While most tourists opt for the fast and efficient trains to get around the city, Wes Lang takes us along on Japan’s oldest streetcar for a ride through history.
A streetcar bound for Ebisucho station - image © Wes Lang
The Hankai railway commenced operation in the year 1900, when Japan was just beginning its rapid modernization. The original streetcars were pulled by horses until technological advances allowed a changeover to electricity. Now, in the 21st century, decreased ridership, rising maintenance costs, and an increasing reliance on automobiles have threatened to put the streetcars out of business. Back in 2009, there was talk about discontinuing part of the tram service to Sakai city, but so far that plan has been that has not become a reality. Before these trams become a relic of the past, I decide to explore the routes in more detail, and begin my journey at Tennoji Station in the southern part of the city.
I follow the signs to Exit 11, which points the way to the Hankai Line (阪堺電車). At the time of writing, the exit is closed for renovations, so I take the underground detour around the corner and up a flight of stairs to the narrow station platform squeezed into the middle of Abeno-suji Street. On the platform sits train #162, one of a handful of original streetcars in continuous operation since 1928. Unfortunately, the 89-year old streetcar has been privately reserved (kashikiri - 貸切) by a company having a party on the train, so I wait for a more modern train that arrives a few minutes later. There are just four original streetcars left on the Hankai railway, so look at the number painted on the back of the train to find out if you are boarding a pre-war streetcar. If the number says 161, 162, 164, or 166 then you’re in luck. The oldest streetcars as classics in their own right, with wooden floors that creak as the train rattles down the tracks.
#162 prepares to depart Tennoji station. - image © Wes Lang
Just as in buses in Japan, boarding for the streetcar is done from the rear door and passengers deposit the fare at the box near the driver when exiting by the front of the car. The flat fare (210 yen for adults, 110 yen for children) for a one-way ride makes it easy to calculate costs, and if you plan on making multiple journeys, then consider purchasing a one-day pass called a Teku Teku Kippu. The pass (600 yen for adults, 300 yen for children) offers unlimited rides on the streetcars on the day of purchase, and the passes can be purchased directly from the driver upon exiting the tram.
I board the train and settle into a seat near the front, as other passengers quickly fill up the other seats stretching the length of the carriage. Shortly before departure, the driver steps out to introduce himself. “My name is Mr. Saito and I’ll be your driver today. Please wait until the train stops before standing to disembark.” It’s the standard sort of train announcement that is usually done by the train conductor, but on the streetcars, the driver takes over the duties. The personal touch makes it feel like I’m riding a taxi rather than a form of public transport.
The interior of the streetcar - image © Wes Lang
The carriage pulls out of the station and rolls down the center of Abeno-suji Street, along sections of track that have been lined with grass in a nod to environmental awareness. The scenery outside changes with each passing meter - the shopping malls of Abeno give way to narrow streets lined with smaller shops until finally yielding to the sizable dwellings of affluent residents surrounding Kitabatake stop, one of Osaka’s richest neighborhoods. A pair of junior high school student disembark here, dressed in their uniforms and off to school for their club activities which occupy most of their available Saturdays. The tracks narrow further on, as if literally passing through someone’s back yard, the residents having grown so accustomed to the rhythmic rattle that they barely bat an eyelid as they tend to their gardens.
The tram pulls into Sumiyoshi, the transfer point for those wishing to head north to Ebisucho. I hang on for one more stop until disembarking at Sumiyoshitorii-mae, directly in front of the main gate to Sumiyoshi Taisha, one of Osaka’s best shrines. The shrine was originally founded in the year 211 and it enshrines the gods of military arts, sea travel, and waka poetry, three aspects of Japanese culture that are rarely used in the same sentence.
