Osaka’s Other Castle

Take a walk into Osaka’s medieval past

By Richard Trombly

Osaka is steeped in history and is fortunate to have a beautiful restored castle centered in the heart of the city. It is surrounded by beautiful parkland open year-round 24 hours a day and features the Osaka Castle Museum.

There is, however, another castle that played an important role in Osaka’s history and makes for a great moderately challenging day hike. The Iimoriyama Castle ruins are about 15 km northwest of Osaka Castle in Shijonawate, Osaka. It is easily reached by the JR Gakkentoshi Line at Kyobashi Station.

The castle is a 3 km and 250m elevation hike from the Shijonawate station. There are many shops and restaurants in Shijonawate to prepare for the hike. I walked along the winding stream flowing from the mountains but if you have extra time, the Shijonawate Shrine is a worthwhile detour.

Iimoriyama Mountain extends from the Kawachi Ridge connecting to Mount Ikoma to the south and descends to a low pass in the ridge to the North. Climbing the northern face is a challenging scramble but the trail does have steps and in some cases hand ropes so hikers of all levels can handle this trip.

Hikers on the steep climb on Iimori’s northern trail. Photo credit Richard Trombly

After walking about 20 minutes from the station, the trail head ascends into the woods with a shady, densely forested climb. It quickly becomes steep with double-height steps and there is commonly some erosion from heavy rains.

Trail map to Iimoriyama courtesy of © OpenStreetMap contributors

For interactive trail map click here

The climb will soon offer a vista to the north looking towards Kyoto. The main road from Kyoto passed below. The strategic value of this location is evident and even before the castle was constructed here around 1520, there were military forts commanding this spot.

The northern view across Hirakata to Kyoto. Photo credit Richard Trombly

This hike is especially popular for foliage in the fall but offers a great short hike year-round so close to Osaka city and is rarely crowded. After passing a side trail to Shijonawate Shrine, there is a final press to the castle.

Statue of Masatsura Kusunoki. Photo Credit Richard Trombly

At the top of the climb, there is a viewing deck and a statue to Masatsura Kusunoki, the hero of the Battle of Shijonawate in 1348, well before the construction of the castle.

Masatsura’s enduring fame is not for winning the battle but rather trying to avenge his father’s death, he fought his way into the opposing camp and came to within meters of meeting his foe when it was clear he would be taken, so he took his life with his own sword. His acts are held as a model of filial piety and honor.

Because of its powerful defensive nature and strategic location, the castle was torn down around 1570. All that remains today are the rock walls lining earthen defense structures.

Stone defensive walls are all that remains of the castle. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Enjoy your time at the castle grounds and explore the ruins. This was one of the larger Japanese castles with a huge footprint of 800 by 400 meters. It had been defended by a dry moat and other constructions. Shijonawate was connected to the Yodogawa River, another reason for the location of this fortress to command the Osaka plains.

Looking to the southwest with Osaka’s skyline in the distance. Photo credit Richard Trombly

On your way down you can ponder the history of the castle and its role in the region. At the height of a warring states period under a weak empire, it was captured by Nagayoshi Miyoshi (1522-1564) and he moved his base there in 1559. The Miyoshi clan held stable control of the economic center in Sakai to the southwest. This allowed Nagayoshi to concentrate on keeping the Shogun in Kyoto at bay.

As the Shogunate was weak at this time, some historians ponder that Nagayoshi could have made bold moves and taken Kyoto as his own. Perhaps he was too cautious but maybe he was simply overcome by the peacefulness of the views. Whatever the reason, Nagayoshi and his lord Harumoto Hosokawa were killed in the battle of Taiheiji in 1564 marking the end of the castle’s prominence and its eventual destruction.

The climb down offers its own challenging sections and a few nice vistas. Before descending into the village of Nozaki you can view the Buddhist Jigenji Temple also known as Nozaki Kannon which can be accessed by crossing a short scenic bridge. The temple in coordination with Daito City Mountain Federation offer a downloadable detailed map (in Japanese only.)

Now you are in the village of Nozaki and it is a short trip to the JR station back to Osaka.

Under A Tsurumi Moon

Camping in Downtown Osaka

By Richard Trombly

In Japan, there are many public parks in the cities and towns where you can go for a stroll, exercise, socialize and relax. Many have a variety of facilities for sports, children’s playscapes, public swimming pools and more.

A couple enjoys a walk in Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park. Photo credit by Richard Trombly

Another common feature is BBQ areas, some supplying everything you need even the food while others offer the BBQ pits for the D.I.Y. crowd to bring in their own feast. While tents tend to spring up on the park lawns on any nice day, many of the parks have designated day camping facilities

Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park https://www.tsurumi-ryokuchi.jp/ ,situated between the Northeast of Osaka and Moriguchi Cities, is one of Osaka’s hidden gems. It covers over 300 acres, about half the size of New York City’s Central Park, and offers a lake, botanical gardens, a variety of recreational facilities and kilometers of trails. It is also known for Sakuya Konohana Kan, one of Japan’s largest greenhouses.

Sakuya Konohana Kan greenhouse. Photo credit© Oilstreet / WikiCommons

A surprising feature of this park is a campground featuring 10-place centered on a BBQ area and best of all, it is free. While some campgrounds are budget, most charge 2,000 and up.

I was bouncing off the wall with cabin fever because of Covid restrictions and I was eager to test out a new tent under actual conditions before taking it on longer cycling trips. During a week of rainy weather, I went directly to the office that manages the camping and BBQ and there was no problem booking an open spot. They even offered registration forms in English.

Camping at Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park. Photo credit Richard Trombly

People often go to enjoy a bit or exercise or relaxation in a park, but it is an unusual experience to sleep in one. Thankfully, there was a break in the rain while I set up the tent. Even with the rain there were a few other campers who were not driven inside by the soggy weather and the happy sounds of children echoed around the crackling fire.

For being within the city limits of Osaka, the park became amazingly quiet. It is even protected from the traffic noise. By 21:00, the barbeque feasts were complete and kids were getting ready to climb into sleeping bags, exhausted from the day of playing in the park.

Moonrise over Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park. Photo credit Richard Trombly

This was an evening that kindly granted us a break in the heavens to see the full moon rise. I was able to leave my tent and wander among the many people using the park even at night. Like most Japanese parks, it is open 24 hours a day. The Moon did not disappoint.

