A 60s bridge, the feeling of the 60s which ended when I was seven came back in all its cold steel starkness the minimalist stairs you could see below them the trucks zooming under you 20 feet 30 feet 40 feet below the anxiety attack of a seven-year-old oh I don’t want to be here I can’t go back take a breath (kid on bicycle zooms down side-ramp, unconcerned) get to the top and walk across the wobbly thing as cars zoom by on the right a section of the expressway to Kobe make it across by looking into the calm dark water people probably wondering if I’m going to jump in (no way – that water’s filthy – only pretty when it’s dark) the lights of some small tower in the distance (probably pachinko) reflected in the waters in colours like the 60s something in the hue of the blue and the yellow due more to the printing process of the time I guess that saturation which had me looking at a magazine for what seemed like all evening though I couldn’t half read it yet spellbound by the pretty rich colours and then the other side of the bridge where the steps are all concrete from the 70s perhaps and I bound down them easily because I can’t see what’s below and then some grass and a tree and an empty street and I don’t know where I am which is an odd thing to cross a scary bridge for


Renovated Cracker Boxes – Before/After

Recently, I’ve got myself hooked on a popular home renovation programme which is on every Sunday night at eight on Asahi TV. Called Before/After , it’s a Japanese variation on all those fix-it shows that have been on for years in English-speaking countries (and probably others, but how would I know?). I learn things from it that the producers did not intend, and for that alone it’s worth checking out.

The programme follows a rigidly set formula (Japanese TV shows either meander pointlessly for hours or you can set your atomic clock by the predictability of their format – nothing in between). The programme uses the loan word “renewal”, which in Japanese usually means remodeling or renovation. More often than not, though,the houses on Before/After are simply gutted, leaving only the barest frame, which has a new house built around it. We are first introduced to a family who are living in cramped, unhappy quarters and are shown in uncomfortable detail the full crappiness of their lot (doing the laundry outside, then climbing onto the roof to hang out the wash; bathing in a tub the size of a sink, in a tiny, rotting bathroom; a front door opening out onto traffic, so that exits must be planned very carefully indeed; people literally climbing over piles of boxes because there is no storage space in the house – none; and on and on). They are then packed away, their home is quickly ripped up, and a new living space installed on the ashes of the old one; comparisons of before the renovation and after are made; the family is whisked back (minus, suspiciously, all the junk they were seen packing away in the beginning); gratitude (often tearful) is expressed to the designer, who personally shows them around their new home; finally, the happy family is seen having their first meal in the swanky new pad. Back in the studio, the host thanks the designer (renovator?) then he (or another member of the renovation team) is then assigned next week’s project.

The rule of the programme is that the architects have to work within the original dimensions of the house. Considering the size of a city lot in Japan, that’s (literally) not a lot of elbow room. Last week’s house was said to be 8 tsubo (坪,the traditional unit for measuring the area of land and floor space – it’s the size of 2 tatami mats, or 3.5m², or 38ft²). In other words, the entire house had the same amount of floor space as my apartment, roughly 43m² or 463ft²). I’m trying to imagine a family of three (with one on the way) functioning amiably in my apartment. I can’t. This programme tells you a lot about the assumptions of people here. And mine too, I suppose (incidentally, when I tell anyone Japanese the size of my flat, they invariably ask, “and you live alone…?” as if it were the penthouse suite at the Sheraton).

It must be said that some of the space-saving innovations shown on the programme are remarkable: drop-down fire-escape style staircases; drawers under beds that become night tables; intelligent shelving, which employs the height of the  wall space but makes everything within reach with a simple crank; a real attic – which, remarkably, few Japanese houses have – at the top of the house; retractable counter-tops in the kitchen. Last week’s featured a brilliant ventilation idea to keep the house from heating up in the summer – so simple that you wonder why it never occurred to anyone before (it’s not as though Japanese houses don’t need it – they’re stiflingly hot in the doldrums of summer).

But it’s the early segments which are morbidly fascinating – the lengths to which people will go to keep up the middle class ideal of owning your own home. The families portrayed on Before/After are not destitute – a Japanese audience couldn’t or wouldn’t relate to them if they were (a programme which did this work as obvious charity would only inspire envy, which is no recipe for success here). Although the TV families have got it rough, there obviously has to be enough familiarity in the situation to spark some fellow feeling in the audience. So, although the average Japanese family might not live in something as squalid (the only word for it in many cases), they mustn’t be living in a situation too far removed.

