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Being an Expat

May 12, 2010 7 comments

There are numerous ranters on the Web who moan and groan about the unjust treatment they receive while living abroad. Once the initial novelty wears off, they gradually become bitter, even hateful, and begin to despise their adopted country.
In a broad sense, in Japan at least, there are generally two types of responses among expatriates to these attitudes and behaviors: they tell whiners to go home if they can’t take it, or else they band together and try to fight inequality. Don’t get me wrong–I am against inequality, and I think the world would be a great place if we assumed that others want the same fair, considerate treatment that we ourselves want. But one person usually can’t change the world, and I think fighting against all of Japan is a losing battle.
The key components to surviving as an expat in Japan are a thick skin (ability to survive adversity), a good reason for being here (hint: you can make one if you don’t have one yet), and the ability to see the good in the people around you rather than focus on the flaws. And adjust your expectations before you even get on the plane.
But enough negative talk. Below are some things I think make the expat experience a positive and worthwhile one. There will always be hard times, but if you focus on positives such as these, you will realize that what you are doing is unique and worthwhile.

  • You get new perspectives on the world that most people don’t have
  • You learn more about yourself, including your limits and abilities
  • As a representative for your country, you can improve the image of your people
  • There’s no shortage of challenges to help you grow–you get more out of life by not simply taking a “safe” route
  • You can experience a fascinating culture with an even more fascinating history
  • As an expat in Japan, you are in a unique position to easily meet other expats and visitors from all corners of the earth
  • You have a chance to master a difficult language and become one of the few in the world from outside Japan who can speak it well
  • You will come to better understand the position of foreign nationals in your own country, and respect their strength
  • You can travel from Japan to many other countries very easily
  • You will have two places to call home
  • Sometimes, it’s just a lot of fun

There are numerous ranters on the Web who moan and groan about the unjust treatment they receive while living abroad. Once the initial novelty wears off, they gradually become bitter, even hateful, and begin to despise their adopted country.

In a broad sense, in Japan at least, there are generally two types of responses among expatriates to these attitudes and behaviors: they tell whiners to go home if they can’t take it, or else they band together and try to fight inequality. Don’t get me wrong–I am against inequality, and I think the world would be a great place if we assumed that others want the same fair, considerate treatment that we ourselves want. But one person usually can’t change the world, and I think fighting against all of Japan is a losing battle.

The key components to surviving as an expat in Japan are a thick skin (ability to survive adversity), a good reason for being here (hint: you can make one if you don’t have one yet), and the ability to see the good in the people around you rather than focus on the flaws. And adjust your expectations before you even get on the plane.

But enough negative talk. Below are some things I think make the expat experience a positive and worthwhile one. There will always be hard times, but if you focus on positives such as these, you will realize that what you are doing is unique and worthwhile.

You get new perspectives on the world that most people don’t have

You learn more about yourself, including your limits and abilities

As a representative for your country, you can improve the image of your people

There’s no shortage of challenges to help you grow–you get more out of life by not simply taking a “safe” route

You can experience a fascinating culture with an even more fascinating history

As an expat in Japan, you are in a unique position to easily meet other expats and visitors from all corners of the earth

You have a chance to master a difficult language and become one of the few in the world from outside Japan who can speak it well

You will come to better understand the position of foreign nationals in your own country, and respect their strength

You can travel from Japan to many other countries very easily

You will have two places to call home

Sometimes, it’s just a lot of fun

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!

Blow Bar

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Blow Bar is a reggae bar tucked away in the heart of Minami。 It’s ideal for going out with friends in groups of any size, and also for parties. The laid-back island atmosphere will put you at ease, and the reasonably priced food and drinks won’t empty your wallet. Blow’s only disadvantage is that it doesn’t provide a good atmosphere for solo bar-hoppers, at least on non-event days. Keep an eye out for DJ events, live music and seasonal parties, which are held often at Blow. If you are thinking of dropping by for the first time, check out their 16th anniversary party this coming weekend (April 2-4, 2010).

Blow Bar is a 5 min. walk north from exit 25 of Namba Station (subway), or a 5 min. walk south from exit 7 of Shinsaibashi Station: walk along Midosuji until you reach the Midosuji-Mitsuderacho intersection, walk one block west, turn left, and the bar will be right in front of you. My Google Maps directions are here. Blow is open 6 pm to 5 am every day, and their phone number is 06-6211-4300. You can also view their website here (some parts, including the menu, are in English).

