Plein de petites tortues - Osaka – © Claire Blumenfeld

From April 8 to 11, 2016, I spent a few days in Osaka and Nara. After my week-long intensive visits to Kyoto, having a delay in my articles and a certain fatigue combined with painful neck pain, I finally spent a lot of time at the hostel in Osaka where I had booked four nights. My visits to Osaka and Nara were therefore rather short.

Osaka is a gigantic port metropolis, heart of the Kansai region. A working-class city and important trading center, mainly covered with concrete buildings, Osaka emerges a sharpness that contrasts with Kyoto’s atmosphere. It was in Osaka that the first contacts with China and Korea took place. At the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 to 1867), the city was the economic center of Japan. Today dethroned by Tokyo, Osaka still remains one of the most active cities in the country.

What I remember from my day trip in Osaka is an atmosphere that is both calm and active. With the exception of downtown neighborhoods, full of activities, the rest of the city seems to be a bit sleepy and aging. My hostel was located in one of the neighborhoods near the port, in a covered shopping street, but no matter the time of day, the place was always very quiet and almost empty. Another remarkable fact: lots of cute little turtles in all the lakes and ponds of the city.

The first place I visited was the Shinto shrine Sumiyoshi Taisha in a slightly older neighborhood. Dedicated to the deities of the sea, this superb sanctuary was founded in the 3rd century (the buildings of today are replicas of the originals). His interest comes from his architectural style dating back to before the Chinese Buddhist influence. I find that the buildings have something “viking” in their appearance: straw roofs and decoration in x. I also witnessed a procession for a traditional wedding, from outside the sanctuary to the main hall, led by a group of ten men in costumes singing and dancing. When I left, I tasted some small treats from Osaka made of hot and mellow dough. Very good.

My stomach always shouting famine, then I headed for the neighborhood Dôtomburi, filled with restaurants, bars, theaters, rooms pachinko (mix of pinball and slot machine) and stalls all more flashy than each other. The set is very kitsch and seems to have a hard time withstanding the passing of time. The streets, however, rustle with animation. I eat a small bowl of rice with grilled beef and green onions and for dessert, a waffle with fruit, cream and vanilla ice cream. Probably the best meal I have eaten in Japan. Quick tour of the interesting little museum on Bunraku. Originally from Osaka, Bunraku is a type of 17th century Japanese theater where characters are played by large puppets manipulated by sight. I almost want to attend a performance but the price is way too expensive.

To finish my day, I go to Osaka Castle. The original structure was built in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, after achieving the unification of Japan (1590). The castle was destroyed and completely rebuilt twice. The current concrete structure dates from 1931. The castle is very pretty and contains interesting collections. But too many tourists combined with a headache prevents me from fully enjoying the visit. I go around quickly and come out and enjoy very good dangos in the gardens of the castle.

The next day I take the train to Nara. The city was the capital of Japan in the 8th century and includes eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. Small in size and untouched by destruction, Nara has a significant number of original buildings and a town center that has retained its traditional houses. Much of the city is made up of a very large park where more than 1000 fallow deer (considered as sacred animals) are wandering. The atmosphere is quiet but, again, after the glitz of Kyoto, I find it hard to be amazed by what I see. Especially since the weather is cloudy with a very strong cold wind and I only have a little sweater.

Les deux plus belles visites sont le Kasuga Taisha and Tôdai-ji. Le Kasuga Taisha is a magnificent Shinto shrine founded in the 8th century. The path leading to the temple and its interior are filled with lanterns. A Lantern Festival is held twice a year, in February and August. Located on the edge of the large park in the center of Nara, the sanctuary has beautiful buildings in red, gray and gold. I walk quietly amazed by the place. One of the corridors of the sanctuary is plunged into darkness and lit by hundreds of lanterns. I have the impression of finding myself in the middle of the night surrounded by floating lanterns.

When I come out I head for the Todai-ji while walking through the park. Tôdai-ji is a gigantic Buddhist temple housing the famous Daibutsu (Big Buddha) of Nara. It is located in the Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall), a gigantic wooden edifice almost 50 meters high. The Daibutsu inside, weighs 437 tons of bronze and 130kg of gold for about fifteen meters high. It is a representation of the Buddha Vairocana (major Buddha). It’s hard not to be impressed by the size and power of the Big Buddha. It is so big that I can not take it entirely in photo. Other smaller Buddhas (but still impressive in size) as well as two Niô guardians are also in the room. The Niô guardians are two beautiful, famous wooden carvings that were carved in the 13th century by the sculptor Unkei. The Niô are guardian deities of Buddhist temples installed on each side of the main entrance and able to chase evil spirits. All the sculptures give off an impressive power and mysticism. It’s just a pity that the visit is, again, ruined by the flow of uninterrupted tourists.

Defeated by the cold, I then take refuge in the train to return to Osaka. Tomorrow, I head for Kôya-san, a monastery / city of 117 Buddhist temples perched at an altitude of 800m, in Wakayama prefecture, south of Osaka.

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