The residents of the campsite beside me also marveled at the moonrise. They were an Osaka single mother and her daughter seeking an escape before the summer holiday ended. The mother said that due to Covid restrictions, they did not get much of a chance to travel this summer so she wanted to do something special. The chance to be in a park, distanced from all the crowds of the city was a nice experience. She said it was better than going to a theme park during the ongoing emergency. Her pre-teen daughter rolled her eyes but remained silent.

The clouds soon enveloped the sky and blotting the Moon so I retreated to my tent. A park security vehicle, blue light rotating on top, did make its rounds a few times during the night. A cat yowled its disappointment at the lack of BBQ leftovers since nobody had used the two BBQ areas adjacent to the camps. I had some food in my pack that the kitty appreciated and so it was quiet for the night, as the rain began.

One of the cats that scavenges the BBQ and camping area each night. Photo credit Richard Trombly

I woke before the dawn in darkness and the rain had ceased. I was pleased to find my tent had weathered the storm quite well and my sleeping bag was dry. I quickly grabbed my camera. Life would soon be stirring in the park.

Sunrise over Tsurumi, Osaka. Photo credit Richard Trombly

The predawn golden hour was beckoning me and I wandered beyond the park to find a morning coffee. With another stormy day on the way, the morning sunrise was stunning. But this breathtaking view was short-lived, returning to leaden-grey overcast within minutes.

Birds turtles and massive carp come to the edge of the pond to enjoy the attention and food
offered by park guests. Photo credit Richard Trombly

The morning summoned people and wildlife alike to congregate in the park. This was a weekday so there were many joggers taking their dogs for a run before work. It struck me how friendly and full of life the morning was.

A morning break with his companion before work. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Even on a cloudy morning the beauty of the park was overwhelming. The gardens in the park have a variety making some flora in season year-round.

A pagoda casts its reflection on the lake. Photo credit Richard Trombly

The day was starting and a storm was threatening, so I returned to my tent and packed up my campsite. I made sure to carefully gather my my gear and to pack out the trash.

Mother and daughter bonding time. Photo credit Richard Trombly

The campsite beside me was coming to life. Mother and daughter busily preparing breakfast. I asked the shy child if she had fun. She hesitated. Her mother answered for her. “Yes, she had alot of fun.” The daughter? She did not say otherwise.

It certainly was a memorable experience. It was nice to take advantage of this park that is just a few kilometers from Osaka station and a stop on the Nagahori Tsurumi Ryokuchi subway line.

Resources:

Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park https://www.tsurumi-ryokuchi.jp/

Free campsites & Cheap campsites information in Japan – A listing of select free or low-cost campsites, mostly provided by local municipalities. https://camp.tabinchuya.com/en.html

Convention and Tourism Bureaus for cities or regions will often have listings of interesting tourism sites including campgrounds and day camping sites provided supported by the towns or local businesses.

Notes:

Camping is still not a large industry in Japan so when searching for campgrounds assure that overnight camping is allowed and what facilities are offered.

Reserve ahead. Japan campgrounds, even if they have a vacancy, often will not rent spaces on the same day. Unplanned wandering is not advised. Make your plan and reservations well in advance.

More Than “A Family”

A Review of Netflix’s First Yakuza Film

By Jude Jiang, Guest Author

The Japanese movie sector is never lacking for serious gangster movies nor delicate family dramas that are sure to bring audiences to tears. It is rare to see a work that can balance a good combination of these genres.

The 2021 Japanese crime drama movie, A Family (ヤクザと家族 ), played a pioneering role by exploring a fresh narrative upon the well-travelled yakuza theme. It was the follow-up to director Michihito Fujii’s successful The Brightest Roof in the Universe (2020) and The Journalist (2019) which was adapted to a TV series this year.

The three acts of this narrative tale were divided across 20 years with chapters based in 1999, 2005 and 2019, against the backdrop of the yakuza’s decline over that period.

Unlike the old-school yakuza tales, the storytelling in this movie took a close look at a single person’s struggle of adherence to his code of honor and family, despite the police’s increasing crackdown upon yakuza.

More than a yakuza drama, this is a tale of an orphan who tried to create family ties in the complicated networks defining the dark underbelly of Aichi Province in the city of Nagoya. What we find is the cold reality that everything Kenji strove for turned to dust. However, even in Kenji’s tragedy, there is sown seeds of hope in the next generation.

Kenji agreed to join Shibasaki’s gang. Courtesy of Netflix.

Synopsis

Following the death of his drug-addicted father, the closest thing young Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) had to family was his two fellow street thugs that he called brothers.

The rakish teen intervened in a turf war between yakuza syndicates and saved the life of yakuza leader, Hiroshi Shibasaki (Hiroshi Tachi). Shibasaki ran his syndicate in strict adherence to the traditional yakuza code of honor and prohibited drug trade. Kenji found meaning and a sense of belonging in the gang “family.”

Kenji forged a strong commitment to the yakuza code and eventually took on the role of Shibasaki’s foster son. In the search to form a family of his own, Kenji fell for the spirited bar girl Yuka Kudo (Machiko Ono) who was a strong-minded orphan working hard to pay off college tuition. Sharing the same isolation, she shared a bond with Kenji and succumbed to his rough charms. Meanwhile, the owner of Kenji’s favorite restaurant, a single mother, had a child Tsubasa Kimura (Hayato Isomura) who grew up admiring Kenji and treating him as a surrogate father and idol.

The heart-warming development of intimate connections broke off once a yakuza territorial dispute infringed on the life Kenji was developing. After a bloody attack on Shibasaki, Kenji sought to defend the gang’s honor in a petty gangland vengeance which sent him to jail on a murder charge for 14 years.

Upon his return to the society, Kenji found the people in his life and the world he knew had faced earthshaking changes. He realized that it would be impossible for him to restart the life as a normal person. With no hopes remained, he decided to fight once again for the code of family.

Kenji became a pawn in a yakuza territorial dispute. Courtesy of Netflix.

The Proper Mix of Blood and Tears

Alternatively titled Yakuza and the Family, the story was not limited in portraying only Kenji’s yakuza family. It unfolded the narrative upon a variety of relations, tinged with Asian sentiment and sentimentality.

