Osaka, at the mouth of Odo River on Osaka Bay, is not high on the list of most foreign visitors to Japan—primarily because they know little or nothing about the city beyond its reputation as a business center. That is a major loss. Osaka has the oldest history and the greatest story of any of Japan’s leading cities.
In the 7th and 8th century—some one thousand years before the appearance of Edo/Tokyo—Osaka was known as Naniwa and was the gateway through which the culture and technology of Korea and China flowed into Japan. It was also the port for envoys and commercial travelers to and from other Asia countries.
In A.D. 645 Naniwa became the first permanent imperial capital of Japan. Prior to this the capital was moved each time a new emperor took over. During this era huge engineering projects were carried out to control and direct the flow of several rivers that dissected the area of the city. Canals were dug to connect the rivers and enhance the flow of goods and people within the city. Huge warehouses dotted the banks of the rivers and canals. A total of 808 bridges connected the land-sites of the city.
During the clan wars that led to the victory of Ieyasu Tokugawa and the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo [Tokyo] in 1603, Naniwa/Osaka would have become the shogunate capital if Tokugawa’s opponent, the Hideyoshi clan, had won the civil war.
Now the third largest city in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama, Osaka has retained far more of its historical look, feel and character than either of these two cities…much of this in its huge shopping and entertainment districts, where thousands of picturesque shops, restaurants and bars carry on the traditions of the past.
During the Tokugawa Shogunate [1603-1867], Osaka’s transportation needs were served by a fleet of river and canal boats that were owned and operated by families. The whole network was taken over by the city government in 1907 and turned into a public transportation system. During its peak the system had 31 piers in key areas of the city.
Osaka still has its rivers and canals [they make up over 10% of the area of the city] and is served by eight piers and a number of private riverboat companies as well as the public company. Passage on the city-operated river boats is free, and they average over two million passengers each year.
Osaka Suijyo Bus Ltd is the largest of the privately-owned waterbus services. It offers a variety of regular cruises on boats of different sizes and amenities, as well as charter boats for individual trips that take in different areas and attractions in the city.
The glass-covered Osaka Aqua-Liner is one of its most popular boats for visitors because it takes in an impressive list of the city’s attractions, from shopping and entertainment districts and Osaka Castle [constructed in 1583] to the famous Nakanoshima [Interior Island] business district. Its home-base pier is near the huge castle.
One of Osaka Suijyo’s river boats is patterned after the Santa Maria that Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492. Entertainment on the Naniwa Tanken Cruise includes story-telling by a rakugo artists—a form of story-telling that goes back hundreds of years.
Other sites on the river and canal cruises include famous temples [including the Shitennoji, Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple] and landscaped gardens that date from the 7th and 8th centuries, world-class museums, and an aquarium that houses denizens of the Pacific Rim waters.
Each July Osakans stage the Tenjin Matsuri, one of Japan’s three largest and most famous festivals, that is designed to celebrate the city’s rivers and canals. Activities include huge fireworks displays, traditional dancing on the river boats and bonfires on river floats.
Osaka beats Italy’s famed Venice by any measure.
Boyé Lafayette De Mente is the author of more than 30 pioneer books on Japan’s business practices, language, social behavior and tourist attractions. He has authored similar books on China and Korea. See www.boyedemente.com.© Japan Today