Osaka in New York Times ニューヨークタイムズ記事: 大阪

For better or worse, Osaka was featured in the New York Times this week, on Thursday. For better because any positive publicity for Osaka is good for tourism. For worse because the article, “36 Hours in Osaka, Japan” by Ingrid K. Williams, sends the wrong message: ESCAPE from real Osaka when you go.

What Williams missed is, real Osaka is about the people who live there and give meaning to its attractions, modern, but especially those old and traditional. Telling by her article, Williams hardly got off the beaten path. She writes next to nothing of the people, and this is disappointing. Osakans are generally warm, talkative, and welcoming. They are the kind of people who would prefer to walk you to a destination than show you where it is on one of those cheap, inadequate tourist maps.

Where does Williams want her readers to go? On a Ferris wheel–ESCAPE; to a Western-style whiskey bar with room for six customers–ESCAPE; to an art museum designed by a Westerner–ESCAPE; to isolated rooftop parks–ESCAPE; to a dark sea aquarium and observatory tower in the night sky–ESCAPE, ESCAPE; to modern hotels that feel like British country manors–ESCAPE…

Granted, these things can be found in Osaka, and they have their good points, but this is NOT what Osaka is about. Osaka is about its PEOPLE, and about the places THEY like to frequent. The only thing that saves Williams article from being a total flop, is her mentioning a few things that are more representative of modern times in this great aquapolis: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and the Hanshin Tigers. These are no-brainers though.

Where should one really try to go in Osaka? A few good rules of thumb: modern does not mean better; don’t trust tour guides from Tokyo — and perhaps most guidebooks for that. Go where Osakans like to go. Kyôbashi, Shin-Sekai, Tenjinbashi-suji shôtengai (Japan’s longest covered shopping arcade), Tennôji, Tsuruhashi, not to mention many other working class neighborhoods (shitamachi), are fabulous. Some of these places also have modern department stores and shopping malls, if that’s your thing. Enjoy areas under or around train tracks/stations, and don’t be afraid to venture out to places that are a little darker, if dirtier. You’ll be surprised  by how friendly people are, how many can speak English, or will otherwise try their best at forming sentences in a second language.

Of course, I always recommend traditional theater such as bunraku and kabuki (English earphone guides usually available), and Takarazuka — all-women’s revue — is also great. The much-more earthy taishû engeki is fun, and I have to recommend rakugo, though this is not as accessible to those who can’t speak Japanese.

Finally, when you get a chance to take in the real Osaka, you will soon discover people ready to show kindness accompanied by friendly smiles and warm laughter. Just don’t forget to return the warmth and say, dômo, ôkini! (“thanks a lot” in the local dialect).

New York Times article: 36 Hours in Osaka, Japan


Osaka Shitennôji Doyadoya 大阪四天王寺どやどや


If you have some free time and happen to be in Osaka, I recommend checking out the Tennôji area. Though the neighborhood  on the immediate south side of Tennôji station has been undergoing a major upgrade (mostly new shopping centers) over the past several years, the stretches north and west of the station still offer some of Osaka’s finest shitamachi (working-class neighborhood) flavor. I absolutely love the people, food, and air here. To me it feels like “real Osaka,” if there is such a thing.

Tennôji is also home to the historic temple Shitennôji, which is dated to the year 593, when Prince Shôtoku, the first great patron of Buddhism in Japan, is believed to have had it constructed. This is also where Tennôji gets its name. Obviously the structures standing in the complex today are not the originals, but it is still a wonderful temple, for ages a favorite religious and entertainment destination.

20120114-184318.jpgI visited the temple today to see for my first time Osaka Shitennôji Doyadoya. According to the City of Osaka website,  Shushôe takes place at the Rokujidô (Pavilion of the Sixth Hour) from New Year’s Day until January 14. During is a period when the entire clergy holds services to pray for peace in the realm and bountiful harvests of the five grains. On the final day, services are held for the Ox god (Goôhô) and paper amulets bearing this seal are sent fluttering from the rafters of the pavilion. A tradition of scrambling to catch these began ages ago and continues to this day. This particular festival is referred to as Doyadoya.

Written in the Edo period, the Settsu meisho zue states, “Shushôe takes place from New Year’s Day to the hour of the Rooster on the fourteenth day…” Doyadoya used to begin at the hour of the Rooster (6:00PM) and amulets bearing the seal of Ox god where released between around 8:00 to 9:00PM, but the time has since been moved to 2:30PM or so, to prevent disorder. Students from the following schools are regular participants: Seiryû Gakuen, Shitennôji Habikio Junior High and High Schools, and Izumi Chairudo Kindergarten.

This is a gallant event in that participants come unclothed to jostle for the hundreds of Ox god talismans sent down from above. Today these are tied to willow branches and taken home, but in years past these branches were believed to ward off pests if planted in rice paddies.  The word Doyadoya is thought to come from a common expression referring to the crowds that noisily flocked (doyadoya to) to the Rokujidô in hopes of winning a talismans bearing the seal of the Ox god.