A word comes to mind, one that is used ad nauseum here : gaman (我慢). It’s always defined as “endurance” in the dictionary, but really means something closer to “putting up with.” This is considered a great virtue in Japan (as it used to be in my country – how else would those prairie settlers have survived in the middle of ice-block nowhere?), but this programme shows, unwittingly, how even the greatest virtue can be taken to the silliest lengths unless, miraculously, like Mito Komon, the TV channel appears out of nowhere and fixes your life. Watch it if you can (NB: or if you can’t, look at some of these clips which someone posted on You Tube They tend to show more After than Before, but they’ll give you a good idea of what the show is like. Warning: if you watch too many, the theme song will be stuck in your head for days).

Minding the Cold, or Samuidesuneeeee!

There have been flurries all day in Osaka, to the horror of most of the people I’ve spoken to today. Osaka, a port, nearly surrounded by low mountain ranges on three sides and chock-full of nice, warming smog, rarely gets enough snow to stay down for any length of time. Kobe, Nara and Kyoto, none more than 40 minutes away, usually get a few centimetres at least. Still, every year around now, Osakans have to be reminded that they don’t live in Okinawa (their climate denial rivals that of –“I’m not goin’ out in that!” – Torontonians). Living in a country alleged to be in harmony with nature, Osakans don’t do winter very well.

The flurries are – for me, anyway – a welcome change from the cold, damp rain or drizzle that we’ve been putting up with lately. Unless it’s really windy, I love it when the temperature goes below zero. The air is drier and feels cleaner in the lungs, the snow (when there is any) insulates and muffles. A walk in the winter air gives rosy cheeks and the appearance, at least, of rude good health. You really feel as though you’ve gone somewhere and done something every time you venture out. Of course, you also have to dress for winter, something the local fashion mavens fail to understand, leading to four months of the almost cult-like, call-response chanting of “Samuidesuneee!” (Is it ever coooold!) / “Sooodesunee! Samuidesunee!” (Boy, that’s for sure! Is it ever cooooold!), or people just muttering to themselves behind scarves, “Samusamusamusamusamu…” (col’col’col’col’cold…) as they rush outside from one point to another (a distance rarely more than twenty feet). Did I mention it rarely goes below 5ºC in the daytime, and almost never gets below zero or minus one at night?

I’m a Canadian, so on principle I dress solely for warmth.

Yet for all the moaning about the weather, Osakans live in the dampest, draughtiest, least insulated apartments you can imagine. There comes a point in the winter, usually late February, when I wake up in the morning and rush to get outside so I can warm up a bit. There is no central heating in most residential buildings, which would be fine if all the heat from your space heaters didn’t go out the windows. Yet this hardly rates a mention. Why? The popular wisdom is that houses here are designed to breathe in the humid Osaka summer, and this might be true of old, traditional homes. Most people, though, live in apartments which are cold in the winter and roasting in the summer. So when anyone asks me if I mind the cold, I usually tell them yes – inside.

There are ways to manage. Inside, we wear sweaters, heavy socks, chanchanko, “room wear” (sweatsuits, more or less, but they come in different designs). This is not entirely a bad thing – the last time I went to Canada for Christmas, I thought everyone’s house felt dry and overheated (and everyone stripped down to t-shirts when they came indoors). There are heated carpets (hotto caapetto), electric blankets, and of course, kotatsu. A kotatsu is a square, heated table, which sounds ridiculous but can be quite cozy. Between the two layers of the table top is a square cotton quilt which anyone at the table sits under. A small heater is under the table top and it warms the sitters. Of course, you sit on the floor, with a cushion under you. You watch TV, you read a book, you play cards. The draughtiness of the place promotes such cocooning. If the buildings were only insulated, it would all make perfect sense. But here in Japan, people are masters of living with and working around a problem instead of actually solving it – then you’d have to admit it exists. Maybe that’s why I fit in here, in my odd way – I can relate.

Osaka Architecture – a(nother) Letter

A(nother) Esteemed Correspondent wrote to say, among other things: “I’m sorry to hear that much of Tennoji is gone now […]”

I thought about that and clarified a bit.

