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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.

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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.)