Especially entertaining are the the teachers, also clad in loincloths, who lead the high-adrenalin exercises through megaphones and hurl water on the young men. The students cry out in the winter cold while the crowd roars with laughter, and perhaps a few sympathetic groans.

It was a great time, and I am glad I went.


Since I am on the subject, I also have to mention that Shitennôji, being such an important place in Osaka religious and cultural history, is also the setting of a number of Kamigata rakugo stories. Tennôji mairi (Pilgrimage to [Shi]Tennôji) has to be the best known of these. In this rakugo it is the middle of higan, vernal equinoctial week. A man gets his friend (Jinbei) to join him on a pilgrimage to Shitennôji, saying he wants to have a service held and sound the requiem bell for his recently departed, beloved dog Kuro. Soon, they pass through the fabled stone gateway, and, on Jinbei’s lead, the two proceed on a whirlwind tour through the temple precincts. They come to any number of shops and show-tents (misemono goya), giving listeners a great illustration of the lively place Shitennôji used to be.

What with all the enthusiastic participants and eager crowd, whistles shrilling in unison with manly chants, quality entertainment in an old temple-school tradition, not to mention a crowd of preparatory school and cell phone company representatives stationed outside the temple gate waiting to sweep up students and their families on their way out, I felt momentarily what Shitennôji must have been like in ages past, what a lively place it still is.












A New Yukata and Much More 新しい浴衣の他にもイッパイ

I am a June baby and therefore recently celebrated my birthday. To help, Somemaru ordered me a new yukata, obi, and seta (sandals). It was a very nice surprise, and a very tasteful one at that. Now that is it heating up in Osaka, and summer matsuri (festival) season is quickly approaching, I am looking forward to wearing my new outfit!

Today I met Somemaru in the morning. We spent the entire day walking through Osaka, stopping for coffee, a pilgrimage to  Hatsu Tenjin in Sonezaki, lunch at the Chûô Kôkaidô building in Nakanoshima, a visit to the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, window shopping in Umeda, and, finally, a soba-noodle and tempura dinner. At each stop and along the way Somemaru and I discussed rakugo — its history, current state,  future, etc. He was also very kind offer helpful advice on the course of my research. I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend so much time enjoying Osaka with and learning from Somemaru.

Shishô, thank you for the birthday surprise (I love it!), and for spending the day with me today!


今朝、師匠と待ち合わせしまして、一日中大阪見物たくさんできました。コーヒーをいただいたり、初天神に参詣したりして、中之島にある中央公会堂で昼を食べたり、大阪市立東洋陶磁美術館をゆっくり回ったりしました。梅田でちょっとウィンドウショッピングしたら、ざるそばと天ぷらを晩御飯にいただきました。今日、休憩しているときも、歩いているときも、師匠と落語の話(歴史、現代事情、将来など)をたっぷりできました。僕の研究についても大切なアドバイスまでもいただけました。師匠と一日大阪をゆっくりエンジョイでき、師匠にたくさん直接教えていただき… 僕が本当にラッキーです。


Japan’s Smallest Mountain, Tenpôzan 日本一低い山天保山

Atagoyama (Mt. Atago) is a popular rakugo story in which two Osakan taikomochi (professional male entertainers for hire — kind of like the male version of geisha) accompany a rich man from Kyoto and his entourage of geisha on a hiking-picnic trip to Mt. Atago, a 924-meter mountain in the northwestern part of Ukyô-ku, in Kyoto. The rich Kyotoite half-jokingly apologizes for making the young men from Osaka climb a mountain. This is the exchange that follows:

TAIKOMOCHI: And just why do you think it’s such a problem for Osakans to hike up mountains? …

RICH KYOTOITE: Well, it’s a problem because nobody’s climbed a real mountain in Osaka! Anybody and everybody from Kyoto has experience climbing mountains, but you don’t have any mountains in Osaka, so…

TAIKOMOCHI: W-what? Now that’s not true. We’ve got mountains in Osaka!

RICH KYOTOITE: Okay, where? You tell me where one is.

TAIKOMOCHI: What do you mean one, we’ve got plenty of mountains! Mt. Sanada, Mt. Chausu, Mt. Tenpô…

RICH KYOTOITE: Oh come on, you can’t call those mountains! Those are little more than bumps on the ground!

TAIKOMOCHI: Bumps on the ground, humph!

The taikomochi don’t have much of a case in waging Mt. Tenpô (or Tenpôzan), in 1831 a manmade mountain of about 20 meters, against Mt. Atago (or Atagoyama), which was more than 900 meters taller. The Osakans insisting on arguing the matter, though, says something about their hometown pride and about Tempôzan having a special place in the hearts of people from Osaka.