Photos from Nipponbashi Festa 2010

March 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I attended the Nipponbashi Festa 2010 in Den Den Town, Osaka, this weekend for the first time, and I must say it was quite an experience. Crowds filled the streets from Ebisucho to Nipponbashi, and fans and shop promoters alike went all-out with costumes representing their favorite anime, manga, movie and video game characters. In case you didn’t make it to the festival, check out the photos and videos (including footage of the maid parade!) at my Flickr photostream.

Cherry Blossoms 2010

March 17, 2010 3 comments

Amidst moans and groans about rainy spring weather, talk about budding flowers is increasing day by day. This can only mean one thing: cherry blossom season is almost here! As many of you probably know, one of the biggest seasonal activities of the year is hanami: a chance to have a picnic outside after a long winter, surrounded by fragrant pink and white flowers. Sure, you have to fight stifling crowds, put up with pushy obaasan jabbing you with umbrellas, and patiently wait for some guy with a fancy camera while he takes 20 minutes to snap a picture of a single flower. But in the end, the cherry blossoms of Japan are so beautiful, it’s worth it every single year.

The Osaka Mint Building is the best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka City. Since the 19th century, the Mint has a tradition of opening its garden to the public for one week a year when its cherry blossoms are in full bloom. There are about 350 trees of 120 varieties, and they are even illuminated during the evening to create a romantic feel. The 2010 event will be from April 14 to April 20, open from 10 am to 9 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 9 pm on weekends. This is the best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka.

If it’s picnicking you’re after, you can hop over to nearby Osaka Castle Park. The cherry trees here are also gorgeous, and if you look around for a while, you will most likely be able to find a patch of grass or dirt to lay your blanket out on (I highly recommend an early arrival to stake out a spot if you are serious about picnicking here). Trees may come into full bloom here a little earlier than at the Mint Building, although the periods will most likely overlap to some extent.

The best way to get to either location is by walking from Tenmabashi Station. There are also a number of cruises operating along the flower-lined Okawa River at this time of year from Hakkenyahama Pier, located just behind the station on the riverfront.

General cherry blossom info for Japan can be found (in English) at Japan-Guide’s Cherry Blossom Forecast 2010. According to them, the best time for hanami this year will be late March and early April. You can also see live updates of the “cherry blossom front” every day by watching weather reports on TV.

Access: Both the Osaka Mint Building and Osaka Castle Park are a short walk from Tenmabashi Station (Keihan Lines and Tanimachi Subway Line). The Mint can be reached by crossing the river (follow the signs and crowds), and the castle can be reached by heading in the general direction of Osaka Business Park (OBP).

Click here for more information in Japanese.

Amidst moans and groans about rainy spring weather, talk about budding flowers is flying about more and more every day. This can only mean one thing: cherry blossom season is almost here! As many of you probably know, one of the biggest seasonal events of the year is hanami: a chance to have a picnic outside after a long winter, surrounded by fluffy pink and white flowers giving off a perfume-like fragrance. Sure, you have to fight stifling crowds, put up with pushy obaasan jabbing you in the back with umbrellas, and patiently wait for some guy with a 300,000 yen camera while he takes 20 minutes to snap a picture of a single flower. But in the end, the cherry blossoms of Japan are so beautiful, it’s worth it every single year.

The Osaka Mint Building is the best place to see cherry blossoms. Since the 19th century, the Mint has a tradition of opening its garden to the public for one week a year when its cherry blossoms are in full bloom. There are about 350 trees of 120 varieties, and they are even illuminated during the evening to create a romantic feel. The 2010 event will be from April 14 to April 20, open from 10 am to 9 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 9 pm on weekends. This is the best place to see cherry blossoms in Osaka.

Nakanoshima Club

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Nakanoshima Club is inside the Chuo Kokaido

Nakanoshima Club (中之島倶楽部) is a Western cuisine restaurant located in the Chuo Kokaido building, which was built in 1918 in the elegant yet flamboyant European-influenced style that became popular in the early part of Japan’s modern period. The building is one of the most beautiful of the historic buildings in the Nakanoshima/Kitahama area, and it has been designated as an Important Cultural Property by the government. While dinners here average out to around 3,500 yen per person, which is a little more than the average diner may want to pay, lunch is an easily-affordable 680 yen (average) per person. Although the lunch menu is more limited, the low price gives you a chance to experience the tasty food and Showa-Period atmosphere of Nakanoshima Club without emptying your wallet. Plus, if you’ve never had a chance to walk around Nakanoshima Island, you make an afternoon out of it!

