Rivers, fountains, roses and art; they’re all there on Nakanoshima Island in Osaka, just a stone’s throw away but a world apart from the flashy neon and garish glitz of the city’s bustling Dotonbori dining and entertainment hub.

Nestled between the Dojima and Tosabori rivers, the city-center sandbar island is currently the main venue of “Suito Osaka 2009/Aqua Metropolis Osaka 2009,” an arts and waterfront festival that kicked off Aug. 22 and runs until Oct. 12.

There, at the event hosted by Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture and local businesses — all aiming to help revitalize the metropolis — visitors can enjoy a wide variety of art exhibits, create art works themselves and also relax in the rose garden of the 3-km-long island.

One of the festival’s main art exhibits is “Lucky Dragon,” a boat that cruises around the island with its long neck and wings seeming to turn it into a living creature. Made by artist Kenji Yanobe, the stunning boat becomes even more of a spectacle when it belches flames and spouts water from its gaping mouth.

“The theme of this festival is water, so I chose a dragon, the legendary animal that’s been thought to guard water since ancient times, as the motif of my art work,” said Yanobe, a professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design.

However, Yanobe pointed out that “Lucky Dragon” is also the English translation of “Daigo Fukuryu Maru,” the name of a Japanese tuna-fishing boat that was irradiated, along with its crew, by a U.S. hydrogen-bomb test off Bikini Atoll in 1954. He named his art work after that boat, he said, because he wants to send an antinuclear message to society through his creation.

For this event, Yanobe also made a 7-meter-high robot that’s being displayed at Osaka City Hall on the island. “With all my art works I aim at creating a fantasy, something unlike anything in our daily life,” he said — adding that “imagination is the power of art.”

The power of art is also exercised by Osaka-based creator Hiroshi Fuji, whose art works here are made using PET bottles (recyclable plastic bottles), plastic bags and plastic hangers.

“Fuji believes that art is the technology that can change things with no value into valuable things,” said Nov Amenomori, director of Fuji’s art workshop at “Aqua Metropolis Osaka.”

As proof of this, Fuji and his workshop staff have used discarded PET bottles to create chandeliers, tables and chairs — turning surplus items into art works that can enrich people’s daily lives. And, as I found, Fuji’s PET-bottle chairs were comfy, not rickety, while their transparency gave them a modern and unique appearance.

Just like Fuji, most artists involved in “Aqua Metropolis” are aiming to involve visitors in something creative based on their own concepts.

In the case of Kosuge 1-16 — a creative unit comprising Takashi Tsuchiya and Chishino Kurumada — the concept of their workshop is sport and art. “It is said that the word ‘sport’ originally came from ‘port,’ because ports are where people waited for ships and spent their time playing games,” said Tohru Nakazaki, director of the Kosuge 1-16 workshop.

So it’s hardly surprising that one of the art works on show from Kosuge 1-16 is “AC-Nakanoshima,” a giant table-soccer game up to six people can play by controlling colorful doll-like players and making them kick the ball in any direction.

Meanwhile, for those who prefer handicrafts to fancy footwork, Kosuge 1-16 also provides a workshop program in which people can make fancy sandals. Run in collaboration with other artists, Nakazaki explained that this allows participants to make their own fashionable sandals under the guidance of instructors by utilizing leather from old soccer boots donated by high schools in Osaka and Tokyo. To do so costs just ¥1,500 and takes one to two hours.

On a recent scorching September day, I found there were fewer than 100 visitors to the festival — probably because it was a weekday morning. But by the end of August, about 300,000 people had already attended, according to Toshiko Iida, spokesperson of Aqua Metropolis Osaka 2009.

Explaining the organizers’ decision to feature Osaka’s waterways in this event, Iida said: “In the Edo Period [1603-1867], Osaka was known for its 808 bridges crossing over a number of rivers and canals. The city developed greatly in that period as many trading ships from all around Japan came here.”

Although several of the city’s rivers and canals have been filled in or channeled underground since the 1960s, and trains and road haulage have largely replaced domestic cargo shipping, about 10 percent of Osaka City’s area is still made up of rivers and waterways.

“The city and local businesses thought they should consider the waterfronts as the symbol of the city and hold the event utilizing them,” Iida said.

In an effort to encourage visitors to enjoy the waterfronts, the organizing committee of “Aqua Metropolis Osaka” helped three restaurants in the Kitahama district across from Nakanoshima Island to gain permission to construct terraces where their customers can dine or sit and relax beside the Tosabori River.

One of the restaurants, Terubo, is a homemade soba-noodle shop owned by Terukazu Yamanishi. He said that although he paid for the construction of the terrace and pays rent to Osaka Prefecture for use of the riverbank, he had not raised his prices.

“Who owns this great view of the river? It’s for everybody,” Yamanishi said.

To explore more of the waterfront, I joined an “Osaka Tabi Megane” (literally, “Eyeglasses for Travel in Osaka”) tour organized by the “Aqua Metropolis” committee. As our group’s cruise boat took us from a jetty at Hachikenya-hama we were able to enjoy fine views of the city from along the Okawa River before arriving at the promenade on Nakanoshima Island.

There, our guide, Mie Nakaoka, explained that local businessmen in the early 20th century had paid for the construction of some of the island’s impressive buildings we could see, including Osaka Central Public Hall, which is known for its elegant appearance featuring red bricks and white tiles.

One fellow “Eyeglasses” tourist, Reiko Iizuka, an office worker in the city’s nearby Kitahama district, said that she had sometimes walked around the island but didn’t know much about its architecture. So by joining this tour, she said, “It was exciting to learn the history of the buildings and rediscover the attractions of the city.”

During the island tour, Nakaoka showed us a vending machine selling bottles of Osaka tap water. Appropriately enough, given the pure, natural taste of their contents, the bottles were labeled “Honmaya!” — a word in the Osaka dialect meaning “Really!” that’s used to express astonishment and surprise.

Indeed, “Honmaya!” was what I said to myself in reaction to tasting the water — and also to the whole waterfront tour and festival experience.

For more information on “Aqua Metropolis Osaka 2009,” visit www.suito-osaka2009.jp

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