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Sakai: Kansai’s Lost City

June 17, 2011 10 comments
Old Sakai Lighthouse

Historical Old Sakai Lighthouse, with a smokestack in the background

I can’t count the number of times I have heard foreign nationals complaining about the  tragic loss of traditional Kyoto. It was one of the few major cities in Japan to be spared bombing of any sort at the end of World War II, and the fact that the old wooden buildings and roadways are mostly gone is due to the demands of modernization.

But I don’t think Kyoto is the great tragedy of Kansai. I don’t even think it has really been lost, as most of its culture and traditions are still intact, its arts are still practiced, and it is respected as the cultural center of Japan by almost all, despite the considerable legacies of places such as Edo and Osaka. And regardless of its considerable size and the laws that make preservation of wooden structures difficult, Kyoto has still managed to maintain a significant amount of its architectural legacy. The real tragedy of Kansai is the city of Sakai, which has become a dreary southern-Osaka suburb and a manufacturing center. Urbanization and modernization have not only created a city that is, for the most part, run-down and depressing, its has chiseled away at the cultural legacy of Sakai to such a degree that most Japanese don’t even know of the city’s importance in Japanese history and culture.

One of the more well-known facts about Sakai is that it has historically produced the best-quality blades in Japan, and most consider it to be one of the great centers of blade production (mostly cutlery in modern times) in the entire world. Sakai swords will set you back nearly a life savings, and genuine swords today are considered national treasures, and thus cannot be legally taken out of the country. Sakai was also a pioneer of early bicycle manufacturing in Japan, and even now produces are large amount of Japan’s bicycles. There are many crafts still done by hand in Sakai, including dying of cloth, painting of koi-nobori (Sakai is one of the rare places where this is still done by hand), and wood carving.

And let’s not forget one of the most influential cultural legacies to come of out Sakai, the tea master Sen no Rikyu, who was history’s most influential figure in developing and solidifying the art of Japanese tea ceremony–he was important enough to be the personal tea master of both Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, two of history’s greatest shoguns and rulers. Sen no Rikyu was held in such high esteem that he helped host a tea ceremony for the emperor, and was bestowed with an honorary title as a result. And if Sen no Rikyu isn’t enough to impress you, try opening Google Maps and taking a look at some of the largest ancient imperial tombs in existence (in carefully executed keyhole shapes, large enough to be seen from space), which are scattered here and there throughout Sakai City. When excavated, these tombs contained some of the most valuable artifacts from ancient Japan that have been found, revealing a massive amount of information about ancient Japanese history, art, culture and lifestyle. And the reason these tombs are in Sakai? Because that region is where the emperors first reigned over Japan, long before Nara and then Kyoto became the capitals in the late 8th century AD.

Sakai started as a fishing village–many of the temples and shrines, including the impressive Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, are dedicated to deities said to grant safety at sea. It later developed into a merchant town, much like its bigger neighbor Osaka, except that in the case of Sakai it was an autonomous, self-governed body (a “free city,” or 自由都市)–this was also the case with other cities in Japan at the time, including the thriving merchant town of Hakata in Kyushu. It was during this time that all the skilled crafts and arts, which are still around today but greatly under-appreciated, began to develop rapidly. Sakai was also growing into an important trade hub during this time (mostly domestic trade). Around the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan was following a similar path of “modernization” to that of Europe and the United States, but it had to industrialize more quickly in order to keep up with the world’s other top powers and avoid falling prey to imperialism. This meant that cities like Sakai grew quickly, and factories started sprouting up here and there, polluting the air and making for the start of what would come to be a dreadful cityscape. Like many other cities, Sakai was firebombed by allied forces (mostly American) near the end of World War II–according to Wikipedia statistics, 48.2% of the city was destroyed. The postwar period of high-speed growth in Japan led to further industrial development of Sakai, and today there are many large artificial islands filling the bay. Although it is better than in recent years, Sakai has not seen the shift toward a commercial rather than industrial economy as Osaka has, and smoke and sulfurous smells still fill the air near the bay.

Hankai Streetcar

Hankai streetcar rounding a corner near Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine

Today, Sakai aims to become a model environmental city for Japan, and the national and local governments have put money and effort into achieving this end. Promising projects, such as the collaborative solar plant and factory project recently built by Sharp and Kansai Electric Power, do make it seem as if real effort is being made, but a visit to the city makes it painfully clear that Sakai still has decades (at least) before it can revert back to being a cultural icon and highly livable city. Personally, I don’t think building more is the answer; I think reducing polluting industries, expanding transportation infrastructure, enhancing technologies to cut down on pollution, and drawing in non-polluting business will be a start toward the model “green city” goal. The building of a new national (and international) soccer training facility in Sakai is seen by some as a promising new direction, especially considering its convenient location near Osaka City and Kansai International Airport.

Sakai has also made strong efforts to promote tourism in recent years, including producing sightseeing-related materials. If possible, this is something I want to promote as well. Sakai is friendly city with a fascinating and unique history, and many of its older citizens are struggling to keep its fading culture and customs alive despite disinterest among youth. Considering how tough things have been for the tourism industry after the recent earthquakes and tsunamis, and also the fact that Sakai is located right next door to bigger attractions such as Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka,  it’s not going to be an easy fight. But for those of you who want to delve deeper see a more unique side of Japant, here are some places I recommend visiting:

  • Nanshuji Temple: A Zen temple with a rich history, a 5-7 min. from Goryo-mae Station on the Hankai Streetcar Line
  • Mozu Tumulus Cluster: The ancient keyhole-shaped tombs of great emperors, scattered throughout the city (many are concentrated near Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line)
  • Sakai City Museum: An interesting and to-the-point museum that provides an overview of Sakai’s history, a 5 min. walk from Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line (near the imperial tumuli)
  • Myokokuji Temple: The site of a famous samurai suicide and a 1,100-year-old cycad tree, a 5 min. walk from Myokokuji-mae Station on the Hankai Streetcar Line or a 10-15 min. walk from Sakaihigashi Station on the Nankai Koya Line
  • Old Sakai Lighthouse: A lighthouse on Osaka Bay that was originally built in 1877, a 10-15 min. walk from Sakai Station on the Nankai Main Line
  • Hankai Streetcar: Hankai is the only remaining streetcar operator in Osaka, and there are two lines running from Osaka (starting at Tennoji and Ebisucho) down into Sakai

Let’s not let this unique and fascinating gem of Japan slip away through negligence. I truly hope that  Sakai, a casualty of development and centralization, will one day return to its former glory. At the very least, I hope it will not be forgotten.