The main gate of Sumiyoshi Taisha - image © Wes Lang
I pass through the main gate and am immediately drawn to a round projection directly in front of me. It looks like a stretched out accordion, but as I get closer I realize it is an arched bridge spanning a small pond. This is the famed Taiko Bashi, named for its uncanny resemblance to a taiko drum when viewed from the side. Such arched bridges can be found in other shrines throughout Japan, but this is one of only a few that are still in use. I climb the impossibly steep risers of the foreshortened stairs, wondering how the shrine has managed to stave off a lawsuit from one of the many people who have likely tumbled down the treacherous span. I descend carefully down the other side before rising again on a more stable stairwell of stone to the main entrance of the shrine grounds.
To my left, mothers with newborns pose for pictures among the cherry trees in full blossom. The babies are wrapped in kimono cloth and many have kanji characters smudged on their foreheads. This is the ceremony known as Omiyamairi, an auspicious shrine visit that occurs roughly 30 days after the birth of the child. The families are often accompanied by the grandparents, who are still beaming after being given the gift of healthy grandchild. Even though I have only just scratched the surface of this place, I can already see the importance of these shrine grounds in the lives of Osaka residents.
Visitors enjoy the views from Taiko Bashi Bridge as a father cradles his newborn - image © Wes Lang
The shrine grounds spread out before me, with the main structures built in a cluster of connected roof lines right down the center of the space. I head left towards the main sanctuary space tucked away at the far end of the grounds. A wedding is about to take place, as the procession makes its way towards the main hall, led in the front by the newlywed couple. Weddings take place here almost every weekend, so if you really want to see something special, then just head here in the late morning and you will likely be able to observe the ritual. I watch the procession as it reaches the shrine and the guests take their seats inside. At most shrines, the ceremony is usually hidden away behind closed doors, but here you literally have a back-stage pass, as the bride and groom face inward, with the priest off to the side at the very edge of the offering box. I watch in awe as the couple drink sake and exchange their vows. The ceremony lasts less than 30 minutes, and soon the newlyweds are posing for photos in front of the shrine.
A wedding couple bow to the shrine attendants before the procession begins - image © Wes Lang
I make my way through a gate to the right of the main hall and head toward an unusual rectangular plot of land surrounded by stone posts on all sides. There are signposts indicating that this is a Power Spot (パワースポット), known as the Godairiki. It takes me a while to figure out what is going on, as visitors plunge their hands between gaps in the posts in search of small pebbles adorned with the kanji characters for Go (五), Dai (大), and Riki (力), or the ‘Five Big Powers’. Participants are required to collect one of each stone and then bring them to the shrine counter and purchase a cloth bag (300 yen) to keep their stones. Then, they tie the bag and take it home to use as an omamori (lucky charm). Feeling my own need for power, I have a go and thrust my hand among the stones. It only takes a minute or so to find the three stones, as luck appears to be on my side.
The three lucky stones at Sumiyoshi’s Power Spot - image © Wes Lang
With my stones in hand, I explore the smaller shrines tucked away behind the main grounds. This area is lined with ancient camphor trees hundreds of years old, and just behind one of the larger trees sits a building adorned with paper lanterns. I step inside and purchase the bag from the attendant to complete my transaction, using it as an opportunity to gather some additional information about Sumiyoshi’s elusive white horse.
“Yes, we have a white horse”, explains the attendant, “but he’s usually kept at the stables of the Osaka City University Equestrian Team.” There are similar horses kept at Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto and Ise Shrine in Mie, and they are thought to be symbols of the sun goddess Amaterasu. At Sumiyoshi Taisha, the horse is only brought to the grounds on special occasions, such as the White Horse Ritual in early January. “The horse will be here again on July 7th for Tanabata”, comes the reply upon inquiring about the next chance to see the horse in the flesh.
A giant camphor tree stands on the grounds of Sumiyoshi Taisha - image © Wes Lang
After thoroughly exploring the vast grounds, I return to the main gate and continue on the street leading away from the shrine that leads to neighboring Sumiyoshi Park, Osaka’s oldest public park. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom, bringing large crowds together to fire up the grills and indulge in alcoholic binges. The smell of barbecued food sets off the hunger pangs, so I retreat back to the streetcar stop and duck into Umeyoshi, a small family-run noodle and donburi shop.
