plan, because that is the only one where details are clear. Only time will tell what the new Umeda will look like, but I have very high expectations that the positive direction Osaka city planning has taken will continue to pick up momentum with this project.

Take a look at the development project’s website if you are interested in learning more.

Photos by Wikimedia Commons.

Still Time for Cherry Blossoms in Osaka

April 7, 2010 2 comments

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!

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.

A Journey Around Lake Biwa: Part 2

October 6, 2009 1 comment
Nagahama Castle

Nagahama Castle

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.

Kurokabe Square

Kurokabe Square

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.

Glass souvenirs from Nagahama

Glass souvenirs from Nagahama (turtle, pig, and blowfish)

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.

On the ferry that goes to and from Chikubushima

Chikubushima from the ferry

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.

Buddha statue inside

Buddha statue inside Tsubusuma Shrine

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.

Around Makino Station...absolutely nothing

Around Makino Station...absolutely nothing

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.

See part 1 and part 3 of the journey.

To see a map of my journey, click here.