Whether it’s about honor-bound Yakuza family bonds, his lifelong “brothers”, the spiritual son Tsubasa, or Yuka who bore Kenji’s daughter, the narrative drew a wide spectrum of family ties within Kenji’s life. Their relationships with Kenji shaped the family drama themes of departure, reunion and continuity of generations, which added layers of colors to an otherwise dark and cold yakuza story.

In this sense, the movie can be regarded as an unconventional family drama even though it did delve into serious crime elements such as drug-dealing, assassination and revenge.

Kenji with his teen friends were regular customers of a yakuza-frequented restaurant. Courtesy of Netflix.

The story was a narrative breakthrough that gave it a more international appeal and, although the cinematography was not groundbreaking, the movie adopted an internationally industry-standard cinematic language, which may have broadened the film to reach more international audience. It certainly attracted Netflix to take a chance on this very Japanese genre.

However, being too industry standard has brought criticism that the movie lacks a cinematic signature in terms of director’s visual style and some reviewers have noted that, to a western audience, the story may seem melodramatic.

Still, it is a strong and personal account exploring the social implications of the realistic crackdown on Yakuza and the powerful performances of the actor ensemble make this a worthwhile watch.

A Family (Japanese: ヤクザと家族 The Family; alternate English title: Yakuza and the Family)—Japan. Directed by Michihito Fujii. First released January 29, 2021 in Japan. Running time 2hr 16min. Starring Go Ayano, Hiroshi Tachi, Machiko Ono.

By Jude Jiang

Jude Jiang is a bilingual writer based in China. She has a strong interest in bridging the understanding between western and eastern worlds through storytelling.

Give Me Shelter

Exploring pet adoption in Japan

By Richard Trombly

Pet ownership in Japan has been on the rise over the past decades. According to recent statistics, over 25 percent of Japanese households now include a cat or dog. In fact, Pets outnumber children in Japan. Government data shows there are less than 17 million youths under the age of 16 but there are over 18 million pets. A pet can be a great addition to your life and can bring endless joy and companionship but it also requires some responsibilities and planning.

It is a sad fact that many people buy a pet and then later decide it is not working out and abandon their pet. Ten years ago, in 2012, the Environment Ministry reported that there were 400 to 500 stray dogs or cats killed every day across Japan. The government in that year enacted a zero stray action plan which lead to rounding up 210,000 dogs and cats of which 160,000 were killed.

But the number of destroyed cats and dogs has been drastically reduced in recent years as more shelters and non-governmental charitable organizations have been developed to help rehouse these animals. Recent figures show less than 8,000 dogs and about 30,000 cats are still destroyed annually.

Rescue me

Pawer is an NGO that was created to educate people on the sensible option of adopting rather than purchasing a pet. Pawer’s motto is “Don’t shop, adopt!” More than 1,600 dogs and cats are purchased from pet stores in Japan daily. Most of the stock in pet stores come from large-scale breeding mills. These animals may suffer from long term or genetic health problems. If they are not sold, the futures for these puppies or kittens are in doubt and many will be slaughtered or sent to shelters.

Meanwhile, the number of abandoned pets exceeds 43,000 annually, according to PeaceWinds Japan, an NGO working to eliminate the slaughter of dogs and cats by working with governmental agencies, corporate partners and communities to provide alternatives for our furry friends.

Dogs at shelter awaiting adoption Photo courtesy of Dog Rescue Kumamoto

Also pets sold in stores are quite expensive and even with that cost, often have not received proper veterinary care nor been spayed or neutered. Shelter animals have had complete medical care. Obviously, shelters charge a fee of about 20,000 yen ($185) usually including neutering or spaying, which is a bargain considering that at a vet office, that operation will cost considerably more.

Each shelter has its own process for adoption but this will usually include assuring the financial security and stability of the family and proof that pets are allowed in the home, especially in the case of rented apartments. Many landlords do not allow pets and that could lead to abandoned animals.

When you adopt an animal, you will usually be required in the adoption papers to maintain the pet’s routine medicals and to never sell, give away or euthanize the animal. If you must surrender the animal it must be only back to the shelter.

Aside from the NGO shelters, each town or municipality has their own animal control department. The town or district animal pound is also a great source for furry friends. Only a small percentage of animals taken in by authorities are reclaimed by owners. The vast majority are directly adopted, rescued by shelters or slaughtered. Pawer has assembled a list of shelters across Japan. This is not necessarily a complete list. http://pawer.jp/en/dont-shop-adopt/shelter-map/

Cats on the rise

There are now 9.64 million cats in Japan according to the Japan Pet Food Association and that number is growing by more than 1% annually while dog ownership is on the decline and currently there are less than 8.49 million dogs, down from over 10 million in 2014.

Abandoned cats rescued to a shelter. Photo courtesy of Nyantomo Network Hokkaido

Cats are not a native species to Japan. Domestic cats arrived in Japan during the 6th century C.E., concurrent to the introduction of Buddhism to the islands, some scholars claim they were brought to protect sacred texts from rodent damage. Genetic data shows Japan’s common domestic cats came from China but originated in India.

So why have cats surpassed their canine counterparts? One factor is economic. The average cost of lifetime ownership for a cat is just over 700,000 yen ($6,500) while a dog will cost about 1.2 million yen. A large portion of this added cost is higher vet bills including rabies vaccine, city registration fees and larger dogs eat more.

亀 or Kame (“turtle”) was found on the forested shore of the Yodo River as a malnourished 8 week old. He now shares a home with the author. Born mid-April 2021. Photo credit by Richard Trombly

Cats also better fit the modern and more urban lifestyle, according to many younger Japanese. Cats are seen as cleaner, take up less space, and require less fuss and grooming. With busy lifestyles, many professionals do not want to have to walk a dog 2 to 3 times a day.

Pets are forever

It is easy to fall in love when you see a kitten or puppy and pet ownership is rewarding and fun, but it is important to understand that adopting a pet is also a responsibility. A rescue animal has already suffered the upheaval of losing its home and maybe even hunger, living on the street or even abuse. The last thing you want to do after rescuing an animal is subject it to more hardship.