“That was a lazy description on my part– most of what was destroyed was actually the area on the Kintetsu Department Store (Abenobashi) side, behind Kintetsu and the Apollo Building, but everybody calls the whole areaTennoji. Tennoji proper, around JR Tennoji station, is still around, seedy as ever, and once you’re off the main street (the Tanimachi-suji) there are little dark old shopping arcades selling stuff no one under 80 would eat. Happily, there is no shortage of 80-year-olds in this town. Abeno’s back alleys have pretty much all been torn down (as well as the charming little residential neighbourhood along the Abenosuji, where the chinchin densha runs). I used to work around there and I miss those old izakayas (one of which was found by walking straight behind the Apollo Building and turning”left at the drag queen”, who was always at the corner, drumming up business for her bar).

Hirano around JR station is pretty much unchanged, but you wouldn’t know much around the subway station anymore [Correspondent lived there in the early 90s]. The old neighbourhoods around the temple are still intact (because they’re off the main drag), and I sometimes stroll around there in the autumn (in fact, I’m overdue for a visit). I was pleasantly surprised, while walking from that Swedish film festival in Nakazaki-cho to Umeda, that there are still a few clumps of those old blackened-wood Osaka houses of yore. The ones in Umeda and Chayamachi are long-gone and yet another bankrupt shopping mall has replaced them. The maddening thing is that the old concrete monstrosities for which Osaka is justly famed are kept up forever while anything containing the faintest whiff of character is demolished. Go figure.”

Osaka Architecture – a Letter

An Esteemed Correspondent wrote to me yesterday asking about Osaka in the 30s (he’s writing a book and might visit the city to do research). Among other things, he wondered what was remaining architecturally from those days:

Esteemed Correspondent: […] I’m interested in what parts of the city survive from that period (I know the 1945 raids destroyed about 2/3) […]

I replied as best I could, and realized that I had written a blog entry.

Nagaijin: Well, [Esteemed Correspondent],

I’d be hard-pressed to find you anyone who could tell you about Japan in the 30s. You’ve already read about Mayor [Hajime] Seki [Osaka’s progressive mayor of the 1930s] so that pretty much exhausts my knowledge. By the way, on the day you wrote this, voters in Osaka were giving the present Mayor Seki –possibly a descendant of the original [his grandson, I now know]– the boot in the local elections. He was pretty incompetent, even by Osaka’s political standards. To understand how Osaka City government works, see Kurosawa’s brilliant film Ikiru (1952).

A few buildings survive from [the 30s]. Sadly, what the B-52s B-29s missed in the War, Seki’s successors soon made quick work of. A building I believe to be Old City Hall the old Bank of Japan building still stands, in full view of the boring 80s New City Hall, and a fine old exhibition hall has recently been restored in Nakanoshima. The beautiful facade of the Shochiku-za theatre in Dotombori was surprisingly preserved, after a long fight to have it torn down and something hideous put up, in the 90s. Perhaps there are other old office buildings which you’ll come across from the time – every now and then you’ll see the right-to-left pre-war script over the door of a building in Hommachi (the business/brokerage district), but not very often.

Tennoji [and the adjoining Abenobashi], a working-class district to the south, has been pretty much gentrified out of existence in the past 10 years. This is a great pity, as it was the most authentically Osakan neighbourhood still around (which is the main reason the social-climbing politicians – who were then in the process of making a futile bid for the 2008 Olympics – wanted to get rid of it). There is still a red-light district there, carefully hidden away, but fully functioning. I’ve read descriptions of it from the 40s and it’s virtually unchanged from then (I hasten to add that I’ve walked through it a few times but never partaken – there’s only so much that even I will do for the sake of historical authenticity).

You have given me a project, though – to find and photograph old buildings before “progress” catches up to them. The architectural news this year is that two landmarks of Osaka – the New Kabuki-za (the za tacked to the end of the word means “theatre”), which was opened c. 1983, and the Kirin Plaza, which is exactly 20 years old (and featured in the Ridley Scott movie Black Rain) – are to be demolished. So don’t pin your hopes on seeing too much really old stuff (as opposed to old-looking stuff). That said, Osaka is still a really interesting city (as I hope my blog illustrates).

To trace the course of the rivers of Osaka, you have to follow the expressways which were built over them in the 60s (and then the rivers were for the most part filled in or buried – rest assured that no one in Osaka City Hall has ever heard of Jane Jacobs).

I wonder if the Osaka Museum of History could help you out, or at least point you in the right direction. At any rate, it’s a place worth visiting if and when you do come here. Also, go to the Museum of Housing and Living, or Osaka City Hall.

But just chatting to regular Osakans might be your best bet. If and when you’re in town, let me know.