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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.

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Osaka Live Cams

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Just in case you have time to kill at work or elsewhere, here are two live webcams I’ve found for Osaka.

The Ramen Guide is Online!

June 24, 2010 4 comments

Yes, I know it’s been awhile. Osaka Insider has been swamped. But since you were all so patient, I have decided to debut my Ramen Guide a bit earlier than planned. The Ramen Guide is a new, permanent page on this site (you can see it in the menu bar above and to the right), featuring Osaka Insider’s recommended ramen in Osaka. As always, my advice is based on experience and research–I have personally eaten at all of the ramen shops listed. I have kept the list moderate because, let’s be realistic, how many bowls of ramen can one person really eat? And because I never get tired of trying new things and seeing new places, you can be sure new shops will make the list as I discover them.

Take a look at the new guide now!

Osaka Castle

June 10, 2010 3 comments

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.

In Defense of Shin-Imamiya, Shin-Sekai, and Nishinari

June 4, 2010 8 comments

Shin-Imamiya, Shin-Sekai, and Nishinari–these three places are known by people throughout Kansai as dangerous places. Guidebooks parrot the same mindless hearsay, advising people not even to set foot in these neighborhoods. I, for one, believe their reputation for being “dangerous” is undeserved, or at least highly exaggerated.

Let’s start with Shin-Sekai, the home of Tsutenkaku, Spa World, and delicious fugu and kushikatsu. This place has a reputation for being “dangerous,” but in all seriousness, there is almost nothing dangerous here. People talk about Yakuza presence, but it has been gone for decades. Of course, it is not the kind of place a woman would want to walk through alone at night, but for the most part it just smells bad because of all the homeless people living in the covered shopping arcades.

Then there’s Shin-Imamiya, that awful-looking, awful-smelling area at the bottom of the loop line, near the Airin labor center. There are many homeless people and generally creepy people, but there is minimal danger near in this station-front area. It is actually a popular place among backpackers and budget travelers from abroad, as many of the doya* that day laborers used to live in have been converted to extremely cheap youth hostels (2,000 yen or so a night), and the location is convenient for sightseeing in and around Osaka, as well as for nights out in Minami. The day laborers themselves are, for the most part, not bad people–many of them were workers who fell victim to economic downturn, were members of outcast groups, or else were “salarymen” and the like who couldn’t cut it in corporate culture and had no family to help them. Of course there are also alcoholics, criminals, and the like mixed in, but I don’t think that’s the norm. An interesting bit of Shin-Imamiya culture: on the south side of the JR station and west of the Nankai tracks, at around 5:00 am or so every morning, homeless, poor, and regular residents of the area put on a flea market, selling all sorts of interesting things they pick up from around town. While there’s nothing there really worth buying, it’s fun to browse through.

Lastly, there’s Nishinari. This ward became famous in 1991 when the Nishinari Riots occurred, stemming from dissatisfaction on the part of day laborers and homeless in the area and also in response to their unfair (and sometimes brutal) treatment by police. This sort of violence rarely occurs on such a large scale in Japan, a country that is considered extremely safe, and as a result Nishinari came into the spotlight as a “dangerous place.” Now, I’ll admit that Nishinari is not a very nice part of town by any means, and it really isn’t a very good place to live, but for the most part it’s safe as long as you know where to go and where not to go. (Tip: stay out of the southeast area, where Yakuza actually are still active.)

I spent about two years living in these areas (one year in Ebisucho just a short walk from Shin-Imamiya and right next to Shin-Sekai, and one year in Nishinari itself on the other side of Shin-Imamiya), so I have seen a lot of the good and the bad. These are poorer parts of town, but I truly think their reputation for being extremely dangerous is exaggerated, although their reputation for being filthy and dirty is spot-on. Although these areas are probably less safe than other parts of town, a little common sense is all you need to avoid trouble. Perhaps my attitude is related to my different perception of what is “dangerous,” having grown having grown up visiting American cities where real danger is easily encountered.

Furthermore, there is a really sense of community in these areas, whether it be in the Shin-Sekai neighborhood (an old neighborhood with pride in their history), among the homeless and day laborers, or among the many non-Japanese and other people who don’t quite fit in to society as a “normal” Japanese person might.

Before speaking so badly of a place, I think it should be visited and evaluated in person.

*Doya (ドヤ) is a slang term used by day laborers for facilities where small rooms can be rented out for short- or long-term stays. These facilities are used by many day laborers who stay when they have enough money (or when the weather is too cold), and sleep outside at other times. The term comes from the common word yado, which means home or lodging, but with the two Japanese letters ya and do put in reverse order (宿→ヤド→ドヤ). In order to stay in business among changes in day laborer demographics, owners of many doya have converted their facilities into youth hostels targeting backpackers from abroad and other budget travelers.

Pepsi Baobab

May 25, 2010 3 comments

It’s the time again. Yes, it’s time for another strange Pepsi flavor to be released in Japan. Previous incarnations have often been downright disgusting, but this time around it’s a bit different.

Pepsi Baobab.

What in the name of Amaterasu is a “baobab”? That’s the same thing I asked myself when I saw it in the Family Mart today.

The bottle has a little description written in Japanese: 「アフリカの大地にそびえるバオバブの木をモチーフにした開放感あふれる爽やかなコーラ!」, which means “a cola with a liberating and refreshing flavor, taking as its motif the baobab tree that towers over the vast African continent.”  So, as you can see, that doesn’t help us at all to understand anything except that baobab is the name for a big tree. And it’s hard to imagine “tree” being a flavor of soft drink.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Adansonia, also known as the baobab and many other names, confirmed that it is in fact a type of African tree native to Madagascar. Further reading informed me that its leaves are often eaten as vegetables, and the fruit and seeds are used in various sweets and dishes. Apparently Baobab is eaten in Europe, and also by the natives of Australia.

Oh, and Rafiki, that crazy old monkey in the Lion King, lived in a baobab tree.

Honestly, I don’t know if this Pepsi is supposed to taste like the leaves, the seeds, or the fruit. Or just a tree. This writer seems to think it’s the fruit, and I would have to agree because of its faintly sweet taste. Either way, it’s not too bad, especially when compared to such past monstrosities as Pepsi Shiso and Pepsi Azuki. So for those of you living in Japan, pick up some Pepsi Baobab today and tell me what you think!

Genji — Premium Soba in Namba

May 19, 2010 Leave a comment

This lovely little soba shop, crammed into the back streets in the heart of Namba, serves a variety of delicious, natural dishes, including some of the best soba you will find in Osaka. The shop is called Genji (源氏), and their goal is to provide customers with trustworthy ingredients that will contribute to their current and future health. Genji’s management personally selects only the finest suppliers of raw ingredients: soba noodles from Fukui, Ibaraki and Nagano Prefectures, rice and daikon giant radish from Okayama Prefecture (grown using little or no pesticide), and fresh spring water, a vital ingredient in good soba dishes, from Fushimi in Kyoto Prefecture. This blend of quality ingredients, consideration toward customers, a unique shop design with a rustic feel, and a wide variety of traditional and original dishes make Genji a must-try in the Minami district.

Genji is just a 3 min. walk or so from Namba Station on pretty much any line except JR–a map to can be seen here. Tabelog’s page in Japanese can be found here, and they can be contacted at 06-6633-5402. Store hours are from noon until 3 pm, and 6 pm to 11 pm (last order at 10 pm). They are closed on Sundays (except during holiday weekends).