Remember pets might live up to 20 years. If you are not settled down and expect to move about or are not financially stable, maybe the time is not right to get a pet. You can still volunteer at shelters or even offer to be a foster home in the short term. Many shelters do not have enough spaces in their own facilities and rely on loving temporary homes.

Shiba walking with its new master.

If you do decide that you are ready to add on a new family member, then there are still some points to consider.

-As mentioned above, there is the cost over the lifetime of the pet. Some people consider pet insurance as well, if they might not be able to afford an unexpected medical cost in case of emergency.

-If you are renting, most landlords in Japan do not allow pets, so a shelter or city animal control will want to see your permission from your landlord or proof of home ownership so they can assure the home can accept pets.

-As part of the adoption process the shelter will want to know the number of people in your home, any existing pets, how you will fit the new member into your family and your lifestyle. They will want to know how long the animal will be left on its own daily and what are your plans if you will travel for work or holiday.

-They will ask for proof of employment and financial stability. Many shelters will want to inspect your home. This is all to ensure that the animal can be a proper fit for both the pet and the family.

-If you are a foreigner, most shelters will only allow adoptions to people with a permanent residence of family visa status because they do want to assure stability of the adoption for the long term. It is an all too common tragedy for a person returning to their home country to leave their pet behind.

-Find the right pet. Most of the animals in the shelters are capable of offering love and joy and becoming wonderful additions to your family. However, many of these animals did face some hardships or even abuse, so take time to get to know them and their emotional quirks before you decide. It is hard for both parties if things don’t work out and you must return an adopted animal.

-You will also want to find a vet you trust. Even smaller communities have neighborhood vet clinics and there are large chains of pet stores that cooperate with a veterinarian to have a clinic in their store. If you go with the chain store, do have an option if there are emergencies in off hours.

Author’s beloved rescue dog and companion “Xing Xing”
found on the street in Shanghai, China. 2003 – 2019 Photo credit Richard Trombly

-Once you have decided to take the step and get a pet, it is important that you both have a great experience from the beginning. Prepare all the things for your new family member such as its bed, water and food bowls, feed, a leash, harness or carrying case, treats and toys. You also want to organize a place in the house that is quiet and out of the way for the pet because it might feel anxious or scared at going to a new place and will need to feel secure in its new home.

Get Off The Road

By Richard Trombly

I grew up in a rural area of USA and frequently walked or bicycled long distances. This usually entailed traversing along a narrow strip of crumbling pavement on the outside of the white line. Even clinging to this slender shoulder, cars would whiz past at high speeds and frightfully close without giving any extra accommodation, clearance or consideration to more vulnerable road users.

All too commonly, as vehicles sped past occupants would shout out, “Get off the road!” There is a segment of people in USA that drive aggressively and see pedestrians or bicyclists as mere annoyances to their automotive travel. Bicyclists would LOVE to get off the road, in any country, but there are few places where they can. Increasingly, there needs to be more safe infrastructure to support pedestrian and bicycling travel.

The USA has a very high amount of road deaths but a low percentage of pedestrian or bicyclist deaths related to overall road fatalities compared to other countries because so few people walk or ride there. For the same reason, there are few accommodations made for those not traveling by motorized transportation. The number of fatalities per bicyclist or walker are however alarmingly high.

Kyoto is developing bike lanes on several major streets

Japan has really very few actual bike paths so bikers must make a hybrid experience of biking with the flow of traffic and using sidewalks where they exist. Only the most crowded sidewalks in the busiest districts of cities are banned to bikes.

While European countries have many exclusive bike paths separated by barriers from cars or its own route and USA has increasingly added “rail trails” by converting former train tracks to paved bike paths, Japan has very few exclusive paths for cycling and pedestrians.

Neyagawa pedestrian/bike path following a small stream Photo Credit: RIchard Trombly

Luckily the drivers in Japan are for the most part safe and courteous and the rural roads have low traffic volume because the roads are narrow and sidewalks or bike routes are few. In fact there are only three approved national cycle routes in Japan according to government bicycle culture advocate Good Cycle Japan and these involve primarily road riding.

In many cities, there is little for bikes to do except to cruise the sidewalks. That is hardly an ideal solution because it brings bikers into close contact with pedestrians and is slow progress for cyclists and presents an obstacle course to maneuver. Admittedly, many central business districts do offer wide sidewalks with red lanes designed for bike travel.

Typical Japanese bike lane. Photo credit: Richard Trombly

However, where there are “bike lanes,” many are little more than a string of blue arrows near the shoulder of the traffic lane and the occasional image of a bike. This provides no actual protection for the bikes and frequently, cars park or travel in this space.

That is starting to change. Cities are adding more cycling accommodations like the meter-wide red trails along several major thoroughfares in Kyoto or similar blue lanes on several of Osaka’s main roads. Another accommodation is a separated trail along elevated highways like the Osaka-Kyoto’s route 1.

Route 1 provides a separated bike and pedestrian lane and safe cross-over bridges. Photo credit: Richard Trombly

A more scenic way to safely walk or travel is the many riverside trails built on the flood control area near rivers, including the Yodogawa riverside trail that will take you from Osaka’s Kita area to downtown Kyoto in off-road safety.

There are also many smaller pedestrian paths that parallel a narrow road, designed get pedestrians off the road or a strip of parkland between one-way travel lanes such as the path leading north from Tsurumi Park in the northeastern area of Osaka.

A narrow park placed between opposing one-lane streets photo credit: Richard Trormbly

I was happy to see that Google recently expanded its mapping to include cycle routing. Since that addition, I have found many new stretches of pedestrian lanes that I had not explored and it has been routing me through neighborhoods where there are few cars and many delightful sights to explore.

Bike ownership in Japan has been steadily on the rise and as concerns about the environment increase, there will be more pedestrian and bicycle traffic. There is also increased interest in biking and walking from fitness as well as simple recreational strolls or rides. For tourism, safety and a more sustainable urban infrastructure, Japan needs to continue to develop these important features.

Paralleling a narrow, unsafe street is this pedestrian way with an inviting brook. Photo credit: Richard Trombly

“Get off the road.” In Kansai, it requires a little extra effort and planning, but more and more, we are able to get off the road. I hope the local government continues to fund and develop infrastructures for safe riding and pedestrians so that we can get off the road.