It is only a few steps to Nakanoshima Club from Naniwabashi Station (Keihan Nakanoshima Line), and only 3 min. on foot from Yodoyabashi Station (Midosuji Subway Line and Keihan Main Line). Simply walk around the side of the Chuo Kokaido building and go in through the basement-level entryway. Restaurant hours are 9:30 am to 9:30 pm (closed on the 4th Tue. of the month and during the New Year’s holiday period). English menus are available for those who don’t read Japanese—menu and further information are also available here. Nomihodai is also available. You can contact them at 06-6233-3580.

A Google Maps access map can be viewed here.

Aiaubashi (aka “Break-up Bridge”)

March 3, 2010 1 comment

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.

Super Tamade! Super Tamade!

February 23, 2010 8 comments

If you have ever lived in Osaka City, then the mere mention of Super Tamade is sure to bring forth either a smile or a grimace. At any rate, it will invoke some kind of feeling. Perhaps that feeling when you ate their “super” meat and spent a super-swell evening bent over the toilet. Perhaps it is a memory–a memory of the time you first saw Super Tamade and said, “Wait, that’s a supermarket?” Yes, it’s garish exterior, brighter than Disneyland, a pachinko parlor, and the sun combined, will shock you.

This is the store that lives up to its claim of having gekiyasu (ultra-low) prices, with one-yen sales and the lowest prices you will find on any food item in the city, even beating out the penguin-emblazoned Don Quijote stores (well, in prices, not in weirdness).

But be warned: even if you speak Japanese, you can expect most employees to speak nothing but Chinese in response to you. Along with Super Tamade’s suspiciously low-priced octopus and suspiciously colored meat, you will find a suspiciously high number of non-Japanese working suspiciously long hours for (possibly) suspiciously low wages. But I suppose that’s how they achieve gekiyasu prices.

It’s not surprising that Super Tamade was founded in 1992, coinciding with the final decline of the Yakuza, in the south part of town where the Yakuza held considerable influence. Perhaps they just moved from prostitution, smuggling and gambling into the supermarket business instead.

Whatever the case may be, Super Tamade is worth at least one visit. Oh, and don’t even thinking of eating their ready-made meals. Not if you value your health.

Photos by Wikicommons

Midosuji Subway Line

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment
Tennoji

Tennoji Station

First opened in 1933 between a temporary Umeda Station and Shinsaibashi Station, the Midosuji Line is Japan’s second oldest subway line (after Tokyo’s Ginza Line) and the first state-operated subway line in Japanese history. Coinciding with a massive widening and redevelopment of Midosuji Boulevard–transforming it from a narrow street into a sweeping boulevard, and the first north-south street capable of handling modern traffic in the city–this first section of the subway line was dug by hand. The project was intended not only to further modernize Osaka’s transportation and communications infrastructure, an important step in a fast-rising interwar Japan, but it was also meant to give jobs to the laborers of Osaka as part of wide-ranging efforts to improve the lives of and provide more opportunities to the city’s working class. By the outbreak of war in Asia and the subsequent Pacific War with the United States, the line had been extended through Namba down to Tennoji.

The following is video footage from the 1930s, starting with the construction work on Midosuji Boulevard from 1930 and concluding with the launch of the subway itself in 1933.

The current Midosuji Line, operated by the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau, spans 20 stations, running from Suita City in the north, southward to Nakamozu in Sakai City. It is the most heavily used subway line in Japan, which may be because Osaka has the most dramatic daytime/nighttime population change of any city in the country–the amount of commuters from outside is so great that the daytime population increases by about 50% on weekdays. The subway line runs along Osaka’s the most important boulevard, through the most developed areas, and its ten-car trains (a huge contrast from the almost comical single-car trains of 1933) come at intervals of approximately 30 to 60 seconds during the rush hour, packed wall to wall. The crowded Midosuji Line was also where the concept of the ladies-only car started in response to groping incidents on crowded trains: this innovation has reduced the number of incidents greatly and is used throughout large cities in Japan today.

While Japanese people tend to be very polite for the most part, don’t expect anything of the sort when riding the Midosuji Line during rush hour. Here you will encounter a wide variety of bad manners as people pack into the stifling train cars and shove their way through stations to get to work in time. For residents such as myself, this is nothing new, as I long ago learned to sleep standing up with someone’s elbow jammed into my back; for tourists, I urge you to avoid the peak hours. I’m sure you will otherwise find the Midosuji Line to be a convenient, quick, and even enjoyable way to get around Osaka.

Photo by WikiCommons