“Welcome to Osaka. Few major cities of the developed world could match Osaka for the overall unattractiveness of its cityscape, which consists mostly of a jumble of cube-like buildings and a web of expressways and cement-walled canals. There are few skyscrapers, even fewer museums and, other than Osaka Castle, almost no historical sites. Yet Osaka is my favorite city in Japan.”*
“Osaka is a riot of ill-matched color, tasteless footwear and startling hairdos. Satoshi puts it this way: ‘In Tokyo, people want to wear what everyone else is wearing. In Osaka, people want to shock.”
“The theme of Shinsekai is Cheap and Easy; in other words, this is not Japan.”
Our week in Osaka is over and we barely scratched the surface.
We knew when planning the trip that the period between the 29th December and the 5th January would be a busy one on trains as the Japanese travelled home for the New Year’s holidays and many places would be closed but figured basing ourselves during this time in Osaka would work out well, especially in avoiding the madness on trains. Our main activity was simply to walk the streets of the very lively city, hang out, read and research our next destinations. We also had an apartment where we could cook and that had plenty of room to do domestic chores, like washing.
I had read nothing about the city other than it was ‘lively’ and an economic powerhouse with great food. It took about an hour after arrival, as we made our way to our apartment in Shinsekai, for me to feel Osaka was not what I expected (from a Japanese city). The people seemed different in appearance and there was a very different vibe. It was messy, I saw rubbish and clutter on the streets and in the coming days and nights I saw homeless people and some pretty dubious looking ne’re-do-wells, like any other big city but not the usual experience of Japan for us.
My friend Pip Cleaves who has been an invaluable source of wisdom and practical knowledge about Japan said, via Facebook:
Osaka was the merchant city of Japan. It has an almost ‘latino’ feel compared to the North. The language is also more ‘flowery’ and colloquialisms based on the language of trade. Eg ‘how are you?’ becomes ‘are you making much money?’
Alex Kerr* and Ryotaro Shiba have some more to add about the language and the people:
Originally, Osaka was a fishing village on the Inland Sea called Naniwa. The writer Ryotaro Shiba maintains that the colorful language and brutal honesty of Osaka people can be traced to Naniwa’s seaport past. Osaka dialect is certainly colorful. Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of Edan and Trevor, has an almost complete lack of dirty words. The very meanest thing you can shout at somebody is kisama, which means literally, ‘honorable you’. But Osaka people say such vividly imaginative things that you want to sit back and take notes. Most are unprintable, but here is one classic Osaka epithet: ‘I’m going to slash your skull in half, stir up your brains and drink them with a straw!’ The fishwife invective and the desire to shock produced the playful language that is the hallmark of Osaka dialect.
Without Japanese language I will never be able to truly access the many nuances needed to understand Osaka, or elsewhere in Japan, with any great sophistication but at least by reading and having conversations with knowledgeable others I can at least see a little of what I am missing.
Pip also told me that this billboard, with an unusual depiction of Abraham Lincoln, is probably connected with “Takarakuza Theatre – all actors are actually females”.
We spent very many hours exploring between here and Namba with trips further afield to Umeda via the subway. I recommend you click on the links in the last two sentences to get the sense of the central and southern areas of the city. Umeda is more of what I expected prior to arriving in Osaka whereas the area around where we stayed was a jumbled hodge-podge of streets and market arcades. Apparently designed post WWII to be part Paris, part Coney Island.
America-Mura has a very different vibe from anywhere else we walked in Osaka. The area got its name from the import shops selling American goods, especially clothing and guitars. It was establised well after WWII. Kerr says:
“No civic administrator decided to establish Amerika-mura; it’s not even known when the district acquired its name, now commonly shortened to Ame-mura. It just grew up, as young entrepreneurs started selling American jeans and boots on the streets behind the Nikko Hotel. Around the time of the Osaka Expo, a woman named Higiri Mariko opened a café-bar called Loop in the neighborhood. Loop caught on, and in 1976 Hijiri expanded her operations into Palms Disco, to which Osaka’s young people flocked. More cafés, discos and shops opened, and today Amerika-mura boasts hundreds of stores and is always crowded with young people day and night. Leaving it up to the people themselves is the traditional Osaka way, but it is the one option least likely to occur in modern Japan.”
