Osaka's spirit in the sky

by Gary Tegler

In survey after survey, Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka’s Shinsekai district comes in second among the structures that most strongly symbolize the spirit of Osaka, the first being Osaka Castle.

The original Tsutenkaku, which means “the path-to-heaven structure,” was raised in 1912 just south of its present location.

It burned down in the bombing of World War II and was rebuilt in 1956. The new tower was designed by Tachu Naito, the same architect who built Tokyo Tower. An eight-sided structure, Tsutenkaku stands 103 meters tall and is lit by neon lights in the evening.

“The tower is very important to the people of Osaka because it symbolizes continuity through four historic periods, the Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Heisei,” said Takashi Nishikawa, director of the Tsutenkaku Sightseeing Co.

“It is also significant for the industry, progress and culture of the city. The original sponsor was the major toothpaste-to-detergent maker Lion Co., but in the early 1970s Japan’s economy was growing on the strength of its electronic companies, so we asked Hitachi Corp. to take over sponsorship.”

Hitachi remains the sponsor; its name is prominent on three of the tower’s sides. On the east side of the tower is the largest clock in Kansai, measuring 5.5 meters in diameter. The minute hand is 3.2 meters long and weighs 30 kg.

Some 650,000 people visit the tower every year, each paying 600 yen to be whisked to the fifth floor where they are greeted by an unusual statue called Billiken.

The meter-high wooden “god” was carved in 1908 by American Florence Pretz and sat for many years in the city’s Luna Park.

When the park was razed to make way for an apartment complex in the early ’50s, the statue disappeared. With the help of several scholars, it was tracked down by Tsutenkaku staff and placed in its present perch in 1979. Visitors are encouraged to rub its feet and head for good luck.

Billiken was also the eponymous star of a 1993 movie by Osaka-born filmmaker Junji Sakamoto. In the film, Tsutenkaku is under threat from developers who want to tear the shabby structure down on account of the city’s bid to host the 2004 Olympic Games. However, Tsutenkaku’s managers make zany attempts to revive the popularity of the tower, and with assistance from the mischievous Billiken, Tsutenkaku is now firmly restored to its place in the hearts of Osaka folk.

Topping the tower is a round, hatlike addendum lined with neon lights that indicate the following day’s weather through a combination of colors and patterns.

Altogether, it’s a hodge-podge — but like the city itself, a hodge-podge with its own unique style.

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