Osaka: the Venice of the East!

Such claims by publicity people may invite derision from many familiar with today’s second city of Japan. However, Osaka was indeed launched to wealth and prominence by its Kansai-region waterways and transoceanic links.

So it was that I set out on foot one recent morning to explore the modern city’s waterways in search of an alternative view of the metropolis to its regular tourist spots and shopping traps.

Osaka was built on a wetland, a flat soggy expanse crossed by rivers draining the mountainous interior of Japan’s western Kansai region. The Yamato River to the south connected with the ancient capital of Nara, while the Yodo River in the north furnished a material and cultural link with that other ancient capital of Kyoto. It was its position at these waterways’ confluence that allowed Osaka to develop as the mercantile center of Japan at a time when Edo (present-day Tokyo) was merely a collection of huts.

But then, in the boom years of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, most of the rivers, creeks and streams criscrossing Osaka were channeled into concrete culverts. Nonetheless — visible or invisible — there are still five waterways boxing in the city center — the Dotonbori Canal in the south, the Higashiyokohori River in the east, the Kizu River in the west and the Tosabori and Dojima rivers creating Nakanoshima Island in the north.

Each side of this box shows off a different aspect of the city, and together they make for a pleasant trek in this aspiring “aquapolis.”

My starting point of Dotonbori runs through Osaka’s Minami, a “fun” zone by turns trendy and historical, bohemian and seedy; today’s hip Horie and Amemura are but a short walk from Soemoncho, the historically shabby street of dissipation.

In recent years the district has been undergoing a makeover. The area from Namba Hatch (a building that looks like an upturned UFO) in the west, almost as far as Nipponbashi in the east is being developed, and there will be water-level boardwalks stretching most of that distance. This project has already drawn a number of new attractions and new users without displacing those who contributed to the area’s original eccentric character.

On Ebisubashi (the bridge below the iconic Glico Man signboard) there was a young man eliciting money from passersby by showing off two large and striking lizards. I gave him a few yen simply as reward for his zany initiative.

Heading east from Dotonbori leads to the first hitch in the plan to walk the entirety of the waterfronts: it is not possible to stay at the waterside, and it is necessary to resort to parallel streets.

But then, as the bright lights of “fun central” give way to little streets full of local character, curiosities, odd homespun bars and cafes with whimsical names, the stroller will encounter a deserted lot where there’s a shed from which an old man runs a cobbling business that’s been going for decades — and looks like it hasn’t seen a customer for years.

Dotonbori eventually ends in a sharp left turn and becomes Higashiyokohori and the Hanshin Highway. The expressway rides on its ferroconcrete pillars over the river all the way to Nakanoshima, about 3 km to the north.

At some point in this river’s history, someone tried to beautify the bank, adding a bush- and tree-lined walkway behind the buildings abutting the water. This is now locked away behind gates and going feral as well as providing a dumping ground for rubbish.

As compensation for not being able to get to the water’s edge, there is the opportunity to walk up Matsuyamachi-suji. This is far from a tourist destination, and far from the sights and thrills of Minami. However, the thoroughfare hosts a plethora of wholesale shops offering traditional hina dolls, fireworks, toys, beach toys for kids, small plastic oddities with no discernable function — and enough anime and manga characters to bring out the geek in anyone.

Matsuyamachi-suji passes through the fringes of the financial district before the canal grudgingly offers some waterside spaces for lunching office workers en route to Nakanoshima and another abrupt change of character.

This is Osaka’s civic center. Here you find City Hall and many other municipal offices, along with museums and concert halls, luxury hotels and the venerable central wholesale market.

This eastern end of the island is being landscaped to become a park and create a seamless swath of willow- and ivy-fringed waterfront extending most of the length of the island and eastward to Tenmabashi and Osaka Castle Park. River buses ply these waters, and the shady banks are popular with strolling and lunching office workers. The banks of the Seine, this isn’t, but at night this promenade beneath the trees offers a measure of romance.

It is in this area that you see most clearly the ambition of Osaka’s aquapolis project, and it was in an office overlooking the Oh River — a short hop away in Tenmabashi — that I spoke to Hiroshi Yamanoh, chief producer of the Osaka 21st Century Association, an organization tasked with bringing the aquapolis concept to the attention of the world.

I wondered how Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto’s budget cuts were affecting the project. “Not at all,” was the answer.

“The project is regarded as an investment with long-term benefits,” Yamanoh told me, adding that if anything was slowing down the project it was old-fashioned bureaucracy. “Jurisdiction for the water, the banks and adjoining land may in some places be divided between the city, the prefecture and the national government, each with its own rules, priorities and protocols,” he explained.

More practically, the water level in the canals is different from that in the rivers — a difference maintained by locks. This means that river buses and pleasure boats cannot take advantage of the waterways in the way that my walking shoes can.

But undeterred, my route next takes me in a southerly direction at the western end of Nakanoshima, where mercantile Osaka reasserts itself. No one could accuse this stretch of waterway of being attractive, lined as it is on one side with high-rise apartment blocks and on the other with small factories and workshops. Grim, perhaps, but necessary for the city, because it is the fruits of such labors that pays for many of the city’s fun bits.

Even here, though, there is plenty of Osakan eccentricity; plenty for the observer of urban oddities.

Unapologetically utilitarian as it may be, this part of town still exemplifies the city’s efforts to humanize the space: a path lined with well-kept grass and ponds and shrubs runs along a narrow strip of bank for about a kilometer up to Osaka Dome. There, pedestrians have the option of turning west off the loop and exploring more grittily atmospheric working waterways that fan out to the port areas. A turn east, however, leads past green- fringed banks to Horie, with is boutiques and cafes, and from there back to Namba.

As the sun was setting there, lighting up the river with silver, I relaxed with a beer at one of the riverside cafes and reflected how the emerging aquapolis of Osaka is already walking tall on water.

Access: The central loop of waterways can be accessed from many stations, but Yodoyabashi (for Nakanoshima) or Namba (for Dotonbori) on the Midosuji Line are probably the best, although Tenmabashi Station gives easier access to the east of Nakanoshima, the Oh River and Osaka Castle Park. Taisho Station on the JR Loop Line is good for Osaka Dome and the west-side working waterways, while several stations on the Midosuji Line give quick access to the north bank of the Yodo River and its green spaces.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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