It was the only part of Osaka to which I did not warm although I found a great pair of trousers at a bargain price.
Kate and the girls watched Kohaku Uta Gassen on New Year’s Eve. Apparently this is a tradition for many Japanese families and involves a musical battle between two teams consisting of the year’s most popular and commercially successful artists. The audience and judges then vote for the best team. I walked the streets of Osaka with my camera but took no photos, just enjoyed being a spectator.
Kuromon Ichiba markets (or Naniwa) is very close to our apartment. There is a great range of food and one could tell local people shopped and ate there, not tourists, although, of course, there were many people not local to the area around. A brief photo essay follows including some images of what, unless I am mistaken and it was merely a ploy, was a young monk.
NB We are all a little obsessed with blowfish.
Himeji Castle 姫路城
Himeji Castle lies at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto. The first fortifications built on the site were completed in the 1400s, and were gradually enlarged over the centuries by the various clans who ruled over the region. The castle complex as it survives today is over 400 years old and was completed in 1609. It comprises over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys, which are connected by a series of gates and winding paths. SOURCE
There is always the artificial tension between travelling and being a tourist. It is somewhat less than a paradox but nevertheless I always try to avoid being at the officially designated place gawking at the site everyone has travelled to see or at least, try not to be there when one million others have also decided to visit. Exploring Himeji Castle makes trying to see the Mona Lisa feel like a solitary experience. We stood in a constant queue for just about every part of the experience, shuffling forward a few feet every few minutes. It was pretty terrible but I managed a few snaps and even one with Miss 9, by herself, in front of the castle leaping for joy (as she does).
The walk through the nearby gardens was much more rewarding and I enjoyed the stepping stones. The castle is magnificent and truly well-preserved but just so inundated with visitors it is hard to enjoy.
We headed to Kobe after Himeji and wandered around, planning to see the famous lights but it started to rain and we headed home before dark, disappointed at missing the experience.
Sumiyoshi Taisha 住吉大社
Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine is one of Japan’s oldest shrines. Founded in the 3rd century before the introduction of Buddhism, it displays a unique style of shrine architecture, called Sumiyoshi-zukuri, that is free of influence from the Asian mainland. Only two other shrine architecture styles are also considered purely Japanese: Shinmei-zukuri as seen at the Ise Shrines and Taisha-zukuri as seen at Izumo Taisha. SOURCE
One of the best days we had in Osaka was visiting a shinto shrine, as most Japanese people do, to celebrate the New Year. There was a party atmosphere and it was a great mixture of relaxed religious observance, street food stalls, hippy markets and school fete with a little bit of Halloween thrown in for good measure.
Everyone is supposed to visit a shrine sometime in the first three days of the New Year and everyone was there. The solitary Christian, on the way to the temple, flashed us a big smile but seemed to be pushing it up hill on such a day with the animistic traditions of the Japanese being so much fun compared to the suffering of Christ.
Umeda Sky Building 梅田スカイビル
The 173 meter tall building consists of two main towers which are connected with each other by the “Floating Garden Observatory” on the 39th floor. The observatory offers a great view of the city. We spent a couple of hours enjoying the place and were pleasantly surprised to have enough room to move. I took some picture of the girls and the city noting the extraordinary level of professionalism of the people taking selfies.
There is a mall in the basement of the Sky Building which is replica of a Japanese street of the early Showa Period. It is not very impressive but I did find the posters fascinating.
We had a great deal of fun wandering and even found some amazing bookshops (another Kinokuniya and also a mega Junkudo) with extensive English sections. There was some great Japanese literature in translation (but more on that in another post). I enjoyed taking photos of the everyday in this city as well as catching Miss 12 reading at every available opportunity and we spotted Star Wars stuff in the most incongruous places. Twitter seems to be adverting a great deal in the subways too.
Our Airbnb apartment was great but the unexpected highlight, after being there a few days, was when one of the girls made some toast.
Next stop is a long train journey to the very far south of the country, Ibusuki, in Kagoshima.
NB All quotes in the above text are from Alex Kerr’s excellent book, Lost Japan (1994; 2015)