(This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Kansai Scene magazine)
The first sports stadium was built in Nagai Park (at Midosuji Nagai Station) in 1964, just in time to host a few Olympic soccer matches. The stadium has been replaced twice over the years, most recently to host three (three!) soccer World Cup matches in 2002. The now-looming structure’s 50,000 seats have rarely been filled since then, but it is the home of Cerezo, the presently lukewarm J-League Soccer team, which gives it something to do.
But besides the many sporting facilities in Nagai Park (including two smaller stadiums, a pool, and an actual sumo dohyo), it is also the perfect place –especially on a summer’s night– to just people-watch. The park is ringed by a paved running track lined with well-lit sidewalks and benches along its route: run or walk around it one evening and see what you find (walk around it 15 times, and you’ll have done an official marathon –although you might want to put that off until Autumn).
Night life begins at dusk, when the dog walkers promenade. Every one of their dogs is pure-bred; Osaka does not believe in mutts. Huge Afghan Hounds, imperious little Shih-Tzus, distracted Dalmations, a flock of Beagles, their cost known to all passers-by in this status-conscious land. I wonder: just where do you put a Great Dane in this town when you’re not trotting it through Nagai Park? Having no easy answer to that, I think of other things. The cats, for instance: along the high Botanical Gardens fence, dozens of them sit patiently under the trees and wait for their nightly handout. Women of a certain age arrive here every night with at least ten cans of cat food in the baskets of their bicycles and feed these feral (and fertile) felines.
Also at sundown, the joggers, runners and power walkers begin in earnest, free from the summer heat (if not the humidity). It’s rare when you see anyone who’s thrown on shorts and an old t-shirt – brand names abound (in Japan, you can’t go running and not look like a runner). Besides the joggers (of all ages), you will sometimes see wheelchair racers scoot by at amazing speed – some are presently in training for the Beijing Paralympics (there is, incidentally, a respected rehab and sports training centre for the disabled not far from Nagai Stadium).
Local music students, disadvantaged by the thin walls of a Japanese apartment, come to Nagai Park to practice, especially on weekends. You can, if you’re lucky, hear snippets of music played on guitars, trumpets, shamisen, flutes, various drums (and if you’re unlucky, a novice violinist). Aspiring Bob Dylans tend to play near the fountains by the subway station.
Under a lamppost on the south side of the park, card tables are informally set out for shogi, the classic Japanese board game. Here, men in late middle-age come to play, watch, smoke, drink, nibble dried squid, kibbutz, get out of the house. Comment is limited – grunts, nods, grins of admiration, squints of disapproval at an unwise move. I’ve never walked past without seeing at least one game in progress. They don’t mind if you watch – quietly.
One thing you won’t see anymore is Nagai Park’s amiable homeless colony, which was hauled off by a large group of police officers one morning last year. Their tents and communal kitchen were bulldozed and a charming pathway beneath the trees was hastily landscaped in time for the 2007 IAAF Championships.
Poignantly, the only homeless who get sympathy in Nagai Park are the cats.
On a happier note, though, the night gives a much-needed human touch to Nagai Stadium when its broad plaza becomes a practice ground for skateboarders, freestyle BMX cyclists, hip-hop dancers and their fans.
Come and see them some night– and bring your ukulele.