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.
Accessible Japan is a highly useful, much-needed English-language site specializing in sightseeing, lodging, and other tourism-related information for travelers who require wheelchair accessibility. I stumbled across this site by pure chance, and because many travelers require this kind of information, I decided to post the link here (it’s also been added to my links section on the right). Not only does it provide information on locations of ramps, availability of rental wheelchairs and accessible toilets, information on inclines and other landscape characteristics, and other such information, it also has a lot of good general recommendations and advice for tourists.
If accessibility is an obstacle that has prevented you from making the journey to Japan, I suggest you check out this site. Be sure to take a look at their extensive links sections, as well.
Accessible Japan is put up by TESCO Premium Search Co., Ltd., a company that aims to provide job opportunities for people with disabilities.
It’s that time again. Yes, it’s time for another fabulous new flavor of Pepsi in Japan: Pepsi Mont Blanc. For those of you who don’t know what Mont Blanc is (besides the name of a mountain in the Alps), it is a sweet popular in Japan, often in tart, cupcake or roll cake form, with a chestnut flavor. And while Mont Blanc doesn’t taste bad on its own, when mixed with Pepsi, it creates the next limited-time-flavor Japanese Pepsi disaster. Just in case you missed them, previous incarnations included Pepsi Ice Cucumber, as well as the one that still gives me nightmares, Pepsi Azuki.
How to describe Pepsi Mont Blanc? Well, the bottle’s label describes it as follows: 「マロンのやさしい香りが漂う爽やかな刺激のコーラ。デザート感覚でお楽しみください。」 This means (my translation, 意訳 style): “A refreshing cola, from which wafts the gentle aroma of chestnuts. You can enjoy it the same way you enjoy dessert.”
In other words, a dessert cola with a hint of chestnuts. There’s a reason nobody has ever thought of this flavor until now. While it doesn’t reach the level of horribleness that some past Pepsi flavors have (most notably Pepsi Azuki, which may as well have been called Pepsi Upchuck), it sure doesn’t taste good. In fact, I’m trying to choke down a bottle of it while writing this post, so I don’t feel like I just threw away 147 yen.
On the positive side, I’ve got to hand it to PepsiCo for coming up with original, imaginative flavors that match the seasonal cuisine and atmosphere in Japan. And the label design is elegant, too. But I really do wonder what will be next: Pepsi Turkey and Gravy? Pepsi Snow Crab? Pepsi Christmas Cake?
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 😉
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.