I order an oyako donburi and settle into one of only three tables in the tiny establishment. My order is served with Japanese pickles and miso soup and the food is simple yet filling. The walls are adorned with handmade menus and the decor looks like it hasn’t changed in decades and rightfully so - the restaurant has been in continual operation for nearly 70 years and the shop has been passed down for 4 generations. I learn these details from the white-haired chef, who has emerged from behind the tall counter and is now in the process of adorning a white balloon with stickers to create a striking rendition of Hello Kitty. “Making balloons is my hobby”, boasts the owner, showing me photos of owls, bears, frogs, and other cute animals from the photo library on his smartphone. Such unexpected encounters are par for the course in Osaka, where creative, friendly individuals seem to flourish on every street corner.
Locals enjoy the cherry blossoms in full bloom at Sumiyoshi Park - image © Wes Lang
After settling up the bill, I step back outside into an unexpected rain storm. Spring weather in Osaka is incredibly fickle, and the wet weather has put a damper on my plan to ride the streetcar all the way south to Hamadera Park to see its 5000 pine trees and beautiful rose garden. Instead, I stand on the incredibly narrow tram platform to await the streetcar bound for Ebisucho, the second of Osaka’s two remaining train lines. The platform is barely shoulder width, so I stand parallel to the tracks until the train pulls up. Train service to Ebisucho is extremely limited, with only three trains per hour, and it is by pure luck that I only need to wait for just a few minutes as the rain begins to let up.
The ride to Ebisucho takes about 20 minutes, and with just a handful of other riders, I can see why the Hankai Railway was rumored to be considering abolishing this line altogether. It would be a shame, as Ebisucho lies at the entrance to both Den Den Town and Shinsekai, two of Osaka’s more popular tourist destinations. I disembark at Ebisucho Station and head north along Sakai-suji Street. Just before reaching the elevated highway, I turn left and head for Imamiya Ebisu Shrine which enshrines the Shinto God Ebisu, who is associated with good luck in commerce and business. The main hall sits in the middle of a large square surrounded by stalls that remain shuttered on weekends. There’s not much to look unless your visit coincides with the unique Toka Ebisu Festival in mid-January, which draws over a million visitors over a three-day period.
An elderly man worships at Imamiya Ebisu Shrine - image © Wes Lang
I retrace my steps back to Sakai-suji Street and dive headlong into Den Den Town, the vibrant electronics district that has enjoyed a resurgence due to not only the increasing numbers of Asian tourists, but also the domestic anime and video game otaku who wander the streets on weekends in search of used comics and games. The main street is a covered shopping arcade, but the best action occurs on the side streets to the west, where a vast network of used electronics shops, cheap eateries, and maid cafes vie for attention from the pasty, exercise-deprived strollers mostly dressed in black.
The most interesting time for a visit is during the Nipponbashi Street Festa in mid-March, when the entire neighborhood plays host to an immense cosplay street party. While it is a fascinating peek into this often overlooked aspect of Japanese culture, I all find it a bit much, and spend the remainder of the afternoon sifting through used vinyl records at Disk J.J., one of the oldest used record stores in Osaka that has somehow managed to survive the onslaught of digital downloads that have put most of its competitors out of business.
One of the many maid cafes dotted throughout Den Den Town - image © Wes Lang
By the time I have finished my browsing, the sun has made another welcome appearance, and the neighborhood looks somewhat more cheerful and brighter in the late afternoon light. It’s all part of the magic of wandering through the streets of Osaka, where first impressions are often not what they seem.
About Wes Lang
Wes Lang is a freelance writer based in Osaka whose work has appeared in the Japan Times, Kansai Scene, and Outdoor Japan. He runs the website Hiking in Japan, which provides comprehensive English-language hiking information for Japan's mountains. He is currently writing a guidebook to the Japan Alps scheduled for release in 2018.
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