dateline: sometime in late august


Sometime in latish August before Anne’s research grant ran out and she had to return to Montreal, I can’t remember precisely when now because my memory is becoming vague in the mists of time, we ended up having a fine day of (somewhat inadvertent) Osaka flaneurie. The plan was to spend the day at Banpaku kinen-koen (万博記念公園), site of Japan’s 1970 World Expo. The 1970 World Expo in Osaka was, after the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, one of the major historical moments in post-war Japan and served as a symbol of both Japan’s return to economic primacy, and its successful reintegration into the larger community of nations. The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and the 1970 World Expo were both the first of their kind hosted in Asia and are important markers of the late 60s/early 70s turn toward a more expansive model of world community (much diminished at the present moment). A large part of the general plan for the Expo was designed by Tange Kenzo, the renowned architect also responsible for the design of both the 1964 Tokyo Olympic gymnasium (a fantastic building) and the much reviled Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office in Shinjuku (which my friend Tomo told me is often referred to as “The Tower of the Bubble”). The theme of the Expo was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” a theme that both embraced Japan’s technological growth and the hope for a future that could be bettered via rational means, but that also looked back to the relationship between industrialization and warfare that defined Japan’s role in the second World War. After the Expo was over, the exposition area was converted into a park which houses several gardens, the important National Museum of Ethnology, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, and the National Museum of Art, Osaka. There is also a “Trees of the World” park. The highlight of the Banpaku, though, is Okamoto Taro’s Tower of the Sun (太陽の塔), an enormous sculpture that sits at the entrance to the park. The Tower of the Sun is hollow inside and in 1971 housed The Tree of Life, a giant representation of the evolutionary tree with some 300 models of animals floating in the air on the ends of the branches. I’ve seen a current photo and there are only, sadly, a few of the creatures left.

It being Anne’s last full day in Osaka we decided to make a trip to the park, which is very easy to do from my place because it’s only three stops away by monorail (initially built for the Expo, of course). Anne wanted especially to go to the Museum of Ethnology, to see the museum in general, of course, but also because there was some kind of mysterious exhibit about Americans on offer. Since we never saw the exhibit, I’m not sure what it consisted of, but it reminds me of the classic “fake ethnography” videos that sociologist Robert Tellander used to show about white American suburbanites and their strange predilection for copious amounts of mayonnaise. In any case, we didn’t end up going to the Banpaku because the park happens to be closed on Wednesdays. We did get to look through the gate, however, and get a good view of the wonderfully mutant face of the the Tower of the Sun, as well as the tragically mutant face of a photographer who had brought his large-format Pentax and an enormous tripod only to be foiled by Wednesday closing day. Expoland, the amusement park across the way, is, of course, never closed so Anne and I were at least able to stand outside and watch the roller coasters and the Ferris wheel while we decided what to do next. After awhile Anne suggested that we go to the Shinsekai area of Osaka, because she had never been, and I heartily acceded because I just can’t get enough of Tsutenkaku Tower, probably my current favorite place in Osaka. Luckily there’s easy access to Shinsekai from Banpaku kinen-koen, so we hopped on the train and went.

First we took the train to Tennoji, one of the only areas in Osaka that is visibly run down. Walking along Tennoji park, home to the Tennoji Zoological Gardens and the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, it’s startling to see what is, in effect, a small village of homeless shelters that line the sidewalk for several blocks. What’s interesting about these homeless shelters is that they are constructed of plywood and appear to be semi-permanent and at least unofficially sanctioned. Many of these shelters had hinged doors and windows and several had appliances that were run on DC battery power. A couple of the shelters that we walked past had a table or two outside under an awning and there were several people sitting outside at these tables in the hot summer heat drinking, petting their dogs, and listening to radios. This is a very different scene than Umeda’s temporary cardboard box shelters, which are probably periodically “cleaned up” at the behest of the giant retailers in the area. Of course, there are no giant retailers in Tennoji, and it’s no longer even a popular tourist destination, so that takes care of the problem of complaint (but perhaps not really, as it turns out). When Anne and I reached the park we began to walk around in it and we discovered a map with the Chausuyama Burial Mound marked on it. We headed straight for that mound, but were unable to find it (though we did find a love hotel with a giant green toucan perched on top). We also managed to bypass Shitennoji Temple, one of the important temples in Osaka, simply because we hadn’t brought a map and were doing everything rather haphazardly. Eventually we decided that we were through with wandering around Tennoji Park, so he headed for Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower. At the tower (about which more later) we caught some great views as the sun was beginning to decline into the West and then we decided to head up through Den Den Town and over to the Dotombori for dinner.

