Aug 112013


The grand canyon of shopping centers ...

The grand canyon of shopping centers …

Osaka Ali enjoys a prime shopping experience as much as the next lad. Although not yet having the pleasure, he was tempted to peruse the shops and gardens of the enticing downtown complex known as “Namba Parks”. Envisioned and planned by world famous shopping mall designer John Jerde of Venice, California, the marquee advertisement at the Nankai train station concourse made for attractive thoughts of a visit.

The shopping mall is built on the former grounds of Osaka stadium. The image is of an curvaceous, multi-level space. The curves and colors remind one of the undulating surfaces of a Southwestern American canyon, carved by ancient watercourse. But this is no ancient geological marvel. It is the result of an architecture and construction project that came to fruition in 2002.

Since its completion, the Namba Parks shopping center seems to have lost none of its charm. It boasts a rich collection of fashion boutiques, shops, cinemas and food galore. It seems the Namba Parks restaurant collection includes a Kua’aina (クア・アイナ) franchise, rumored to serve up a mean hawaiian-style burger.

But the main attraction for O.A. is the babylon-style roof gardens accessible to the public. It seems the designers wanted to bring nature into the congested city. That is a welcomed move as far as Osaka Ali is concerned. Nature, shopping, entertainment and food all in one elegantly crafted package is what Namba Parks is for you to enjoy.

Has anyone visited this lovely place?

To find Namba Parks, take the train to Namba Station, Nankai Line (難波駅 [南海] 大阪府). From the station head southeast. Take the crosswalk, then the access path and finally up the pedestrian overpass escalator.



Aug 052013

In various locales throughout the Kansai region, construction is proceeding to change the landscape of many neighborhoods. While the results of construction can make the places we live, learn, work and relax much better, the process can be painful and inconvenient for everyone who has to be near the project. Of course, construction makes noise … a lot of noise.

But Japan displays a continuing commitment to providing another level of service and consideration to all of the people who will have to live with the demolition, repair and building. The exhibit shown below is one example of this. It is a large display of a machine that measures noise and vibrations generated by a road construction project. Not far from this mechanism is a public school, a library and many residences. The machine has a microphone and vibration detector. The LED display shows the decibel level and vibration level for the whole day. Anyone can see the monitor from almost any direction.

If the noise level goes too high, the construction foreman can make corrections. If the vibration level goes too high, the neighborhood residents and workers can make a complaint to the same foreman and construction company.

Osaka Ali doesn’t know if such a system is widespread in other places in the world, but it seems very in character for Japanese society. Care and consideration of others is an artform here. And the Japanese are always seeking ways to improve service so that disturbances to the fabric of life are minimal.

What do you think of this noise and vibration monitor? Do they have this kind of system in your town? If not, would you want it to be used where you live and work? Why or why not?

の騷音 Full Noise level today only

只今の振動 Full vibration today only

Monitor and shielded microphone with stand ...

Monitor and shielded microphone with stand …


Nov 062012

When my Japanese friends ask me to translate the word tanuki I am always a   little unsure of how to answer. The most popular translation I have seen is “raccoon dog” but I have also heard “raccoon,” “badger,” and “mischievous demon.”  The tanuki is a real life animal rarely found outside of Japan. It’s cuddly, it’s cute, and it is well referenced in Japanese literature, proverbs, mythology, and art—particularly statuary. The tanuki is most famous for several distinct characteristics and the fact that it loves to play tricks on people.

According to Wikipedia, the tanuki has 8 traits it can be identified by:

*a hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather;
*big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions;
*a sake bottle that represents virtue;
*a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved;
*over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck;
*a promissory note that represents trust or confidence;
*a big belly that symbolizes bold and calm decisiveness; and
*a friendly smile

Most laughable to foreigners are the tanuki’s in-your-face…um…pokéballs. You’ll see the smiling tanuki in storefronts, sold in gift shops, and I even found one in a men’s restroom with everything hanging out. We had a bit of a staring contest. He really made me feel stupid then uncomfortable, but alas that is what the tanuki specializes in.