Hopping The Third Rail

By Richard Trombly

When one envisions Japan, a bullet train speeding between vast cities is one of the most iconic images. Amid the robust rail network traveled by long trains moving at breakneck speeds, Kansai’s Hojo Railway operates at an entirely different pace.

With 13.6 km of rail and only 8 stations on its single line, it is a charming step into the past for tourists but also remains an essential lifeline between the towns of Kasai and Ono in rural Hyogo province.

Ao Station, Ono, Hyogo
The brightly-colored passenger locomotive “Flower-2” diesels into Ao Station, Ono. Photo Credit: Richard Trombly

Flowers 1, 2 and 3

Railway lines crisscross Japan in a 30,625 km network with two-thirds of that belonging to JR, a group of companies that were formed with the privatization of the Japan National Railways in 1949. Most of the remaining rail lines serving the over 7 billion annual rides are with major regional rail lines.

Hojo Railway, opened in 1915, however, humbly operates its single line. Brightly-colored diesel-powered cars run on the antiquated 1.067 meter narrow-gauge rails, while most of Japan has adopted the standard-gauge 1.435 meter tracks. There trains, named “Flower-1, -2 and -3, are a single-unit commuter rail much like a subway train and even though it could pull additional rolling stock, there is only the single locomotive car with a capacity of 55 seats and about the same number of standing passengers.

Ono is a small but prosperous industrial city famed for exceptional quality “banshu” scissors, knives and razor-sharp scythes as well as abacus makers. It attracts many from Kobe for a day trip or weekend out of the city to enjoy a hike on the Monogatari range, rocky hills under 200 meters known as the “Ono Alps” and to enjoy the natural hot springs. It lies inland and west of Kobe along the route to Tamba-Sassayama and the northern coast.

Touching The Third Rail

If you board the Hojo Railway at that Ao station terminal in Ono, you will find that the station is a JR station and the ticket machine does not offer Hojomachi or Kasai as a destination. If you ask the JR station master he will point to one turn-style that is open and will tell you to go to track 3. There are only signs for track 1 or 2 and no other platform is visible but the station master indicates to head towards track 2 by a pedestrian bridge. The third rail finally becomes visible, an overgrown narrow-gauge track veering off from the JR rail lines which connect Ono to the cities Kobe and Himeji in one direction and the villages of Kato and Tamba in the other.

passengers at Hojomachi station
Passengers disembark at Hojomachi Station, Kasai, Hyogo. Photo credit: Richard Trombly

A Link to the Past

Except for spring cherry blossom or autumn leaf viewing season, one might not expect this train to carry many passengers but it is a link to bring day hikers from Kobe to the historic World War II remains of Uzurano Airbase and the brisk climb up to the vistas of Furubokke Nature Park. It is also an essential lifeline for Kasai residents to get anywhere by public transportation via transfer at Ao.

The Runway and hangars of the Uzurano Airfield memorialize this former WWII training base. Photo Courtesy of Kita-Harima Regional Tourism Assn.

While an array of vacationing families and day-tripping elderly in full hiking gear queue up to board the train at Ao, locals arriving from Kasai and the farm villages along the way disembark to do business or, luggage in tow, head to the JR platform for parts unknown.

Find Your Own Pace

Though the Shinkansen trains speed along at over 300 km/hr, the Flower locomotives make the trip to from end-to-end in a leisurely 22 minutes. It is a chance to leave the city behind and truly find a countryside experience just an hour away from Kobe.

Greener Pastures
The Hojo Railway traverses rural countryside with views of nearby mountain ranges and pastoral farmlands. Photo credit: Richard Trombly

As the train pulls out of Ao Station it almost immediately plunges into a tunnel of forest encroaching on the overgrown tracks, leaving the cityscape of Ono behind. When the train emerges, it feels like being magically transported into a distant countryside. The train traverses a carpet of green farmlands and quaint farmhouses to service the historic stations on its way to Kasai.

Plan to have plenty of coins since transit cards like the ICOCA are not accepted and there is only a station master staffing the Hojomachi station terminal in Kasai. You pay as you exit, so if you are getting off it is hard for the conductor to make change. Full fare is 420 yen and half fare for children. The fare table can be found at the Hojo Railway website. The midway stations are also not staffed but some of these quaint old stations are historic landmarks and may have a concessions booth within.

Hokkeguchi Station was built in 1918 and currently houses a rice-flour bakery. – Photo Courtesy of Hojo Railway

If you take the train all the way from Ono to Kasai, there are rental bikes to peddle around to some of the local sites (see map). Attractions in Kasai include a charming old street with some well-preserved historical homes and businesses, Maruyama Total Park offers a hilltop vantage of the city and there is the Tamaoka Historical Park where visitors can explore ancient burial mounds. Folding bikes are also allowed on the train so you can ride to explore sites along the railway and then hop aboard when you want to return.

Separation Anxiety

Getting Trashed in Japan

By Richard Trombly

Every new place you go to in Japan seems to present a different set of rules for分別bunbetsu, (classification or separation of trash) and the process can seem confusing. In some serviced apartments, shared living spaces and housing developments, the residents need to do very little sorting, as facility management handles the dirty work. But if you move out to a house or flat on your own, the rules can seem daunting.

Some individual apartment building, housing complex or whole neighborhood may share a long series of labeled trash bins with strict rules for separation of waste and various classifications of recyclables. More rural neighborhoods tend to have scheduled curbside pickups but the angst around separation is no less critical. Each complex or neighborhood will have its own system and when you register your address, you will get information about the local rules.

Trash sorting in Japan image courtesy Penn State University Center for Global Studies

The four basic categories are burnable, non-burnable, recyclables and plastics. There is a certain gray area for some items, so study the rules closely to be free of “separation anxiety.”  In most places, you have to wash and dry the recyclables and divide the PET bottles, beverage cans, glass bottles and recyclable paper and cardboard. There is a fifth category of trash known as “oversized” garbage but that also includes items like old electronics and electrical devices that require special handling and each city has a system to schedule pickups. There is a fee that must be paid per item with tax stamps that can be purchased at the post office and in some cases are available at local convenience stores.