Check out the Sakai Tourism and Convention Bureau’s sightseeing guide and Sakai City’s sightseeing guide, or stop by a tourism information center at one of the major JR or Nankai train stations where information is available in English and other languages.

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.

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.

Why I Live Here

February 3, 2010 7 comments

I am often asked what I like about living in Osaka. And because I have also lived in Tokyo, I am also asked whether I prefer Osaka or Tokyo. Besides the fact that my job and life are here, there are four primary reasons I prefer to live in Osaka over any other place in Japan:

1. The People
This is the number one reason Osaka is the most livable place I have found in Japan. People here are the most open-minded (including their attitudes toward foreign residents), are willing to help out strangers, and are basically warm and approachable. It is easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger almost anywhere you go, and if you need help because you are lost or unsure of something, just ask someone nearby and you will almost never be ignored. The “people” factor is not only my top reason for staying here; ask anyone here and you will likely hear the same thing.

2. Livability
With a metropolitan population of approximately 3 million, Osaka City is big but not too big, and despite the tri-city metro area population of approximately 20 million, it does not (for the most part) have the hellish commutes, snail-like traffic and infuriating crowds of cities like Tokyo or Seoul. There are many of small shops and businesses mixed in with department stores and chain stores, so you can easily find something that suites your tastes — the inexhaustible number of hidden places to explore is one of the city’s best features. Unlike its historical rival, Tokyo, Osaka is planned well, so you won’t get lost wondering the streets (I dare you to try explaining the order behind the urban planning and subway system of the capital). The cost of living is also more than reasonable in comparison. Finally, Osaka has many well-designed parks and waterfront spots, making for a pleasant urban environment. Despite its past reputation as a dirty, industrial city, Osaka has become a massive commercial center and one of the cleanest and most livable cities you will find.

3. Rich Culture and History
Osaka has played many roles throughout its history, including that of the imperial capital (as Naniwa-kyo), an important trade port and point for importing cultural innovations, a diplomatic host for Chinese and Korean visitors when the capital moved first to Nara and then Kyoto, the base of Toyotomi military power, the prime economic center and site of the world’s first futures market during the Edo Period, a major manufacturing center during the early modern period and period of high-speed growth, a temporary capital when Tokyo was burned to the ground in the fires of the 1923 earthquake, a primary commercial and trade center since the postwar period, and now an increasingly international city and central hub for Japan and East Asia. This rich history has given rise to a unique culture and a number of rich, deep-rooted traditions. Osaka is also the transportation hub of Kansai, the cultural center and birthplace of Japanese civilization, so you can reach places such as Nara, Kyoto, and Himeji in no time.

4. The Food
Osaka is historically known as “the nation’s kitchen” for its role in supplying and acting as a hub for the food industry. It is also famous for its cuisine — not luxury cuisine, mind you, but “B-level” (B-kyu) cuisine. The quality of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, ramen, soba, kushikatsu, sushi, and other foods people eat on a regular basis is outstanding. In addition, the large number of non-Japanese living in the city means there is a huge selection of international cuisine, too — Korean food in Tsuruhashi, for example. Delicious food at surprisingly low prices is definitely one of the city’s strongest points.

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.)

QUACK

September 13, 2009 4 comments

090913_1537~01

This was floating in the Okawa River, near Hakkenyahama pier (Tenmabashi station area). A huge duck. I’m not really sure why, to be honest.

The city has been doing a lot of urban renewal efforts focused on Osaka’s rivers, and I suppose this is one of them.

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This site has some great pictures of the duck.

The City as Subject: Seki Hajime and the Reinvention of Modern Osaka

September 1, 2009 3 comments

Academic books in English the focus on Osaka are not very common, as the focus has always been disproportionately skewed in favor of Tokyo, and to some extent Kyoto. However, there are a few good ones out there, and if you have an interest in Osakan history and culture I highly recommend taking a look at them.

This time I want to introduce The City as Subject: Seki Hajime and the Reinvention of Modern Osaka by Jeffrey E. Hanes, a history professor at the University of Oregon (it can be found at Amazon and Amazon Japan). This well-researched work focuses on Seki Hajime, an early-twentieth-century mayor of Osaka who strove to make the city a livable city at a time when it had acquired the fitting nickname “Manchester of the Orient.” Not only does this book focus on Seki Hajime and his career and aspirations, it encompasses urban planning history and political history as well. Among his other projects, this Osaka mayor led the development of Midosuji from a tiny street into the first grand north-south avenue in the city with the country’s second-ever subway line (this is now the most glamorous avenue in Osaka with the busiest subway line in Japan running underneath it). His ideas for a socially progressive style of urban planning to support social equality among citizens of the rapidly expanding industrial metropolis of Osaka have left their mark in Japanese history, and he would be glad to know that Osaka has truly become a vibrant, livable city like none other.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Osakan history, and to any students of Japanese history who want to broaden their horizons and escape the trap of viewing Japan as a Tokyo-centered society.