A tanuki in Japanese folklore can shape-shift. It is said a kitsune or fox has seven forms, but a tanuki has eight. While the fox uses its powers to tempt people (sexy jutsu anyone?) a tanuki changes its shape to deceive. I recall reading an old Japanese tale where a tanuki becomes a teapot, but he is discovered when someone puts the pot on a fire to prepare some tea. Tanuki are not the smartest of creatures.

I’ll leave you with a proverb about tanuki:


Reading: Toranu tanuki no kawa zan’you
Japanese Meaning: Counting the skins of badgers you have not yet caught

English Equivalent: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”

Oct 142012

The mountainous terrain of Japan crams people into a few major concentrated cities whereby sidewalks can be just as crowded as local streets. Everywhere you go it seems there is nowhere to relax–a real problem if you want some alone time with a spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend. One of Japan’s solutions is the love hotel. When Westerners hear the word “love hotel” images of cheap, sleazy, and dirty motels come to mind. Yet Japan has made the love hotel experience a clean, fun, and relaxing world of privacy.

Sometimes love hotels are hidden and other times they are right out in       the open. During the 80’s and 90’s it was normal for love hotel   architecture to take on fantastical form. Castles or loud designs to attract attention were widespread and can still be found in parts of Japan. More common is a plain-looking establishment slightly off the main streets of highways. Many love hotels look just like ordinary buildings from the outside. There is no sign that says “Love Hotel Here,” but there is one way to tell if the place you will lodge is a regular establishment or one of a more intimate nature. A sign outside the front entrance will have two prices: one for overnight, and one option for a few hours “rest.”

Today’s love hotels stress the importance of privacy. Busy city love hotels have an entrance with only a control panel to greet you. You choose a room from what is lit on the control panel (darkened rooms mean they are occupied). Select the room, pay for it there at the panel and follow lit up arrows on the wall or floor to you room. Other hotels have their own systems. Some have interaction with a human, but there is no visual contact. A small counter is where money is exchanged and voice communication is over intercom. This prevents any embarrassment. In the countryside where a car is essential, love hotels are a bit different. Parking lots open up to over a dozen small buildings with attached garages. Pull into a garage and pull and lock the curtain to show others that the attached room is occupied, but more importantly to prevent anyone from catching a glimpse of your car or license plate. Pay at an ATM in the hallway and the door to your room unlocks.

It is hard to say what happens exactly in a love hotel. Since they are private and the rooms are much larger than regular hotel rooms, the options are endless. Sometimes people hold parties in them. Also there is often karaoke systems in the room included in the room charge, so in reality a karaoke outing in the room and bringing your own alcohol can end up cheaper than going out to karaoke, plus you can sleep in the room. Since pets are not allowed inside most hotels, my friend stays at love hotels because she can sneak her dog in. After entering the room though, there are obvious hints that this is a place of romance. Often a Jacuzzi style bath or large shower, an emperor’s sized bed, and sexy toys or costume catalogues are there to use at your leisure or a small fee.

Love hotels are uniquely Japanese. What you decide to do inside them is your choice.

Sep 072012

Osaka Ali rides the Hankyu Line train often and his eye frequently goes a-wandering. Recently, an in-car ad for a University called Ritsumeikan in Kyoto caught his attention. The poster was attractive enough to get him to look at their website. The events page yielded an even more interesting find: a panel discussion with the former president of the Japan Foundation, Kazuo Ogura. The title of the discussion was what hooked him, “Geneology of Anti-Globalism”. Faaascinating …

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Ogura was recently invited to be a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan, a role to which he brings considerable experience. The Japan Foundation is a government organization (part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) that promotes Japan and Japanese culture around the world. Their main work includes arts and cultural programs, Japanese language education and intellectual exchange. As president of the Japan Foundation, Ogura oversaw literary symposia on the work of Haruki Murakami, arts exchanges with Afghan craftsmen, educational programs for Chinese students, programs for teens in disater-struck Aceh, Indonesia, co-operation between the US and Japan after Hurricane Katrina and the launch of the Japanese in Anime and Manga website. He additionally served as a deputy foreign minister for the Japanese government as well as an ambassador to three countries. He was joined on the panel by two other professors at the Ritsumeikan College of International Relations.