If you have curbside pickups, each of these may be collected on a different schedule, so you may find yourself bringing something out every morning of the week. Many towns will require specific bags which will be available in supermarkets, convenience stores and 100 yen shops. There might even be different color bags for different types of trash and a voucher system to limit the number of bags used per person each year.

If you don’t properly handle your trash, sanitation workers might tag the bag with a refusal sticker and leave it behind, which will publicly shame the offender. Further violations may lead to fines. Also keep the workers safe. If you are discarding broken glass or sharp objects, wrap the sharp edges and mark the bag as キケンkiken (hazardous.) Remember to make your life and the lives of the sanitation workers easier by assuring that you sort properly and use the correct bags.

Fantastic plastic

Despite all the efforts to effectively and efficiently handle recycling, Japan has a huge problem with consumption, most notably with plastics. Japan’s annual production of single-use plastics topped 9.4 million tones. It is seeking to reduce that 25 percent by 2030 as part of a commitment to the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle.)

Japan has a high standard of customer service and a high standard of living. In the modern world, that has lead to a love affair with convenience and consumerism resulting in a deluge of single-use plastic. Every consumer item seems to be heavily overpackaged, in big boxes and plastic cases, or wrapped in plastic sheeting. Also, there are so many plastic items that were designed to be discarded like straws and utensils. Shopping for groceries will inevitably lead to aisles of single pieces of fruit or vegetable showcased on a Styrofoam tray wrapped heavily in a cocoon of plastic. It seems like there is no end in sight, but a new policy may give Japanese people cause to examine their plastic habit.

Major chains like Aeon and Ito-Yokado were forward thinking and have already adopted the practice of charging for plastic bags. Starting in July 2020, this will be mandated across the nation. The initiative to reduce plastic waste involves banning free plastic bags and encouraging reusable bags. Japan currently discards about 30 billion bags a year, yet that accounts for only about 2 percent of the annual plastic waste.“The proportion of plastic bags among plastic waste is not big, but charging would be symbolic,” said Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada in a June 2019 press briefing. 

Global concerns

Countries around the world are grappling with the ever-increasing concern of handling garbage but in few places is it as critical as the mountainous islands that make up Japan. The country’s 1,661 landfills have remaining capacity of 100 million cubic meters. At the current rate of consumption, the nation’s dumps will be filled to capacity by 2040, according to the Ministry of the Environment.

Much of the waste produced in Japan is incinerated, which does keep it out of the landfills but contributes to air pollution and global warming. Trash generation has decreased from a peak of nearly 1200 g of daily waste per capita in the late 1990s to a current rate of about 950 g according to EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation. Clearly, however, other measures are needed to address this growing concern.

Yao, Osaka’s $730 million Maishima incineration and waste management facility designed by Austria’s Friedensreich Hundertwasser looks like a theme park but processes 900 tonnes of waste daily. Image courtesy Osaka-Info

Osaka hosted the 2019 G20 Summit, an annual meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors, where there was special emphasis placed on implementation of the 3R policy in Asia. Though Japan has a well-defined recycling framework, it only recycles about 20 percent of its municipal waste while Germany leads the world at 65 percent and S. Korea at 59 percent, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Japan’s industries produce nearly 10 times the amount of waste annually compared to households. With stringent standards on industrial recycling and waste management, recycling rates approach 50 percent but industrial waste remains a significant problem.   

Japan refused to sign a 2018 G7 ocean plastics charter, despite 60,000 tonnes of the over 8 million tonnes of plastics entering the ocean annually originating from Japan. Introducing an agreement to reduce marine plastic became a focus for Japan at the 2019 summit.

Getting Burned

While Japan has made the claim of recycling over 85 percent of its plastic waste, up to 20 percent is exported and a vast portion of the remainder undergoes so-called “thermal recycling,” in other words it is incinerated for the heating value.Though it produces thermal energy from waste, most countries would not consider that as recycling. The “clean incineration” process does remove many of the toxins from the exhaust but still produces CO2 and other pollutants.

Japan does rate highly in other areas of recycling. The metal recycling rate approaches 98% and beverage cans have a recycling ratio of 87.4 percent. Furthermore Japan recycled 498,000 tonnes of PET bottles for a recycling rate of 84.8 percent. The majority of electronic appliances and electrical products are recycled with up to 89 percent of the materials recovered. 

A mountain of PET bottles awaits recycling Image Courtesy Asahi Shimbun

So why is the overall recycling rate for municipal trash among the lowest in the OECD countries? Foods and consumer goods are heavily over-packaged and consumption remains high. The ubiquitous presence of convenience stores might be seen as a sign of the Japanese addiction to consumerism.

Another answer to the waste equation is food waste which is incinerated. About 20 percent of the overall waste produced in the country is household food waste, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. This accounts for a staggering 6.5 million tonnes annually. Combined with the huge amount of food that expires on retailers’ shelves or in wholesalers’ warehouses without ever reaching the consumer, it is clear that there is a huge disconnect with the need to reduce waste. It is also of critical importance because Japan is only 40 percent self-reliant in terms of food production.

Trash and Carry

Since Japan does not have public trash bins, the need for reducing consumption becomes abundantly clear when traveling. Tourists or even anyone just roving about town meet with the challenge of the trash they create. Since you must pack it with you until you get home, you have time to consider reducing your trash footprint. The Covid 19 emergency has intensified this inconvenience. Most supermarkets and convenience stores previously offered recycling and waste bins for customers but many have suspended this service to reduce virus transmission. Drink bottles and cans may still be dropped in bins alongside most vending machines but other trash should not be deposited there.

One thing is clear, for Japan to successfully face the future, we will all have to examine ways in which we can change our lifestyles and our buying habits.

The rules for Osaka waste management can be found at this link:  https://www.city.osaka.lg.jp/contents/wdu020/enjoy/en/content_f.html

The rules for Kyoto waste management can be found at this link:

https://www.kit.ac.jp/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Acceptable-Ways-to-separate-and-dispose-of-garbage-and-recyclables.pdf

The rules for Kobe waste management can be found at this link:

https://www.city.kobe.lg.jp/documents/1347/english.pdf

Creating “Burgerholics”

By Richard Trombly

If you find yourself in Yao, a small suburban community on the east side of Osaka, then it is worth dropping by the Kintestsu Yao station to grab a bite at Pedro’s Burger. Of course, Yao does not have many attractions to bring in tourists, so even though Pedro’s Burger only holds about 12 people, you will probably find a seat.

