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Posts Tagged ‘local’

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.

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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.)

Creating Life Experiences: How to Get the Most Out of Your Travel

December 28, 2009 3 comments

This is a list of personal recommendations, based on my own travel experiences and the advice of others (professional and otherwise). Many of them apply to travel in general. Following these tips will help you experience life-changing journeys and discover not only more about the world, but about yourself.

  • Travel cheap: This is not just a budgeting tip. Traveling cheap lets you see the things normal people see, and following more conventional routes reveals the “real” Japan that you might otherwise miss. I personally do not recommend bus tours and the like run by the big companies, unless you want to relive elementary-school field trips. In fact, packaged tours are usually more expensive and less fun than tours you can plan yourself by doing a little research.
  • …but don’t plan everything: In other words, leave room for the unexpected. A trip where everything goes as planned is like visiting Chinatown and saying you went to China. Research travel times, locations, and create a reasonable schedule of things you want to see each day, as well as a list of other things you may want to see. Most importantly, do not feel the need to stick to that schedule. If something down a side street catches your eye as you walk, go take a look. If you want to linger at the zen garden and ponder your thoughts an hour longer, do it. Trying to orchestrate an experience too closely causes it to become shallow.
  • Try things you wouldn’t otherwise do: Especially if you are an introvert, this is a perfect chance to try things you wouldn’t otherwise. Nobody knows you there, and you do not live there, so try coming out of your shell and let the experience change you. Travel is not just about seeing something new, but about letting yourself grow. Note that I am not recommending doing anything indecent, illegal, obnoxious, rude, etc.–don’t forget to use common sense. And don’t forget that you are a guest in Japan.
  • Forget what’s going on at home: You will get the most out of your experience if you leave your worries and daily concerns behind as much as possible (this includes checking e-mail, updating blogs, etc.). Use the chance to not only relax, but immerse yourself fully in a fascinating new world.
  • Stay awake on trains: Some of the most beautiful and interesting sights you see will be from the train window. Get enough sleep in the hotel, and stay awake on the train (or bus).
  • Rent a bicycle: Particularly in rural areas, getting around by bicycle lets you see hidden-away things you would otherwise never have the chance to see otherwise. It also gives you more opportunities to meet interesting people. Not to mention exercise never hurts. Bicycle rental is cheap, and shops are generally easy to find.
  • Don’t just hit tourist traps: I recommend going to small attractions or simply roaming around without a purpose every once and a while. Going to Kansai and just visiting Kyoto and Himeji Castle, for example, is like going to Paris and only seeing only the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The best experiences I’ve had came from walking down random streets, taking small side paths, and visiting small, family-run restaurants and shops.
  • Try to speak Japanese: The ability to speak the language of the country you are visiting enhances the experience by a huge degree. By speaking only English, you are limiting yourself to what has been translated and people who can speak English, which means you are not really seeing Japan for Japan. Take a few weeks to study if you have time, or try out a few guidebook phrases when you have the opportunity–Japanese people love to praise foreigners with terrible Japanese in particular. And at the risk of sounding too preachy: disillusion yourself of the belief that everyone in the world knows English and nobody minds having to use it. It’s more consider to at least try to speak the country’s langauge and respect its culture, as opposed to expecting them to accomodate you–even if you can only say “konnichiwa” and “arigato,” you will be respected for trying.
  • Eat local specialty foods: Every region of Japan and most cities and towns have their own specialty foods. You will not only get a wide sampling of Japanese cuisine, but have a richer travel experience, if you try local specialties along the way. It also makes picking a menu item simple!
  • Go out drinking: There are few better ways to meet and talk to locals than getting drunk with them. Research local bars if possible before setting out on your journey, and follow the recommendations of other expatriates in Japan.
  • Stay at an onsen (hot spring): I know it’s probably scary to think of getting naked around other people, but hot spring baths are one of the most wonderful parts of Japan, and they are pretty much everywhere. Schedule one night at a hotel, ryokan, or resort with hot spring baths (or even just regular shared baths) and enjoy yourself–outdoor baths in the fall and winter are particularly lovely. Some hotels have the option of using kashikiri-buro, which are reserved baths you can use privately with family, friends or loved ones for a set amount of time. Just remember: wash yourself thoroughly before entering bath, as the bath is for soaking only.

Recommended Ramen in Osaka

November 3, 2009 3 comments

ippudo

Here are a few of my favorite ramen shops* in Osaka. It is very hard to make recommendations for this sort of food in Osaka, as the city seems to be overflowing with mind-blowingly delicious options, but here’s what I’ve come up with. Some of them are chain stores, and some are small family businesses, but all are delicious in that, greasy, meaty, rameny sort of way.

Shitenno (四天王)

You can find Shitenno in many spots throughout Osaka, and it’s one of the better chain restaurants in the area. While some may criticize Shitenno (and other chains) for not using fresh noodles or providing good-quality chashu (pork), the shio (salt) broth chashumen is quite tasty and makes up for other shortcomings. Broth is the vital factor, after all.

Sodaisho (総大将)

Sodaisho is a famous little place with lines that stretch out the door. It has an incredibly rich, flavorful shoyu (soy sauce) broth as its specialty. Television stars and celebrities come here to eat often, and for good reason. The chashu-don, which is a donburi-style dish with rice, mayonnaise, nori and chashu, looks strange but tastes wonderful.

Hokkaido Nagurikomi Ramen Betsubara (北海道なぐりこみラーメン 米通腹)

This is a small, family-run shop in a quiet residential neighborhood near Nishinagahori Subway Station. It serves Hokkaido-style ramen with thick, filling noodles, using konbu and tonkotsu as the broth base. The amount of bowls served is limited to a mere 100 per day.

Men’ya Eguchi (麺屋えぐち)

Another small (and this time, I mean SMALL) shop that is a favorite among locals working and living near Esaka in Suita City, you will be waiting around the corner in line to get a bowl but be glad you did. The basic tsukemen at Men’ya Eguchi makes your taste buds dance and comes with enough noodles to make your belly burst.

Kio (亀王)

Kio (lit. turtle king)  is a chain store that you can find almost as easily as Shitenno. It’s main attraction is the chashumen, which features absolutely huge, savory pieces of pork. I also recommend the reimen (cold ramen) during Osaka’s hot summers.

Hakata Ippudo (博多一風堂)

Ippudo ramen, originally from Hakata, is popular nationwide, and I have personally been in love with it since my days as a student in Tokyo. It has two unique tonkotsu broths–“red” and “white”–both of which are just amazing (although I prefer “white” just a little more). The lunch set during the afternoon is a great deal and comes with ramen, gyoza, and rice (piss-poor students take note: this is cheap and will fill you up for an entire day).

Kinryu Ramen (金龍ラーメン)

What kind of Osakan would I be if I didn’t mention Kinryu? This is the iconic ramen shop of Dotombori, and you can find shops running all throughout the district. If you have been in Osaka for any length of time but haven’t visited Kinryu, don’t worry, I won’t tell…just get there before somebody finds out! This simple ramen costs almost nothing and is available at any time of the day or night in order to meet the lifestyle of  the denizens of Namba. You can recognize this shop by the freaking-giant dragon on top.

kinryu

Kinryu Ramen

*I have included the Japanese-language names as well as roman-letter transcriptions–Japanese fonts may not display properly in all browsers. The links provided are to Japanese pages.