Saturday, October 19, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 9: Castle, Kabuki and Kansai jazz in Osaka

From Japanese media, my image of Osaka was that people there have a strange dialect, and that it has a big castle, a tasty pancake recipe and a possibly magical shopping district. But there's a lot more to my first Japan tour stop, the capital of Kansai, and one of the largest (and quirkiest) cities of Japan.

I had a lot of help from in getting locations and timing. Still, some places I went to were a bit out of the way or obscure, meaning I also had to do some serious research (many Japanese websites do not have English versions, especially the ones of the more obscure/out-of-the-way places). English knowledge is not very common; I learnt some basic Japanese, but I kept sounding like Damuramu from Dragon Half whenever I spoke it.

Early morning on a Sunday. Woke up from a relaxing sleep at the friendly and conveniently-located Chisun Inn Osaka Hommachi. The subway stations are huge, and often packed with shops selling all sorts of goods and foods. The automated ticket vending machines are easy to use, but transport in Japan is relatively expensive -- even public transport. The passenger rail system is well-connected to the rest of the Keihanshin megalopolis, as well as numerous smaller towns and cities in the surrounding area -- very useful for the next day's agenda.

Top: Branded manholes; Bottom: Public notice on cleanliness

But for today, it's all Osaka. Like other Japanese cities I visited, a lot of city pride is visible: for instance, manholes are branded with sometimes very colorful designs, and the streets are clean and well-kept. A lot of manpower is in employ: if a section of sidewalk is closed off, they'll have someone at each end, guiding people onto and off the diversion path. Also, this was my first acquaintance with the custom of not forking over cash hand-to-hand, but putting it in a cash transfer tray. Like the rest of East Asia, there's no tipping custom here either, bless them.

Heading southwards, my first stop was the Shitenno-ji: the temple of the four heavenly kings. I generally didn't visit a lot of Buddhist temples in Japan, preferring to devote temple visit time to more uniquely Japanese Shinto shrines. The reason for making an exception with this one is that it's of major historical importance: it's the first Buddhist temple in Japan, built on the orders of the famous prince, Shotoku Taishi, himself.

Not only that, it segued nicely from my preceding week in Korea, as he invited builders from the ancient Korean kingdom of Baekje (a major source of Buddhist and other culture for ancient Japan) to help construct the temple.

The temple is beautiful, with ornate gates flanked by guardian statues, a large compound housing various dark wood- and patina bronze-roofed shrines and halls, and a tall pagoda towering over all. There is also a small museum onsite, which exhibits some Buddhist relics, including a giant pair of two- and three-tomoe dragon/phoenix drums and, upstairs, an especially exquisite set of Buddhist-themed kiri-e paper-cut depictions of Shotoku and the four heavenly kings.

Not far from the city center was my next stop: the palace site of Naniwa (left, middle). It's not a well-known fact, but Osaka briefly served as an imperial capital, and this palace was built on orders of Emperor Kotoku in 645 for this reason. Like most other East Asian buildings, it was made of wood, and therefore did not survive the ravages of time. What remains are the foundations of the platforms and pillars, now located in a rather nice park. Across the road are some reconstructed artifacts of ancient Osaka, such as the storehouse with characteristic boat-shaped roof (right).

The Osaka Museum of History is housed in a nearby bursting-pod-like tower (left) that happens to share a lobby with the local HQ of NHK, the Japanese TV broadcaster. I walked in on a live shoot in progress -- seemingly of one of those show formats where a panel of celebrities watch and comment on other TV personalities doing whatever (can't think of a better way to put it). Fans crowded around the open face of the studio (right) to catch a glimpse of their idols.

(clockwise from top left) Miniature of early boat, resembling samguk-era Korean boats; Court scene; House roof miniature; Ancient cuirass

The museum has a huge collection of artifacts and reconstructions, many dating to the dawn of Japanese culture. The models of houses, and even whole towns, are very detailed and well-presented.

Left: Ritual sickles; Top right: sacrificial array; Bottom right: Red lacquer serving set

Also displayed there are many traditional items from Japanese culture.

The ideal route begins at the top, working one's way down the levels using the stairs. The stairwell runs along the window edge of the building, which overlooks and offers a lovely, multi-perspective, and semi-panoramic view of the nearby Osaka Castle -- my next stop.