Osaka Ali decided to check it out, understand his adopted country a little better, and find out from the panel why they think that the world is turning against the idea of globalism. From the sub-prime crisis to the financial meltdown in Europe to the Arab Spring, the global fabric has been straining and tearing. Now grass roots phenomena like the Occupy movement are growing and spreading. “Geneology of Anti-Globalism” sought to learn where these movements came from, what birthed them, how they survive and thrive and how they are influenced by their local conditions.

The discussion covered many topics ranging from the number of democratic countries vs autocratic ones, export and import flows, money transfers, the degree of freedom of expression in various countries, the loss of languages and dialects, the proliferation of Non-governmental Organizations and even the number of foreign films to Japanese films in the Japanese movie market. It was enough to make an amateur researcher’s head spin (are you still with me?). Norihisa Yamashita and GyongSu Mun, both professors at the Ritsumeikan College of International Relations, also enriched the conversation contributing perspectives on the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty and Japan-Korea relations. Luckily all was made understandable by very capable translators commissioned by the University staff.

Who’s down with TPP? (Yeah, you know me)

After the discussion, Ali got a chance to talk to Professor Ogura and was able to ask him what his view of recent activities by anti-Globalist movements meant as well as what it means to be pro-, counter- or even perhaps alterna- globalism. His answer was a surprise in its simplicity. He said, “People reject globalism when they feel that they cannot participate. When you feel that globalism is something being done to you, you might reasonably reject it.” Participation in society, government, the world is the answer when the interconnected world makes life less than ideal and more like a straightjacket. The message Ali took from the conference is that the world will inevitably become smaller, but opportunity and duty require our participation and our voices. Even learning to communicate in a new language is way to participate, to be active and not a passive victim of global changes.

The panel participants with Professor Ogura at far left

After that Osaka Ali realized that he had a international-sized hunger in his belly. Heading home, he stopped in downtown Osaka. He had to reach out for a little bit of familiarity, somewhere, somehow … comfort food. But where to find the right meal after the deep intellectual discussions, amongst throngs of gastronomic choices available in downtown Umeda? Then, turning around after passing through the station, it stood just ahead … a grand announcement of the only kind of meal that could satisfy. The “Big America Grand Canyon” burger at McDonald’s. Osaka Ali made his way into the familiar fast food paradise without reluctance. Globalization 1 – Osaka Ali 0 …

The Monster Truck of Burgers

Jul 292012

How many of us haven’t dreamed of becoming a ninja? I, like many others sometimes felt Akita Prefecture in Northern Tohoku is nothing special. At times it seems the rice fields outnumber the population of the towns I walk through. But, for those in the know and have a warrior’s passion, there is one place to hone your skills, if you know the secret.


Located a 10 minute drive, 40 minute walk or 20 minute ninja jog away from Akita International University is the inconspicuously named Athletic Field. But the sign can hardly fool a soul as in the immediate background lies a massive tower of nets, monkey bars, ropes, stairs, and ramps. If this is an ‘athletic field’ it must be for only the toughest of athletes.

Pass the family of cats that live in the abandoned electric transfer station along the main road, or take a trip through the bear-infested woods to find a ninja camp even few students at the nearby university don’t know about. For a few yen coins, you can run around to your heart’s content throughout countless number of obstacles and challenges. There are set courses and multiple paths of difficulty to test your balance, strength, speed, courage, determination, and will power. And forget about American safety standards. This place is aging and several obstacles were closed for repairs. Other times I found myself hanging from ropes 10 feet off the ground and my strength almost giving out. If I dropped, there was nothing to catch my but the hard earth.  But risking your life is only part of the fun!

