They call it “Marine Air” because you have to swim to get there

I speak, of course, about Kobe Airport, the latest boondoggle in Osaka Bay. I was in the area this weekend and I decided I would hop over for a visit on Sunday.

What a mistake. Continue reading They call it “Marine Air” because you have to swim to get there

Kobe Airport opens, but far more wackiness might be in store

Kobe Airport, the third passenger airport in the Kansai region, opened just a couple of hours ago. So what’s next? How about a tunnel from Kobe to Kansai?

The “Cross-Osaka Bay Railroad” is envisioned to connect JR Shin-Kobe Station and Kansai Airport via Kobe Airport in 30 minutes, using linear motor cars over the total distance of 36 km. The Kobe Airport-Kansai Airport run will take only 17 min. The cost of the tunnel is expected to be 530 billion yen.

Apparently, this was one of those crazy bubble-era ideas that fell apart after the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and the stagnant traffic numbers at Kansai in the late 90’s. But now, authorities are saying that if traffic at Kansai picks up, the airport may have to go international-only, and this project might be needed to keep a steady flow of passengers between domestic and international flights. Hyogo Prefecture seems to be warming to the idea, but Kobe City and Kansai Airport (perhaps fortunately) think it’s pretty ridiculous.

Japan doesn’t like black people? No, all foreigners are screwed

And here’s the proof: Black man loses lawsuit against exclusionary store; not deemed a discriminatory statement. But take a look at why the claim was kicked out of court:

The man who brought the suit is 41-year-old Steve MacGowan. On September 4, 2004, MacGowan and another black friend were looking at eyeglasses in the window of an optician in Osaka. The store owner came to the front, said “Get out! We don’t like black people here!” and kept the two out of the store. The suit was filed in October of that year.

The decision, following MacGowan’s allegations of violations of constitutional equal protection provisions, focused upon the existence of a discriminatory statement. The judgment: “The plaintiff’s ability in Japanese creates a substantial problem. We cannot overlook the chance that the statement made on that day was almost completely miscomprehended.”

So the bottom line is, unless your Japanese is absolutely perfect, you’d better have some native witnesses around if you want to win in court. Or better yet, carry a tape recorder.

(Thanks to Debito for the tip.)

JR, Hankyu Smart Tickets Now Mutually Compatible

This is just one more stop on the long, slow road toward mutual compatibility in so-called high-tech Japan. JR East and West still have separate RFID tickets (Suica and Icoca respectively — click links for image character goodness), but at least they at some point became mutually compatible. Now it looks like there is some hot Private train-on-public train action going on (Abstracted from Nikkei):

Icocca, Pitapa Services Mutual Compatibility Begins, Commemorative Ceremony Held at Hankyu Umeda Station

Mutual use of JR West’s Icoca and the PiTaPa service (which despite its wacky name amazingly does NOT seem to have a cutesy image character associated with it! Oh wait, I should have known…) used on private-owned Keihan, Hankyu, and the public Osaka City Subway (Note: JR East, West, and all other regional branches of JR are also technically private but still considered separate from the 私鉄 or “private” train companies, which are in turn separate from city-owned subway lines.) became mutually compatible starting January 21. Yoshimi Taniguchi of the Kinki Transit Bureau (which collects statistics and manages licenses in addition to apparently administering an interpreter exam for tour guides) expressed hopes that such tie-ups would expand to buses and other modes of public transportation.

Customers praised the convenience of no longer having to buy a ticket when switching lines (Note: Of course, the chief benefit to regular users of both lines would simply be to no longer have to carry an extra card in their wallets…)

There are differences in the two systems, however, that complicate matters: Icoca is a pre-paid service (like Washington DC’s SmarTrip), while “post-pay” PiTaPa collects funds from bank accounts. When customers use PiTaPa for JR, they will have to revert to a prepaid system and insert funds at ticket terminals at the station.

So there was this guy in my high school class…

(For those of you wondering who I am, hi! I’m Joe. You might know me from my blog. Mutantfrog invited me to come over, so you’ll see me blogging around here from time to time.)

Anyway, as I was saying, there was this guy in my high school class, back when I was on exchange at a shady municipal school in Osaka. His name was Taro (no, not really). He was an interesting fellow for a number of reasons, but the first thing that would probably strike you was his size. I was the tallest person in our school at around 185 cm (including the basketball shoes I wore around because stock school shoes wouldn’t fit me). Taro was very close to my height, but was solid muscle. He wore his uniform shirt open to drive this point home.

