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.
I would like to highly recommend the book Hideyoshi by Mary Elizabeth Berry. It is the best academic work I have read on Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of Japan and the world who made Osaka his base of power and played a crucial role in developing it into a thriving merchant town.
Hideyoshi was one of the three unifiers of Japan (the second, following the terrifying reign of Oda Nobunaga), and he brought together essentially the whole country in only a few years. Hideyoshi set a system in place that Tokugawa Ieyasu, who betrayed him and his son to take power after Hideyoshi’s death, would polish and use to usher in one of the most prosperous, stable, and culturally rich periods in Japanese history, the Edo Period (1600-1868).
Berry, who unfortunately has passed away, was one of the most talented Japanese historians of our time, and she not only spent a lot of time studying Hideyoshi, but Kyoto as well (which is where Hideyoshi spent most of his time when not on military or diplomatic campaigns around Japan). Hideyoshi, and his son and heir Hideyori, are two historical figures that are inseparably part of Osakan culture even today, and given the lack of English-language scholarship concerning Osaka and Hideyoshi, I consider Berry’s well-written and in-depth Hideyoshi a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Japanese culture on a deeper level. I can only hope that more historians will continue to write about the Toyotomi, and that a good book on Hideyori will also be written in the near future.
If you have visited Japan, perhaps you have noticed that people tend to pay attention to where they stand on an escalator: one side is for standing, one side is for walking. Now, if you live in Japan, you’ve surely figured out which side to stand on and which side to walk on…but have you really? While it is common knowledge to most Japanese, it may not be widely known to others that Kansai (especially Osaka) and Kanto have different escalator rules. My first sojourn in Japan was in Tokyo, and I learned to stand on the left and walk on the right; when I came to Osaka for the first time, I was confused to find that people here stand on the right and walk on the left. This tendency persists in the vicinity of and to the west of Osaka, and the Tokyo rules apply all around eastern Japan (as far as I know).
I have asked many people why this occurs, but nobody had any idea, so I searched the interwebs in Japanese and English and found the following theories:
- During the Tokugawa Period, Edo (now Tokyo) was a city of samurai, who preferred to be on the left so they could draw their swords easily. Osaka, on the other hand, was a city of rich merchants, who preferred to be on the right so they could protect their money and valuables. This was, of course, before escalators existed, and most samurai probably didn’t walk around looking for chances to cut people down. Not to mention many other holes in this theory.
- Osaka adopted the “American style” and Tokyo adopted the “British style.” I don’t know about the British, but I know that we have no established customs for using escalators in the United States. Furthermore, Tokyo is the one with more American cultural influence, not Osaka.
- Because Osaka wanted to be different.
The last possibility seems to be the least unlikely one, as Osaka and Tokyo are rivals, culturally and otherwise. But in the end, it’s still a total mystery to me. Additional theories are welcome.
At least you now know how to spot a Tokyoite in Kansai.
BONUS WALKING TIP: In Tokyo, bikes dodge pedestrians. In Osaka, you’d better move or be prepared to die when you hear that bike bell ding.
Long before the city of Osaka existed, there was an imperial capital called Naniwa. It first served as the seat of the emperor and his grand palace in 645, and for the second time in 744 (capital cities tended to move regularly as new emperors took power). Thanks to its strategic location, Naniwa developed into an important seaport for trade and cultural exchange not only between different regions of Japan, but with Korea and China as well. Even after the first permanent capital was established in 710 in Heijo-kyo (modern-day Nara), and in 794 in Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto), Naniwa acted as the seaport for imported customs and traditions that Japan integrated with its own to form the civilization we know as Japanese.
Besides sea routes, Naniwa was the trading hub for overland routes, much as it remains today. Militant Buddhist influence was be strong here, centering on the Honganji sect, but would finally be violently crushed by Oda Nobunaga in the late 16th century, and in the 17th century Toyotomi Hideyoshi would establish the great merchant’s capital of Osaka.
The name “Naniwa” remains in place names, such as Naniwa-ku (Naniwa Ward), Naniwa-bashi (a bridge on Nakanoshima island), Namba (the famous entertainment district, whose name is a modern reading of the same kanji characters (難波) for Naniwa).
Naniwa-no-miya, which was built two times on two different sites, was one of the grandest palaces in ancient Japan, and when its role as the imperial government center had ended, it served as a diplomatic meeting and lodging place for high-ranking overseas dignitaries visiting Japan. Only a small portion of Naniwa-no-miya remains, which can be seen in a small park adjacent to Osaka Castle Park. Next to the ruins is the Osaka Museum of History, which is the best museum in Osaka and one of the most enjoyable museums I have visited period. It is not only informative but engrossing, as it appeals not just to history buffs but average people who may not know anything about Osaka’s deep history. Additionally, you can enjoy a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the grounds of Osaka Castle and the Naniwa-no-miya remains from the tenth floor of this building. Both of these can be accessed from Tanimachi 4-chome Station (Chuo and Tanimachi Subway Lines).
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Recently, I have been spending a lot of time going around Osaka Prefecture to places I haven’t visited in order to evaluate and collect information for my upcoming website, Osaka Insider. One of the places I visited was Tondabayashi City’s jinaimachi (寺内町). For you non-Japanese-speakers out there, that means “temple town,” and that describes the historical origins of this site. Its development centered on Koshoji Betsuin, the temple partially pictured above, which was established in the 16th century. From the 17th century (the Edo Period) onward, it developed into a rural trade town and lost much of its religious character, instead taking on the merchant culture seen most clearly in Osaka at the time. Many of the mansions are preserved today, and the jinaimachi’s urban landscape has changed little since that time, making it a truly valuable cultural asset to Osaka Prefecture.
While there, I was able to tour two merchant residences, the huge Sugiyama residence and the somewhat more modest Katsuma residence. The Katsuma residence was actually my favorite, as it still had people living inside and retained a more homey atmosphere–sitting in the guest room drinking tea while looking out at the garden on a hot summer day was quite pleasant. The impressive Sugiyama residence, on the other hand, was set up more like a museum (and rightly so). Both residences are very close to each other, and both deserve a visit.
Very few people were interested in visiting Tondabayashi, despite it being relatively good weather and a Saturday. It is one of my goals to provide tourist information for truly unique places like this, with its Edo-period cityscape and feel, and its friendly little shops scattered here and there amongst the old wooden buildings. I want to promote Osaka, which until recently has received very little attention as a tourism destination (even now, most focus lies on Osaka City itself, rather than the relatively poorer prefectural towns like Tondabayashi). However, I am a bit worried that, someday, peaceful little places like this may become stifled by tourists as is often the case in destinations such as nearby Kyoto and Nara. I suppose the selfish part of me wants to have the streets of this charming little temple town all to myself. 😀
At any rate, I hope all readers will visit Tondabayashi once. While you are there, I also recommend (especially for the ladies) you visit “Jinaimachi terra,” a little family-run shop near the jinaimachi’s information center.