Words can’t describe how awesome this place is. I almost lost my balance on a swinging wooden bridge crossing a gorge, snaked through nets, used ropes to swing across a pit to kick some hanging logs, and sped down a zip line for the big finale. The massive tower you see in one of the pictures is a beast! Naturally, it is the last obstacle after a day of sweat and torture, but also a day with a lot of smiles. Climbing to the top, you really feel you conquered the world. Yes, that day I was a ninja.

What’s your ninja story?


Jul 092012

Osaka Ali has been told that in the land of the Rising Sun, religion is a taboo subject of conversation. But I find it hard to observe this proscription, especially when spirituality can be so kitschy and cute. So, let’s broach it, shall we? Look at this urban diety:

Kind of makes you want bow to him with a handful of incense and then tickle his feet, don’t you agree? Who is this sidewalk god-ity? His name is Billiken, and he is a sort of patron saint of free wheeling-and-dealing downtown Osaka. If you are thinking what I was thinking the first time that I saw him, you are wondering where he came from. He could be the obscure love-child of an enlightened being and a Kewpie doll, for all we know.

In actual fact, Billiken is not native to Osaka, or Japan, or even Asia. Billiken is American, in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events. He was born in 1908 in St. Louis, Missouri, the brainchild of Florence Pretz, an American art teacher and inventor. Initially, her creation was designed to serve as a charm doll novelty to be marketed to children in the US who were fascinated by all things exotic.

Billiken’s popularity grew, morphed and eventually waned, but not before he made it to the shores of Japan. The figurine’s debut here occurred in 1912 at the opening of Luna Park, a long disappeared Osaka attraction. It has been said that Billiken idols were even installed in some actual Shinto shrines to be honored, but were removed when war clouds emerged over the Pacific and western cultural imports fell out of favor.

As immortalized in the classic film “Waterloo Bridge” (1940), buying a Billiken is good luck, but receiving a Billiken as a gift is better luck still. What are Billiken’s main attributes? It is hard to say, really. One part of the Billiken metaphysical philosophy might be “It’s all good”. Another part might be “No worries, mate”. But my favorite is found in the inscription on the bottom of this Billiken idol found on the streets of Osaka near Yodogawa station: The God of the Way Things Ought to Be. That’s groovy …

So, if you find yourself in Osaka and you are temple-and-shrine-hopping, make sure to make a pilgrimmage to visit the venerable Billiken. Rub his soles for good luck. Then imagine how things ought to be.

The Original Osaka Billiken idol can be found in the historic Tsutenkaku Tower located at 1-18-6 Ebisu-Higashi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka, 556-0002. Admission is 600 for adults, 300 for kids. The tower is open year-round. (

Special thanks to Akie Watanabe of All Star Tours for first enlightening Osaka Ali about the legend of Billiken.

Jul 062012

You see strange things on the streets of Osaka. A professor of art once told me that a defining characteristic of Mexico City was its surrealism. So far in my experience, Osaka hasn’t matched El Districto Federal in the surrealism department, but sometimes it comes close … like the time I was walking through the suburbs surrounding Kansai University and witnessed a man taking a walk with his calico cat … on a retractable leash. He did this without a hint of self-consciousness. But the truly strange thing was that the cat accepted this situation as a completely natural circumstance. Of course, Osaka Ali took this event as proof positive of the imminent end times. Sorry readers, I didn’t have the guts to take his picture and post it here. Perhaps next time.