The Tenpôzan vs. Atagoyama argument is even funnier today when one is aware that the Osaka “mountain,” located  in Minato-ku near the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyûkan, is a mere 4.53 meters! Tempôzan was leveled in 1854 to make space for an artillery unit. It’s height in the Meiji period was 7.2 meters. As a result of overuse of ground water following Japan’s post-WWII economic recovery, Tenpôzan continued to shrink. By 1977 its height was down to 4.7 meters. Tenpôzan was even temporarily removed from maps for being so small, only to cause Osaka’s citizens to cry out in protest. Tenpôzan, celebrated as Japan’s smallest mountain, is back on maps today.

On a jog today I visited Tenpôzan Park for the first time. I was interested to see if it, or the view it offers, at all resembles the several ukiyo-e I’ve seen that feature Tenpôzan. If one can mentally block out the modern anchorages, buildings, fishing boats, and other ocean-bound ships, one can imagine the Tempôzan of the late Edo period. Pine and cherry trees have been replanted throughout the park, and this reminds one of the Tenpôzan of old, depicted in ukiyo-e such as Utagawa Hiroshige I’s Osaka Tenpôzan in the series Honchô meisho.

I found the Tenpôzan “peak” and was surprised to see it was no more than a small, square, granite stone marker in the ground, too small to even be called a stepping stone. An older gentleman watching me from a distance soon approached and asked me to stand atop the peak marker. I followed his instructions.

“Congratulations!” he said enthusiastically. “On this day, June 12, 2011, of all the famous mountains to climb, you have chosen Japan’s smallest, Tenpôzan, 4.53 meters. As you have successfully reached the summit, I hearby present you with a certificate stating so.” With that, he actually gave me a certificate, complete with a handsome Tenpôzan picture postcard. Upon closer inspection I learned the certificate is produced and distributed jointly by the Tenpôzan Shop Owner’s Club, the Tenpôzan Park Conservation Club, and the Minato Autumn Festival Planning Committee. I thanked the man and was on my way.

What a climb I had up the mighty Tenpôzan today! Now that I’ve had the Tenpôzan experience, I don’t think the taikomochi in the story Atagoyama were out of line after all — this “mountain,” a historic amusement spot and the traditional marker of the waterway entrance (Ajikawa, or Aji River) to Osaka, is certainly one to be proud of.

If you’re in the neighborhood, Tenpôzan Park is worth a visit.










天保山 vs. 愛宕山という話は現在、特に面白いですね。だって、港区の海遊館の近くにある天保山はもう、4.53メートルの高さしか残っていません。1854年に河口を守る砲台を建設させるため、山土の削り取りが行われまして、明治時代に高さが7.2メートルになってしまいました。高度経済成長の後、地下水のくみ上げのため、天保山の地盤沈下が起こり、1977年までに4.7メートルまで標高が低下しました。小さい過ぎるため、天保山が日本の地図より一時期消されていましたが、大阪市民がこれに対して怒り出し、強く反対したので、今日は日本一低い山である天保山はちゃんと地図に載っています。




今日、立派な天保山で本当に素敵な山登りでした。天保山の経験をして、「愛宕山」の太鼓持ちを見直しました。今更、全然言い過ぎじゃないと思っています。だって、歴史的な遊興地である、大阪への伝統的な水路の入口 (安治川) の印である天保山に誇りを1000メートル以上持つべきだと僕も思います。


Amateur Rakugo 素人落語

Tonight I went to “Lil’ Farm,” an establishment that doubles as a old-fashioned Shôwa-period coffee shop (run by the owners in the daytime) and bar (run by their son in the evening). This place is just steps from my apartment and I have stopped by for both coffee and beer in the past.

The reason I am writing about Lil’ Farm my blog is that an amateur rakugo charity event was held to benefit the victims of the March Tôhoku Earthquake and subsequent disasters. I am all for charity and beer, but add rakugo to the mix and you cannot count me out. The son who runs the bar at night occasionally performs rakugo himself as an amateur. His stage name is Taco Rice. 

Photo property of "八尾女子!"

Taco Rice didn’t make a stage appearance tonight, but three energetic, young women performed one rakugo story each. Two performed traditional stories, Dôbutsuen (The Zoo) and Ko home (Complimenting a Child [for Saké]), while the other performed an original piece called Sekkusulesu fûfu (The Sexless Couple). All three wore kimono, and did a wonderful job. The three girls are all from Osaka (Yao City) and currently reside in Tokyo, trying to make it in the professional entertainment (acting and singing) industry. They occasionally perform together as the Yao Joshi! (Girls of Yao!).

Though the audience’s age ranged from 3 to 70, most were in their 20s and 30s. Not surprisingly, this was the first time for most to hear rakugo performed live or otherwise. This particular crowd is heavily involved in the Osaka hip-hop and reggae scenes, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that most people were able to appreciate something so “traditional” as rakugo. The fact that tonight’s performers are also involved in “cooler” endeavors such as trying to make it in the Tokyo entertainment world may have helped put a “cool” stamp on rakugo this evening. I hope that tonight’s amateur show inspired some people in the audience to want to go and listen to professionals narrate stories at real yose.

A very fun show, for a very good cause! Thank you Lil’ Farm!