Last call at Pedro’s Burger Photo credit Richard Trombly

Yao, founded in 1948, is a rapidly-growing industrial town at the foot of Mount Takayasu with about 270,000 residents. It is centered around a general aviation airport which was founded as Hanshin Avaiation School in 1938. It remains a great place to catch a scenic flight.

Yao airport, Osaka Photo courtesy of Yinlei.org

Mount Takayasu, itself is perhaps the strongest draw to visit Yao. There is well-preserved historical architecture in slope-side villages and many paths along this peak which is a part of the ridge dividing Nara and Osaka prefectures. The most interesting feature of this mountain is the Takayasu Senzuka Kofungun, a series of hundreds of burial mounds that hikers can visit.

After exploring Yao, there are many local cuisines that are featured in the local restaurants, especially the locally-grown green soy beans. But “Pedro”, who opened Pedro’s Burger in 2016, is undertaking a mission to make Yao, and the world, better through burgers. He says burgers are addictive and he is creating “burgerholics” one burger at a time. The restaurant welcomes visitors with a unique mix of knick-knacks reflecting American and Australian pop culture.

Pedro’s decor is an eclectic mix Photo credit Richard Trombly

Pedro, who is now 40 years old, is an Osakan native with a past as eclectic as his restaurant. He backpacked to over 20 countries in North America, Europe and Asia and took an extended work holiday. He has learned the food industry from the ground up with experience at Japanese restaurants, ramen houses and American diners.

The burgers are well-made with a larger-than-expected patty of quality beef and a satisfying order of fries. There is a variety of burgers to suit various tastes, but the signature Pedro Burger is a must, coming in at under 800 yen. It features a solid patty of lean beef resting atop a garden fresh and welcoming pile of crisp lettuce, a house-special sauce and a layer of pickled ginger to make this a distinctly Asian burger experience.

The signature Pedro Burger Photo credit Richard Trombly

Like most Japanese burgers, the sauce is laid on heavily enough it will drip so the burger is served on foil. Thankfully the menu has pictorial descriptions of how best to fold the foil to enjoy the burger while trapping the flow of sauces.

When leaving, the proprietor will mention a burger that you should try next time. He is confident that you will be hooked.

How to get there:

Address: 14 3 4丁目, 3 Higashihonmachi, Yao, Osaka 581-0004 (about 5 min. walk east from Kintetsu Yao Station)

Opening hours: Daily 11:00-20:00 (Closed on Mondays and public holidays)

Phone: None

Website: None

Nearest station: Kintetsu Railway Yao Station (from Tsuruhashi Station)

Honoring The Happy God

Kick off a successful New Year by celebrating Ebisu, Osaka-style.

By Richard Trombly

11 Jan. 2020 – Osaka The Toka Ebisu Festival or Ebbesan, as the locals call it, recently filled the streets of central Osaka’s Naniwa Ward in an annual celebration. The event is centered on the Imamiya Ebisu Shrine in the Shadow of Shin Sekai’s Tsutenkaku Tower from 9-11 January each year. On January 10th, alone, nearly 1 million worshipers passed through the temple gates seeking this god’s blessing for the new year, according to shrine officials. The coincidence of the full Moon this year made attending the event in the evening even more alluring.

A full Moon rises over Tsutenkaku Tower as seen from Ebisuchou metro station. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Ebisu is one of Japan’s seven god’s of fortune but, unlike the other six, Ebisu’s origins are entirely Japanese. As the god of fishermen, he is portrayed as bearded, chubby and jovial with a fishing pole and a large red sea bream fish that is emblematic of his fruitful labors. Also, unlike the other deities, Ebisu is said to have been born crippled and tossed into the sea by his parents. He did not die and, instead, overcame his disability and learned how to work hard fishing for a living.

Ebisu, wood block print, 1795, by Toshusai Sharaku

The origins of the temple were as a gateway to Osaka’s greater Shitennoji temple in about 600 C.E. At the time, Osaka was still mostly a fishing and farming town but it rapidly became a bustling commerce center. Over the years, the Imamiya Shrine has taken on fame in its own rights and Ebisu’s fortune also smiles on commerce as well as fishermen and farmers.

While other gods of fortune represent good luck, Ebisu was not born lucky. He worked hard and the fish represents the bountiful rewards of good fortune favoring hard work. Perhaps that is why so many people come as they seek reassurance that their hard work will pay off in the new year.

Ebisu Festival Osaka crowd
A stream of visitors awaits entry to the Imamaya Shrine Photo Credit Richard Trombly

The press of visitors carrying dried bamboo stalks is shoulder-to-shoulder but everyone seems to be happy and move along in an orderly fashion. Many buy lucky charms as tokens of good fortune as the endless stream of visitors moves slowly forward. This is a friendly and casual event but one man dressed in business attire purchases a token representing a bar of gold. “I own a company and come here every year,” said the man surnamed Kawakami. “I hope my business will do well so I can prosper.”

Ebisu images and tokens flank this vendor. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Once finally passing the temple gates, there are friendly faces of volunteer temple staff to greet the newcomers helping them to make a sacrifice of the brown, dried stalks of bamboo. The afternoon of the 10th is special because there is a parade and 50 special temple maids called fukumusume are chosen from among thousands of applicants will cheerfully hand out token gifts to lucky fortune-seekers.

Temple maidens attach tokens to the signature bamboo branches. Photo credit Richard Trombly

These tokens or charms are also available for purchase from the temple if you are not fortunate enough to be honored by the fukumusume. Participants will each be given a branch of bamboo to sacrifice the following year along with the charms. There are many smiling temple maidens to attach the tokens to your bamboo branch.

Despite the scale of this event, it still has the friendly feel of a neighborhood gathering with everyone sharing in good cheer. In this crowd of many thousands there are chance greetings and random reunions happening everywhere. In the spirit of coincidence and good fortune, I even heard my name called out and found the familiar face of a friend from another district of the city greeting me from the booth he was staffing as a volunteer.