On the other hands, ummm, hand, I did have the cojones to snap a shot of this:

Easy rider …

Quite a handful an eyeful. Did Salvador Dali design this bicycle seat and forget to license it to Avocet? Well, it appears to be a beautiful accessory attached to an attractive custom “Von Dutch” style pinstriped cruiser bicycle. From what I could tell, the material of this saddle was a black polyurethane surface. I don’t think that it had inscribed handprints and fingerprints, so it wasn’t totally realistic, but I guess it was satisfactorily realistic enough for the owner to install it and presumably ride it. Notice the conveniently placed beer can. Do you think that the bike came from the factory with this seat as a standard option? All that I can say in hindsight *ahem* is that this bicycle seat gives new meaning to the word, “ergonomic”.

Does any reader know who manufactures this saddle?

This artifact was found at approximately 34.706561,135.499287

Jun 302012


Sumo is the traditional sport of Japan. Sumo tournaments throughout the year bring communities together as wrestlers not only fight for the championship title of yokozuna, but to entertain the gods. Sumo is steeped in Shinto religious references through rice throwing, purification through drinking water, and respect to ritual through bows and procedures for entering and leaving the ring. But sumo is changing. Foreigners from outside Japan from places such as Mongolia, are dominating the sport. Looking to get on in some of the fun, the foreign community in Akita held their own sumo fun. And your very own Tohoku Thunder was there to represent!

On June 24th of this year, the Akita JET Association held their 8th annual foreign sumo tournament forall to enjoy. JET of course is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program that places Assistant Language Teachers throughout Japan. There were many current and former JET participants and since yours truly will apply for the program this coming year, I thought I should try on my sumo muwashi for size (it’s not a sumo diaper!). Following traditional rules with a little more humor and fun, the clash of the titans was about to begin!

My first match was against a former champion man twice my size. I thought I could trick him by sidestepping when he charged me at the start of the match. He didn’t fall for it. It wasn’t pretty as I tried to stay in the ring. The match is over when one person leaves the ring or when any body part besides the sole of the feet touch the ground. I was nearly hurled out of that ring. Many of us have battle scars from that day. It took a few more matches to get the hang of sumo. Advice from fellow sumo were to stay low, have confidence, and fight with all your heart. It was no longer fun and games, this was war.

It was my fourth match. Three loses had crushed my body, but not my spirit. My opponent and I slammed into each other. We danced around the ring trying to maintain balance and get an advantage. Several reversals and push and pulls resulted with me standing in the ring with  my opponent on the ground outside the ring. I had won!! At the end of the day I had won 3 out of 7 of my matches. I learned sumo wrestlers are real athletes. It is not easy to last so many rounds and give 100% while wearing so little body armor. The professional tournaments never come more north than Tokyo, so I was lucky to have this experience in Tohoku.

Proceeds from the tournament were donated to the March 11th Earthquake and Tsunami relief. Before departing we all agreed to train hard and battle again next year. We’ll see you there.

        The End.


Jun 192012

Mr. Manners has a friendly message for you…

Mr. Manners (Mister マナー) is your friendly cartoon character offering the uncouth all of the right tips to a civil express-train travel experience.

He greets you from the on-train advertising on the Nankai-Koya line in Osaka with his friendly smile, crisp green-framed glasses and M-logo utility belt. Check out his futuristic gettup with retro moonboots … He seems to point the way to intergalactic societal harmony. And of course, you can tell that he is well schooled in the intricacies of proper commuter etiquette. Obey and absorb what he says because he’s a model futurist.

What kind of soundtrack would you use if you were producing an animated PSA for Mr. Manners? Fusion Jazz? Electronica? Bossa Nova? 60′s era Moog music? ….. Ska?

But back to seriousness, what lessons does Mr. Manners have for us?

1. Keep the headphone volume down, lest you disturb your follow passengers…
2. Line up in two rows while awaiting your train in queue…
3. Throw your trash and recyclables in the proper receptacles (there are four … newspaper & magazines, pet bottles, glass bottles & cans and … other)
4. Mind your oversize bags… Other people need their space too, you know…

Yes, Mr. Manners cheerily offers the way to pleasant train riding for all travelers. Thank you Mr. Manners!


Osaka Ali