03.07.2009, Osaka 12th day


Osaka is not large, it is endless. It simply doesn't stop. In fact it doesn't stop, it merges with Kyoto and Nara to the north as well as Kobe and Akashi to the east. To the west I was only able to explore to the point at which Kansai International airport pops up, but it probably doesn't end there either. It is truly boundless and in its endlessness the centre of Japan has become one gigantic urban agglomeration with larger centres containing smaller centres of intensified urbanism, which themselves, and at their own scale, similarly exhibit all the characteristics of the infinite. Sprawl is a good word in this case, as it combines, according to the dictionary, stretch, nonchalance and messiness. All those words fit Osaka. There is a nonchalant messiness about its endlessly stretched urban fabric. And yet it only has some 2.7 million in habitants, all of them disciplined and practiced in a culture that uses its space in its own special way.
We arrived in the morning by train from Kyoto at the Umeda station, an example of one of the small microcosmic infinite centres just mentioned, endless as it interlocks and feeds the subterranean commercial malls and warehouses in its vicinity such as the Hankyu Departments stores, huge worlds within worlds of magic consumption-production. Next to the Hearton Hotel, where we stayed, is the Hilton Plaza, one of many towers around that area we might characterise as Business Bland, with its heterotopic mirror surfaces, its greys and whites with which the corporate business man imposes his reflection of the world as the world. He is no more than his view of the world and his view of the world is the reflection of the world in his facade. And the more his corporate world reflects other corporate worlds, the more his world becomes his reflection of it: a gigantic abstract market, a great freedom. The worst or best example of business bland, taking it well into the absurd realms of science fiction corporatism, is a gigantic tower to the north of the station, called, in a Stalinesque command to defy empirical cogency, the floating garden observatory. It consists of two parallel twenty-something storey slabs with a heavy UFO mounted on top of it, pierced at acute angles by two trusses which I believe house escalators. On the other side of the Hearton Hotel there is the Monterey Hotel which has a "Sky-chapel" built into its atrium on about the 10th floor, with its choir mounted on a huge ornamental bracket, overhanging the city. Sky-chapels form part of a popular wedding culture in Japan, Hotels advertise elaborate package wedding deals showing ever smiley brides in wonderful white dresses embedded in the language of flowers and eternity.

We walked south from the station, crossing two small rivers, branches of the main river running through Osaka the Yodogawa river. Every so often there were posters hanging up advertising an exhibition comparing Osaka with Venice. My first reaction, I have to confess, was ridicule. Osaka is no Venice, I thought to myself, scandalised at the very thought. And then I thought of the history of Venice and realised I was being precious. In fact my initial snobbery made the relationship all the more interesting as it unfolded. The difference is, of course, far less dramatic than you might think. Both cities were produced by sea trade and the delight in commerce. The main difference is the materials of which the buildings are made. Osaka likes plastic, gold, silver, tiled cladding, corrugated iron, concrete and in every combination. Venice is more august with its use of marble and stone. For the rest they become rather similar as one thinks about their differences. And Osaka does not necessarily lose out. Osaka's representative architecture, is corporate and bland, in Venice it is private nd glorious and where public, it is religious or wonderfully ostentatious, but mostly refined. One cannot say that of Osaka. Ostentatious maybe but never refined. The traditional love of detail and fine-tuned making does not extend to the run of the mill modern architecture with which Osaka is filled. The urban tissue in both cities is thick and dense, especially along the waterfronts. Osaka is just as wild in its occupation of space as Venice is. In Osaka commercial exploitation can move along all axes, including the vertical. In Venice the labyrinthine stacking of spaces is legendary. Where in Venice the building mass is carved into by streets, quays and bridges, Osaka boasts wildly curvaceous viaducts stringing themselves through what remains of a grid when it has to fit itself to the contingencies of meandering rivers. In fact they weave their roots through the urban tissue like the roots of trees covering the temples of Ankor Wat in Cambodia, or indeed like the roots of trees in the temples of Kyoto, that engrave their growth into the green moss that covers the ground and their trunks. At the node near Hommachi Station branches of these viaducts jostle and quicken their rhythm of curves and height to link and separate, splitting and fusing to create ramps for access and diffusion, the city as flow and the city as place blend into a rich and aggressive spectacle of urban dynamism. As they race through the fabric of the city the Viaducts become roofs and buildings become pylons.
The city is given. To its inhabitants, this spectacle is no more than what is given. The city becomes, just what it is: urban fabric. People buy their sushi and their stockings. Lorries overhead, rush by. People cross the street with the disconsolate look of another day. While Ralph and I were photographing, a man turned towards me as he was crossing the road and asked with uncharacteristic fluency: "What do you find so interesting." This sentence haunted me. I did find it all interesting. I told him I had never seen anything like this before and he smiled. I don't know what he made of me, but his smile was not a simple smile, it may have even contained pride. But maybe he was simply satisfied with my answer, ah yes, if you've never seen anything like this before, then I can easily understand. This is city! Take it or leave it. Loads of people take it for what it is. But what has it become in their daily experience of it? A syneasthetic New World Symphony of visual, aural and olfactory depth, becomes just as invisible when it is familiar as any other place. It is people who dull to things, not the other way around. One needs to practice one's interest, practice one's disappointment.