He was captain of the judo club and appeared in kendo club from time to time. In judo class, I was his partner. I was never sure why: maybe because we were about the same height, maybe because the teacher secretly hated me. Whenever Taro threw me into the mat, I suspected the latter.

Once you got to know him, you realized that Taro wasn’t just a brick. No, he was also certifiably insane. For one thing, he was the only person in the school who never spoke to me in Japanese: he would only speak guttural high school English. To humor him, I would speak English back.

We were standing in line one day with our shirts off, waiting for a doctor to give us a quick stethoscoping, and I couldn’t help but notice that Taro had a giant red swastika-shaped scar on his right bicep, with a solid red circle right above it. I realized that he must have dug these into his arm with a sharp object. He realized that I was looking at his body art, so I hazarded a question. “Um, do you like Hitler?”

“Yeees!” he answered, with a big smile. “I llllove Hit-la! And Yamamoto, do you know Yamamoto?”

He read books on Chinese close-combat tactics in class, and one time on a field trip, in between random sexual harrassment of our cute homeroom teacher, he turned to me and said: “I AM SAMURAI!”

To which I replied: “Samurai? So where are your swords?”

“I can’t carry!” Taro said. “There’s a law!”

Five years later, I went back to Osaka and met some of my classmates, as well as the aforementioned cute teacher. There were stories about kids who had become truck drivers and graduate students, and one five-foot-tall girl from the art club who had joined the Self-Defense Forces (!). But no mention of Taro. And I’m disappointed, because I want to know if he’s off driving a speaker truck somewhere.

Osaka Nostalgia Part 1

When I was an exchange student in 1999, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the other exchange students in Osaka. Led by a wily and hep raver pimp who shall remain nameless, we galavanted about town, club-hopping, flirting, complaining about our high schools, practicing Japanese with our entourage of official groupies, and drinking a lot. Given its convenient location, the Osaka/Umeda station was our hangout of choice. In particular, we spent lots of time waiting for each other in front of Big Man, a giant TV in front of Umeda station, pictured here:

For the year we spent on the exchange , Umeda station was something of a playground, or more of a launching pad for our numerous antics and mayhem. Safe from the watchful eyes of our parents and tossed into a society too polite to tell us no, we exchangers (who mostly hailed from Europe, Canada, and the US but included souls from such exotic places as Brazil and Australia as well) scammed the trains big time (more on that later), took advantage of Japan’s strange legal loopholes, sat around for hours nursing one cup of Mr. Donuts coffee, went on violent drunken rampages, hooked up with each other, hooked up with kids from the schools, hooked up with host sisters, got people pregnant (or “took it to the house” as one of my Swedish friends put it) and that’s just scratching the surface. I didn’t perpetrate all of the above myself, mind you, but I just want to emphasize that Umeda station was the launch site for all this madness. (Go to this Flickr site or this awesome site for more of an idea of what I’m talking about).

That is why I am saddened to hear that, according to the latest eyewitness reports, the beautiful Hankyu Umeda station in Osaka is being torn apart as part of area renovation plans. Hankyu is planning a full-scale revitalization of its flagship store in Umeda, and in the process developers have scaffolded off the entire station. This story tells of people saying their last goodbyes to the Old Umeda Concourse:

Anticipating the loss of the station they knew so well, Osakans capture the final moments of the Umeda Concourse in Kita-ku.

Saying Goodbye to Old Hankyu Umeda Station Concourse Walls

Sept. 13, Asahi Shimbun

Starting Sept. 14, the old Hankyu Railways Umeda Station Concourse will see a construction fence go up around it as part of the renovation project of Hankyu’s Umeda flagship department store. That means that the mosaic murals that line the tall walls and ceilings of the station will no longer be visible. Those who came to say goodbye brought their cameras to “capture the elegant form” of the station.

The fence will go up directly over the 6-meter wide walking path. The ceiling will be removed within the fiscal year, but Hankyu Railways is considering saving the murals and chandeliers.

