OSAKA – If an Osaka company has its way, getting roaring drunk and jumping, or falling, into Dotonbori Canal after either a Hanshin Tigers victory or a wild night out in neighboring Shinsaibashi will be less risky, healthwise, but it will no longer be free.
That’s because plans are moving forward to build an 800-meter-long swimming pool in the heart of the canal, the area that runs from underneath Yotsubashisuji street in the west to Sakaisuji street in the east. Scheduled to open in summer 2015, the pool will be, its supporters claim, the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool.
The canal sits in the middle of the Dotonbori district, an area known for its nightlife. Over the past decade, the waterway, famous as the preferred place for Hanshin Tigers fans (and statues of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders) to take a dip on those rare occasions they won championships, has undergone a renovation.
The banks of the canal, once as dark and dirty as some of the more risque establishments in the area, now have a boardwalk and are attempting to become more family-oriented. Hawkers selling Osaka favorites like “takoyaki” (octopus balls) and “okonomiyaki” (Japanese-style pancakes), as well as quiet cafes and bars and the odd souvenir shops have sprung up.
You won’t mistake it for the famed boardwalks of cities like Atlantic City, New Jersey; Baltimore or San Antonio, but it no longer looks like New York’s Times Square before Disney moved in.
The boardwalk area was the first step to revitalize the district, and the Dotonbori pool is the second. Although the idea had been kicking around the Osaka business community for years, officially it is the brainchild of former Economic Planning Agency head Taichi Sakaiya, dubbed by the local media as the godfather of Osaka politics and the man credited with bringing Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) head Toru Hashimoto to power.
Sakaiya formally suggested the idea last year, and, on April 1, Dotonbori River Poolside Avenue, a private firm headed by 14 local merchants, was formed to carry out the project.
Yasuo Fukuda, a company spokesman, said there is no financial involvement on the part of the city or prefecture, and that construction costs are projected to run about ¥3 billion.
“The pool will only be 12 meters wide, but 800 meters long. The water will not be canal water, but purified city water that will be pumped into what is, essentially, a giant tank,” Fukuda said.
The pool will be open between the end of June and the beginning of September. There are plans for water shows and other events. Initial plans called for pool admission to be ¥1,000 for the first hour and then ¥500 per hour after that, but Fukuda said it will likely be higher.
The thought of a swimming pool in the heart of the Dotonbori Canal has been greeted with laughter, disbelief and hope. Sakaiya, who has pushed massive public and private works projects in Osaka for years, insists residents support the idea.
“We did a survey showing 71.4 percent of respondents wanted the pool. Local residents have given it their overwhelming support,” Sakaiya said last July.
But a more recent, ongoing survey that concludes at the end of this year tells a different story. The online poll is being conducted by the Namba Keizai Shimbun, which covers the Dotonbori beat.
The newspaper’s results show that as of April 18, more than 58 percent of the 730 respondents say they will never get into the pool, and nearly 14 percent say they have no desire to swim there. About 16 percent said they’ll definitely take a dip, and another 12 percent said they might.
“The image of the Dotobori Canal as polluted is just too strong. Lots of drunken customers pack the bars in the Dotonbori area and, in the early morning hours, hosts from area host clubs urinate in the canal. It will be very difficult to keep clean,” said some of the online comments on other blogs and websites about the project.
Other local residents and media question whether a pool that opens during the rainy season and operates for about two months is economically sustainable.
Given Sakaiya’s close connections with Hashimoto, there are fears that if his pool idea turns into a white elephant, the city would step in, forcing local taxpayers to bail out the project.
“The project has just been announced, and people don’t have a lot of information. More details will be released this summer, so it’s not surprising that there is opposition now,” Fukuda said in response.