We walked on towards the Minami district, first of all passing over the dotomborigawa river with an urban morphology not unlike the canals of Amsterdam, except that the narrow lots with their tall facades, pushing commercial activity upwards, looked more like Amsterdam-gone-Gotham. Facades in Japan are curious things, people show different things in their face, perhaps because they are very conscious of the danger of losing face. I don't know. Nevertheless a facade is something different. Traditional Japanese architecture hardly knows its façade. It is a veil. A veil reveals more and at the same time less than a façade. What is nice about Osaka as opposed to Kyoto is that the façades hide behind a wild use of advertising in light and colour, cladding the surfaces of most buildings and jumping from the wings into the perspectival lines of straight streets stretching into nothingness. Buildings, when naked, tend to show their concrete raw, spouting pipes, tubes and wires. But they appear skiulfully ignored in the experience of the city. They become invisible by negation. The city is one huge visual and aural tableau of brazen commercialism and one has to have the courtesy to see only what one is meant to see, otherwise how could one survive in a world of paper walls and nightingale floorboards? Girls and boys are hired to supplement the visual advertising of shops and restaurants, paid to chant the tempting qualities of this or that restaurant or gambling joint situated somewhere on a 7th floor of this or that building. These chants have to compete with shops lucky enough to have their premises on the ground floor. Shops coloured light blue and pink; streams of people shopping and walking the city as the best show in town. The Minami district is one big shopping district, where the streets are mostly covered in plastic tunnel vaults cutting across the buildings' indifferent facades. Whenever you think the arcade ends you can see it or its brother continuing on the other side of the road. It has to be seen to be believed. And here, at night, the girls and boys come out to play. Dressed to kill, the girls walk two by two, hand in hand and the boys, their hair in wild Zaha Hadid-like compositions, stand around in their sultry way, feigning disinterest at the magic surrounding them.

When we moved away from the commercial veins of the city things became quieter, the sounds of cars and underground railways as well as isolated calls took the foreground and buildings collapsed in height. We took the underground to the harbour, getting out at Osakako station, near the aquarium which the guide had earmarked, together with the reconstructed castle of Osaka, as the city's greatest attractions. He had obviously not seen the city itself. We resisted the temptation of the aquarium and turned back to follow the line of the underground, itself hitched up onto a double-decker viaduct with a wide dual carriageway stretching out overhead. We went back into the city only to arrive at a fantastic spaghetti junction of viaducts, bridges, roads, harbours, canals and buildings called the Tempozan. We tried to gain access to the harbour but were kindly refused entry and encouraged to move on. We did and slowly walked back to the "centre" of the city through areas of relative poverty watching a bath house open its premises as it was being invaded by joyfully impatient Japanese ladies chatting urgently to each other and crawling under the roll-down shutter which was opening far too slowly for their liking. We presumed that each one wanted to be first in the water. But that may just be our inability to imagine a better reason. We were tired. We ended the day, exhausted, watching the light show of city life in a small restaurant and drank too much beer.

The next day I went to Himeji castle and enjoyed that, particularly the exhibited print recording the fingerprint topography of one of the samurai swords given by the lord of the castle to one of his samurai knights. It showed the exact and unique line of the sharpened edge on a scale of 1:1 so that the sword could be easily identified. The castle itself is a wonderful example of military morphology and geometry and as a structure, hugely impressive. However, it had to be said, I was very keen to get back to Osaka. Ando's museum in Himeji doesn't deserve mention. That man made some good buildings, what ever happened with the other ones?

Women's waiting area for the train
Feet at the Himeji Castle
The geography of a sword
Door at Himeji