I had originally thought that this was talking about this gigantic hallway:

To get to any subway station from Hankyu trains you have to pass through this area, one of the few expansive, open areas that I encountered in the “beautiful urban jungle” of Osaka. I think the Old Concouse actually refers to an old area of the station located away from any trains or foot traffic. It has cool little murals like this:

But to tell you the truth I CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER!! This makes me even sadder than hearing it’s getting redone!

More than anything, thinking back on all this reminds me that I can never go back to my salad days as an exchange student.

As my own way of saying goodbye, Here are some random pictures of Umeda station that I culled from Google Image search:
Continue reading Osaka Nostalgia Part 1

My new favorite phenomenon

The donut phenomenon
This article about the demolition of a school in Osaka had an interesting explanation:

At its peak in 1958, the school had 1,270 enrolled students.

But 30 years down the track, the so-called donut phenomenon” had taken hold.

Osaka’s downtown population headed for the suburbs leaving a gaping hole in the city center-and a serious shortage of school-age kids. By 1989, Aijitsu Elementary School had just 47 students and it was forced to integrate the following year with nearby Kaihei Elementary School.

Mmm, donut phenomenon.

Umeda Hankyu Department Store to be Rebuilt

From Asahi:

Construction to begin August 16

Hankyu Dept. Stores announced that it would begin construction on the rebuilding of its flagship store in Umeda (Osaka Kita-ku) on August 16. Beginning in the South part, they will complete the first stage of construction by Fall 2007. Since the store will lose 30% of their its total sales floor space during construction, Hankyu plans a broad reduction in its living room and food merchandise while maintaining the present level (90%) of floor space for its main product, clothing. It is a strategy aimed at minimizing the effects of construction while trying to attract customers in the fiercely competitive North District of Osaka.

The reconstruction will come in two stages, to be fully completed in the Spring of 2011. After completion, the new building will be an composite commercial building (41 stories above ground, 2 below, with the department store taking up 13 of them). Sales space will expand from the current 61,000 square meters to approximately 84,000 square meters to become the largest department store in Japan.

However, the company predicts that it will not be able to avoid a loss in revenue during the construction, placing an estimate of 25% from current sales numbers (192,000,000,000 yen in March 2005). Such concerns drove the decision to change the sales structure in an effort to increase sales as much as possible.

After beginning construction, Hankyu will tear down an event area in the north side of the store and build a new 5-story building in order to save floor space. They will also install a temporary sales area above the concourse of Hanyku Umeda station.

This will create 5,000 square meters of floor space, securing space for women’s clothing, dry goods, and cosmetics. They will also eliminate some of their restaurants and a rooftop playground.

Further measures to counter revenue losses will be needed when the second stage of construction begins in Autumn 2007. By 2014, Hankyu plans to open 4 suburban department stores and 6 supermarkets a year in an effort to transform their revenue structure.

In “Kita” the North District that includes the JR Osaka Station area, rival department store Daimaru is also planning an expansion, and Mikoshi, which closed in May, has plans to open a store in a new building on the north side of Osaka station. While enduring a rebuilding period, Hankyu is attempting to grow in scale and “maintain its position as number one in the region.”

Comment: I’ll miss the old Osaka, but maybe the new one will look even cooler somehow.

Hanshin Tigers Taxis to debut in front of Koshien

“The stripes on the uniform are actually vertical”
The New Honorary Player
The Hanshin Train Group Co.’s Hanshin Taxi (Located in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Pref.) is set to debut taxis embossed with Japanese Pro Baseball’s Hanshin Tigers logo and uniform design on the body of the car.

Using 7 of its 280 vehicles, it plans to run them for a period of 1 year. The Hanshin Group has run buses decked out with Hanshin logos before, but this is a first for their taxis.

They will kick off the taxis’ first day of operation with a ceremony in front of Koshien stadium, where the Tigers play.

My Comment: I hope I get to see those taxis in real life 😀

Protecting Manzai and Takoyaki

Osaka Prefecture to Enact New Law

On Jan. 18th, Osaka Prefecture affirmed its intention to preserve local mass culture from Noh theater to Rakugo, Manzai, and Takoyaki with the “Osaka Culture Law.” After submitting it to the local legislature in February they expect to enact it by April. According to prefectural authorities, 8 other prefectures already have similar laws, such as Hokkaido, Tokyo, and Kumamoto, but this is a first for the Kansai region. Continue reading Protecting Manzai and Takoyaki