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.
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.
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
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.
Horai (蓬莱), just one of the many successful businesses born in Osaka, is a popular Chinese food chain. Most visitors will notice the 551 Horai booths set up in stations, which sell Horai’s most popular product, butaman–a steamed pork bun, a food made from dough filled with pork and other ingredients. The Horai name has become known all over Japan since the company’s founding in 1945, and many visitors from outside the Kansai area will buy Horai’s butaman as omiyage (souvenirs/gifts) to take home to their families and coworkers. It is said the “551 Horai” name comes from the original phone number of the company, which was also 551. Outside of its restaurants, Horai’s products are not only sold at numerous major and minor train stations, but in supermarkets and department stores all over Japan, and they can be bought fresh or as frozen foods. Horai also sell ice candy, which is popular during Kansai’s humid summers.
So far I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what there is to do in Osaka, but this time I want to give a quick overview of places that can be visited as day trips from Osaka. It is, in fact, the perfect city for this, because of its central location and its function as a transportation hub for the Kansai area.
The obvious destination is Kyoto, which is by far the most popular tourist destination in Japan among both domestic and international tourists. Then is nearby Nara (the imperial capital from 710-794, before it moved to Kyoto), which like Kyoto is home to a number of famous temples and shrines including Todaiji, Koryuji, and Kasuga Taisha. I prefer Nara over Kyoto because it feels more genuine and is not as crowded. Kobe is known as a pleasant, cosmopolitan city with an international feel–I recommend the waterfront Meriken Park, which is a romantic hot spot at night. Then there’s Himeji, with its soaring castle that is more famous and impressive than any other in the country.
If you’re looking for something new, why not try Wakayama City? It has a number of gorgeous old temples, some great food, and lovely beaches and hot spring areas. Iga, one of the two great ninja towns of Japan (the other being Koga in Shiga Prefecture), is located in Nara Prefecture and features a ninja museum that you’re sure to get a kick out of. Kumano Kodo, a pilgrimage route that has been celebrated since ancient times, has recently become popular after being named as Japan’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yoshino is famous for its autumn colors and spring cherry blossoms, and also has a number of lovely old ryokan and baths. Further east is Ise Shrine (in eastern Mie Prefecture), the most important Shinto shrine in Japan. It is connected to the imperial family, and it has been rebuilt every 20 years on alternating lots using the same architecture and materials since the beginning of Japan as a unified civilization.
Heading north from Osaka, you will find Uji, which is famous for it matcha powdered green tea, and also for Byodoin, a graceful temple that is meant to be an earthly re-creation of the Buddhist paradise (you can find it pictured on the ten yen coin). Fushimi-Inari Shrine is a complex winding its way up a mountainside, featuring paths lined with thousands of bright-orange torii gates that create an impressive tunnel-like effect. The Lake Biwa area is also a treasure trove of great places to see and delicious foods to eat (read about my journey around the lake here).
There are more options available, but the places listed above are all great destinations for day or weekend trips out of the city. With the autumn leaves reaching their colorful peak, now is the perfect time to experience the many faces of the Kansai region.