Since the sun had gone down in Den Den Town many of the major electronics shops were closing, but of course all the anime shops, anime porn shops, video game shops, and, my favorite, the vintage video game shops, were still open. We began our investigations on the sixth floor of a building that claimed to have “unique SM creations,” or something like that, though we were disappointed to find that it was just your usual sex shop, a bit on the sleazy side rather than on the Good Vibrations side. There really wasn’t anything there that was different than anything you would find at any other Bay Area sex shop, though the gold-flaked vinyl on the bondage chair was quaint in a kind of late 60s hairdresser kind of way. There was, however, a wall of cool tights and Anne decided to purchase some of the cobwebby type. Now, in case you don’t know, Japan is a country of “point cards.” Every store you go to, even small mom-and-pops, will offer you a point card so that you can come back again and again and get deals. The high point of our trip to the sex shop came after the nice man at the counter finished ringing Anne up and then said, nonchalantly, “Pointo Cardo?” I tell you, there is a point card for everything in this country. After the sex shop we went into a couple of vintage video game stores (I can’t wait to stock up on original Gameboy cartridges!) which are super, though the downside is that they’re dealing in someone else’s nostalgia and most of the games are unrecognizable to people who didn’t spend their childhoods in Japan. On the plus side, games and consoles tend to be cheap! cheap! cheap!, so it would be relatively simply for me to set myself up with a vintage Famicom console, though I’m not really sure that’s how I should be spending my time.

After dropping into a few more toy stores in Den-Den Town, Anne and I decided that it was time to find dinner, and in her inimitable way Anne used her gourmand sixth sense to hunt down a fantastic restaurant specializing in tofu. It was dark, with really nice bits of corner-glow lighting and really exceptional food, and it was right around the corner from one of the strangest hotel facades I’ve ever seen — a group of four columns representing the different peoples of the world in caryatid form. Except that each of the columnar figures had an enormous head, distorted features, and giant feet (see photo below). Occasionally in the morning when I wake up I feel like I have an enormous head, distorted features, and giant feet, but it was strange to come across such a thing in its larger-than-life fronting-a-hotel form.

After dinner we returned to my place so Anne could get some sleep before her big flight back to Canada (and only a day or so after the Air France“miracle” crash in Toronto!). Au revoir Anne!

Link to Expo 1970 information, including tons of great photos.

Did you know that Columbia displayed the largest emerald in the world at Expo 70? Or that the U.S. had a moon rock on display? For more fabulous Expo 70 facts, go here.

This is the amazing Tower of the Sun, designed by Japanese artist Okamoto Taro, who is famous for proclaiming that “Art is explosion!” The interior of this tower is hollow, and in 1970 it housed the tree of life, a model of the evolutionary pathways that produced homo sapiens, though I think it’s intention was to demonstrate the link between all creatures rather than to venerate humanity as a kind of “king of the chain.” I’ve seen one photo of the tree in its current state (many of the creatures on its branches have disappeared), but all I can remember is what looked to be a brontosaurus floating in the air.
One of the rollercoasters at Expoland, the amusement park built across from Banpaku kinen-koen, the site of the 1970 World Expo in Osaka.
This is a very strange sort of “columns of the world,” or perhaps “column-races of the world” that Anne and I stumbled across near the Dotombori Canal. The columns diligently guard the entrance to a hotel that caters to foreigners (natch).

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