Two cultures cross in Osaka's Namba

Tourists have suddenly found history where youths hunt for fashion

by Kenzo Moriguchi

OSAKA — The Namba district that stretches between Osaka’s Chuo and Naniwa wards always bustles with people attracted by the variety of stores, restaurants and amusement spots.

In particular, the “America mura” area is home to shops that set fashion trends for the younger generation.

But Namba seems an unlikely tourist destination.

“Not necessarily so,” said Yoichi Sawa, 72, president of Osaka Tourist Volunteer Guide Association, which last week started a tourist guide service in Japanese of the city’s busiest area.

“There are plenty of historical spots that tourists may enjoy visiting, especially if they are interested in literature, history and dramas,” said Sawa.

After three years of providing free guided tours of Osaka Castle Park, the association of 121 volunteer guides brought its service to Namba after its 1998 survey of tourists found strong interest in the area.

“This area has a long history of entertainment that goes as far back as the 17th century,” Sawa said. “It not only offers food and fashion, it has the best parts of Osaka.”

According to association members, some of the historical spots in Namba easily go unnoticed, even by locals. One such spot is the Chikurinji Temple on busy Sennichimae Street, whose bamboo roof is the same shape as the original built in 1637.

A standard, 1-hour guided tour starts from the Museum of Kamigata Performing Arts/Wahha Kamigata, where visitors can see attractions and historical materials showing the origin of various performing arts, such as “rakugo” storytelling or “manzai” comedy.

One of the area’s most famous tourist spots would be the Mizukakefudo statue at Hozenji Temple. Because people keep sprinkling water on the statue, it is covered with green moss.

“If you sincerely wish a dream here, it is said to come true,” Sawa said.

Next to the temple is the Meotozenzai sweet shop, which opened in 1883. A famous novel, “Meotozenzai” by Sakunosuke Oda in 1940, was named after the shop.

On Hozenji Yokocho Street, a narrow path full of restaurants, there are several small stone monuments inscribed with “senryu” poems by famous poets of the Taisho and early Showa periods.

“Osaka people had a sense of humor that they expressed through senryu poems,” said Kohei Hamaguchi, 66, another volunteer guide.

On the road to Dotonbori River, the guides tell visitors how the area came to prosper from before the Edo Period. A small river was turned into a full-scale canal in the early 17th century by a merchant named Yasui Doton.

In the early Edo Period, theaters in Osaka were concentrated on the southern bank of the Dotonbori River in accordance with the city plan laid out by the shogunate, the guides said.

On Dotonbori Street, five major theaters that date back from the prewar days used to attract large audiences to traditional Japanese plays.

The last of the five, Nakaza theater, was closed in 1999, and the street today is filled with restaurants and theaters for film and the performing arts.

But Dotonbori Street still reminds visitors of the past with a small stone monument commemorating the origin in 1684 of the “ningyo joruri” musical drama with puppets, which later developed into a highly sophisticated form called “bunraku.”

“Even we guides did not know much about the historical spots and background of (Namba) until we began to prepare for the tour,” Sawa said.

The association said it may consider offering an English-language tour in the future.