Kishihara Shu (L.) is a local film actor participating in this community event. photo credit Richard Trombly

For an event based around a shrine, there were very few strict aspects of religion. No sermons or strict ceremonies. Just people happily making their offerings including tossing coins into the temple coffers, getting their bamboo and charms, and then learning their fortunes. For 50 yen, you can get a printed fortune based on your birthday or you can visit one of the many booths where sooth-sayers predict your coming year’s luck.

A moving bamboo forest of Ebisu celebrants. Photo credit Richard Trombly

But the celebrants are reluctant to leave after making their devotions. They stay and have fun at the carnival-like atmosphere of the celebration whose stalls and vendors spread for several blocks to the north and west from the grounds of the shrine.

Pathway to Shinto Shrine 境内社 赤土稲荷社. Photo credit Richard Trombly

There are actually several other temples and shrines, such as the Hirota Shrine, are located within the festival and are swarmed by the crowds of people and merchant stalls, arcade games and endless selection of sweets and snack being sold. In the midst of it all is one small and quiet Shinto shrine.

A Shinto shrine remains quiet amidst the Ebbesan crowds. Photo credit Richard Trombly

境内社 赤土稲荷社remains nearly undisturbed as the crowds flow past the red lamp posts of its entry lane. The only sound piercing the tiny temple grounds is the occasional ringing of the shrine’s bell tolling from the rare visitor.

Revelers feast at one of the canteens that spring up during Ebbessan. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Ebisu is a character that enjoys feasting on the bounty of his hard work. Likewise, all of the celebration is hungry work. Aside from the endless snack stalls, a proper Osakan feast comprised of a wide range of local street food delicacies can be had at one of the many vast tent canteens that spring up for the festival. The din of joyous dinner conversations go on long into the night.

Ebisu, Hand-painting on silk, 華堂 喜田 Kadou Kida (1802-1879)

If you ever get the chance to visit Osaka around the new year, take the chance to participate in the Imamaya festival. Like Ebisu grappling his mighty fish, you might get a hold on good fortune for the coming year.

Spirited Away

Children hold a special place on Mount Ikoma

By Richard Trombly

With additional reporting by Jude Jiang

While tourists seek out the hustle and bustle of Namba markets, the historic sites at Osaka Castle or day trips braving the crowds to see the deer in Nara, they overlook the natural and cultural wonders that exist in-between. From anywhere in Osaka, you can look eastward and see an inviting ridgeline centered on the 642-meter-tall Mount Ikoma which divides Nara and Osaka.

Mount Ikoma, Osaka

It is worthy simply as a nice day hike with the family or friends but it has added treasures. On top of Mount Ikoma, the summit holds the Ikoma Sanjo Amusement Park that was built in 1929. The park rides are really only for young kids, but since the park entry is free, it is a great place to stroll about and the park has had a recent face lift that did not destroy its historic charm. There is also a cat and dog petting zoo that claims to house various furry friends from around the world. Hours are seasonal so it is best to call ahead.

Kintetsu Ikoma Cable Car 1918

If climbing up those 600 meters does not sound fun, there is another bonus. Just a short walk from the Ikoma Station of the Chou-line metro and Kintetsu railway is a cable car to the summit and amusement park. The Kintetsu Ikoma Cable Car, opened in 1928, is the oldest commercial cable car line in Japan running from Toriimae station up the mountain to Ikoma Sanjo. Some of the cars retain a classic look while some have been tailored to look like a dog or cat for the younger park guests. Kids will often ask the conductor to make the animals “talk” so as the dog and cat cable cars cross each other the cat calls out “nyao nyao” and the dog responds “won won.” After passing through the Ikoma hillside community and up to Hosan-ji, you must transfer to reach the top.

View of Nara with a dog-shaped Kintetsu Ikoma Cable Car

Long before the temple was built, Mt Ikoma was already venerated by the local people. It became a training site for Buddhist monks as early as 665. The temple, dating back to the Edo Period, is dedicated to Kangiten. This god is usually depicted as an elephant figure similar to the Hindu Ganesha, and is known for wisdom, joy and prosperity which made Kangiten popular amongst merchants and entertainers.

Small pilgrimages from Osaka or Nara brought worshipers here, so there developed a hillside village and a variety of  shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and guesthouses along the slopes that have been serving religious pilgrims and visitors ever since. However, unlike some crowded tourist sites, the shops are low key and there are no tour buses discharging throngs of temple visitors. On most days you will only meet a few other climbers, many taking a rest over a cup of coffee or a meal.

Climbing through the community, the lanes are very narrow and steep and even become a staircase in places. There are some traditional buildings maintaining echoes of historical architecture and the view of the Osaka cityscape is impressive. Soon you rise above the last outpost of civilization alongside the Hozanji station of the cable car line.

Ascending to the temple, there is a broad stairway but there are also winding forest paths which lead to the temple grounds. There are some unique features here. While the dark wooden framed structures with white stucco walls and grey ceramic kawara-tiled roofs are of typical Japanese temple construction, the altar and prayer halls are constructed from brown wooden walls with bark roofs which are indicative of Shinto shrines. A seated Buddha commands an alcove in the cliff behind the main hall. There is an outlook over the valley as well.

Hozanji Shrine on Mount Ikoma

A trail rising up behind the main hall leads through the peaceful forests on its winding way up to the summit. It is a steep climb through thick groves of bamboo or tall cedars with the silence only broken by bird calls and the cheerful murmurs of mountain springs tumbling down the slopes.

Jizo statues on Mount Ikoma

If you ascend the trail you will pass many smaller shrines and there are many statues of Jizo and other Buddhist figures. Jizo are usually stone-carved statues of a bodhisattva that is a spirit protecting known for travelers so they are often located at pilgrimage destinations and boundaries, both physical and spiritual. These figures are also often depicted with children or even holding an infant because they are seen as protectors of children, especially the spirits of those children who passed away young. You will see hats, gloves or bibs on many of the Jizo. Women make these clothes, often carefully knitted, as religious devotion however several of the Jizo here are wearing a sweater or hat, from a departed child, placed with care by grieving parents. There are offerings not only of fruits but also of children’s’ beloved toys.

On September 23 each year, the hillside and village is filled with worshipers, revelers and vendors celebrating the Ikoma Shoten Equinox Lantern Ceremony. A vast array of lanterns and candles adorn the mountain steps and paths lighting the autumn night in celebration.