(clockwise from top left) Castle moat; Castle tower; A kendo school (inset: crest of Taira, from elsewhere in the city -- I just found it amusing); A hall in the compound (inset: crest of Tokugawa)

Osaka Castle is visually very striking, with a beautiful combination of white sides, patina bronze roofing, and intricate gold embellishments of fish, tigers, and other motifs making it instantly recognizable.

Located in a vast walled compound surrounded by a large moat and including numerous historical buildings, it was built by command and design of the almost-shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. A generation later, it was wrested from his clan by Tokugawa Ieyasu; thanks to the defensive capabilities of the castle, however, this was not an easy job for the Tokugawas.

Within the grounds are numerous historical (and some recent) buildings, gardens and monuments, including a statue of and shrine to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (top left and top middle; note the Toyotomi crests on the banners) and a time capsule (bottom left). The main keep (right) is open to visitors, and houses a museum of its own.

The castle was the skyscraper of its day, and is still an impressive construction, affording visitors a beautiful panoramic view of the castle grounds and city center from the viewing deck near the top of the main keep.

Wearing the reconstructed ray-decorated helmet of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (left), and firing a few at the range (right)

I was, of course, happy to indulge in some historical role play there.

I rushed back to the hotel to get ready for a little fine cultural experience at the Shochiku-Za Theatre in Namba. It's one of the oldest running kabuki theaters in Japan, dating back nearly a century. I purchased my ticket well in advance on the online portal; it was possibly the most expensive single ticket I have ever bought for a non-VIP seat. True to Japanese form, it started bang on time.

Being a Kamakura era fan, I had wanted to see Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, but it was only running in Tokyo, where I could not spare the time, meaning I had to settle for Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami. It was still a good play -- an amazing hours-long experience of flawless and ambitious technical execution, rich costumes and sets, and directorial perfection. The tachimawari segment, which took place on the banks of a onstage lake of real water and mud, was really as spellbinding as I had heard it would be, with a panicked-yet-comical Danshichi staggering through the prolonged murder scene in his bright red fundoshi.

After the show, I visited Osaka's "jazz building" at 1-6-18 Namba, located among the shopping streets, not far from the theater. The building, called "Chuwa Dixie", has a music bar on each floor. I visited the two jazz bars, Top Rank (left) and Bird/56, located on the 2nd and 3rd floors, respectively. Both had quite the jazz music collection, although neither had live acts that night.

I spent more time in Top Rank, browsing its walls of jazz record stacks, interrupted by the occasional antiquated playback device; all of these made it something of a jazz and audio-tech museum. Yakata de Voce (right), a jazz and bossa nova bar on the top floor, had a nice live act on, so I spent a fair while there too.

Jazz done with, I ambled around Namba, and down the infamous Dotonbori (top left). Plenty of jaw-dropping neon (top right) and inexplicable signage (bottom left) around. I never thought I'd ever seen Tommy Lee Jones and SMAP side by side (bottom right), but the Japanese have some interesting tastes in product endorsement. I also dropped by the famous Tako Tako King pub for a takoyaki and drink.

The Japanese use vending machines wherever possible, including for ordering food (left) at many lower- and middle-end eateries. This makes for a much faster and cleaner process, especially given the price of labor. Not long after arriving in Japan, I also encountered the famous Japanese toilet and its fancy control panel (right). It's pretty self-explanatory.

So, on to F&B. I wasted no time getting a proper bento box (top left) as soon as I arrived in Japan the night before. Before heading in to the castle, I also grabbed a seafood soup with barley and a crunchy shrimp and veg fritter (top right) from the cafe just outside, and enjoyed an authentic okonomiyaki (middle left) from a stand near the main keep.

After the kabuki show, I tucked into a ramen bowl (middle right) from Akebono Ramen, just opposite the theater. Judging by the signage, it seems to have been started by a sumo wrestler. The ramen was delicious, but it was especially the pork strip on top that blew my mind, as did every other I had in Kansai. I don't know what they do to get it that way, but it is unbelievably succulent, and just bursting with umami.

My visit to Top Rank was my first time trying Yebisu (bottom left), one of Japan's oldest beer labels. Earlier in the day, I also grabbed a few snacks from the bakeries, which are quite distinctive in style and fare in Japan (bottom middle and right).

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