Learning to Love Osaka

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Osaka, at first glance, is a hard city to love. It seems to be 140 square miles of concrete, sardine-packed with tower blocks and criss-crossed with flyovers.

But the cherry blossoms along the Ō-kawa River temper the brutality of the concrete. The river parts and flows either side of Nakanoshima island, where the first mile or so has been landscaped and turned into a public park. It is a tranquil spot, lovely to walk through with a gentle breeze blowing off the river, and as you gaze at the lawns and the trees and the rose gardens, you might not even notice that the island is hemmed in by soulless office blocks.

Beyond the park, there is a hint of what Osaka might have looked like before the War in the 1912 Central Public Hall with its red and grey brick, stained glass and cupolas and the 1904 Prefectural Library with its monumental steps and columns.

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The classical castle nearby was rebuilt in the twentieth century, but then so were most of the castles in Japan; if they were not burned down in the tumult of the Meiji Restoration, they were flattened in World War II. It is still impressive to see, and worth paying to go in for the museum with its samurai swords and suits of armour, screens and fans, woodcut prints and ancient scrolls, and the panoramic view from the top.

The Umeda Sky Building is the high-tech, modernist equivalent of the castle, designed, like it, to dominate its neighbourhood, to awe and intimidate, to exude power and wealth; and it has the best views in town. The lift scoots you almost to the top, then an elevator takes you through plate glass nothingness to the roof.

To the south and east, Osaka seems everlasting with office and apartment blocks fading to infinity. To the north, they are interrupted only by the broad expanse of the Yodo River, emptying out into the bay to the west.

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At night, a million squares and circles of light glow in the windows, yellow lights swirl at street level, red lights pulsate on the rooftops, neon hoardings shimmer in blues and reds and greens, and the spokes of the giant Ferris wheel out on the harbour glow orange if the next day is set to be sunny, green if cloudy and blue if it is going to rain.

Amerika-mura (American village) got its name from shops selling second-hand Levis and Zippos and trades on it with Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty models bursting from shop fronts and local interpretations of American fast food.

The vintage shops and street style stores blast J-Pop from the doorways to deter over-25s and to try to encourage the sullen girls in clumpy shoes and over-the-knee socks and giggly boys with spiky yellow hair to look briefly away from their smartphones.

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A little to the east, the Shinsaibashi-Suji shopping arcade extends for a dozen blocks with all the world’s high street chains mixed up with noodle shops and pachinko* parlours, soundtracked one minute by J-Pop, the next by Vivaldi, and always  by the staff in the shops shouting irasshaimase! when customers enter and arigatou gozaimashita! when they leave.

Shoppers jostle down the street with three bags hanging off each arm, mothers propel push-chairs, teenagers snigger in unruly groups, tourists stop and whip out their selfie sticks and the crowd eddies round them. At the end of each block, a road cuts through and the honking cars surprise you.

The mall empties out by the Dōtonbori Canal, where there are monster neon adverts wrapped round the ends of the buildings. The oldest and best-known is the marathon runner, who has been advertising the Glico confectionary company since 1935.

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There is a crab restaurant round the corner which states its business with a massive 3D model of a spider crab above the door with claws that wave and eyeballs which extend in turn like pistons. Other restaurants along the street have taken up the theme and there are big puffer fish lanterns, an octopus, model gyoza dumplings, a giant hand holding nigiri-zushi and a life-size model cow.

There are bars and bowling alleys and amusement arcades. In the doorway of one, a salaryman, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, danced like your dad to the music from a game.

But just steps from all the sensory overload of Dōtonbori is a quiet corner with a temple dedicated to Fudo Myo-o, the deity of fury, where worshippers stop, pray and throw water over the diety’s statue, which is thick with moss from years of soakings.

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There are cobbled alleys lined by izakayas** with nothing but the traditional red paper lanterns to advertise themselves, no mechanical crabs, no illuminated puffer fish, no model cows. I ate very well in one of them, sitting at the bar watching the chef prepare the food and serve it to me on a long-handled peel like bakers use to take loaves from the oven.

Sake was once served in a small wooden box called a masu, but the practice fell out of fashion. Izakayas, though, sometimes put a glass inside the masu and let the sake overflow into it to show how generous their measures are. Here, the chef, who was also the barman, carried on pouring until first the glass and then the masu overflowed.

I had misjudged Osaka. The ugliness I saw at first was nothing like as all-pervasive as I feared. While it is no Kyoto, it has a sprinkling of traditional sights, and a whole lot more which could not be reduced to items on a list of Top Things to See…, but which is rewarding to see nonetheless. Above all, though, it has an infectious joie de vivre which I never saw matched as I travelled through Japan.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Japanese pinball

**Bars which sell food – loosely like Spanish tapas bars

An Onsen Town

Yamananka Onsen

“The Japanese have the same attitude to bathing as Frenchmen reserve for eating: they do it with a mixture of connoisseurship and physical abandon. A bath can be enjoyed alone, but it is more often taken with many others, keeping up with the latest gossip while scrubbing one’s neighbour’s back” – Ian Buruma, A Japanese Mirror

Yamanaka Onsen was deep in the mountains. It had rained and the road was damp and the mist clung to the peaks of the mountains. In the bottom of the gorge, a river followed the road in a series of undisciplined curves. It was a striking, mineral-rich green and flowed rapidly after the rain. A truss bridge stretched high across the river, triangular in section, violet in colour, describing a lazy S-shape. It led to a path through a park filled with cherry blossoms, and alongside the river, past a waterfall to a shrine and a 2,300 year-old cedar. Ryokans were clustered around the river on the edge of town.

It was the middle of the morning and the main street was all but deserted. There were no customers in the old wooden stores. It was early, yet, for the sake brewery, the tea-house and the soba noodle shop; and there were no tourists, but me, to browse the shops which sold the lacquerware for which the region is famous.

The town was built around hot springs and the two public bath houses, one for men and one for women, are centrepieces of the plaza.  The waters, at a temperature of 48.3 degrees Celsius and rich in calcium and sodium sulphate, are said to relieve “muscular pain, joint pain, shoulder pain, bruises, chronic digestive diseases, haemorrhoids, over-sensitivity to cold, fatigue, arteriosclerosis, cuts, burns, chronic skin diseases and motor paralysis”.

I slipped my trainers off and went in, only to be stopped at the door and made to understand through urgent, embarrassed gestures that the smaller building across the plaza was the men’s bath house.

I had come unprepared, as ever, and had to hire a towel and buy a sachet of shower gel. There were lockers in the foyer for shoes and valuables and, with those locked away, I went through to the wood-panelled changing room and folded my clothes into a basket and slotted it onto the shelf. It is illegal to be untidy in Japan.

It was a bright, spacious bath house with a pitched wooden ceiling and high windows running the length of the room. The walls and the floor were tiled in muted colours; there was a tiled pillar in the centre of the bath with a plinth you could sit on and lean your back against it. Around the edge, there were shower heads and mirrors set low. I took a plastic stool from the stack, sat down and showered, then padded across the room to the bath and slid into the hot water. The idea is to soak for a while, get out, shower off and soak again. I have no idea whether it does anything for the conditions it is said to relieve, but it is without doubt relaxing.

There were a couple of locals bathing, perhaps connoisseurs but thankfully not acting with the physical abandon which Ian Burumu mentioned in the extract above. They politely ignored me and I politely ignored them. We had no language in common to gossip, in any case; and I was not going to scrub anyone’s back.

© Richard Senior 2015