Osaka Area Guide: Nakanoshima 中之島
Although the word, shima (Japanese for, "island"), is sometimes applied to areas that are not completely surrounded by water, Nakanoshima is in fact an island in the middle of the city of Osaka.
Osaka was once a city of river traffic. That is why, even today, the symbol of the municipality is a channel marker. The matrix of waterways still remains, and is meticulously named.
Yodogawa (gawa is Japanese for "river") was a central artery, rerouted in the 17th century to run straight to Osaka Bay. That project left a little dogleg off the present day course of the river, which was given the name, Kyu-Yodogawa ("Former Yodogawa").
The Kyu-Yodogawa begins with an L-shaped section branching off from the present-day Yodogawa and running to the bridge, Tenjimbashi, that has been given its own name of Ogawa or "Okawa" on some maps.
From there a sandbar divided the waters in two - Tosabori (bori is the Japanese word for "channel") on the northern side and Dojimagawa on the south. From such humble beginnings, rose the Nakanoshima of the present: a cultural and financial center of Osaka.
Nakanoshima is now so thoroughly connected with the rest of Osaka, not only by its character and functions, but also by wide bridges, paved with sidewalks and multi-lane roads, that you might easily visit there without realizing it is an island.
Osaka - the Kitchen of Japan
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Osaka gained her reputation as the "kitchen of Japan," because the rich and powerful, from all over the nation, maintained kurayshiki - combined warehouses, residences, and offices - on Nakanoshima. There they stored and traded much of their wealth in the form of rice and other foodstuffs, making the island a center of commerce, dispensing more and more exotic and expensive goods as they were introduced to the archipelago. As time went on, other influences took root on Nakanoshima, but not to the detriment of the commercial side of the island.
Crossing it now, from end to end, is like taking a journey through history. The western end is filled with functional buildings supporting trade. Some are still connected with transporting goods along the rivers. As you begin moving westward, the edifices generally become taller and seem to inspire the high flown ideals of finance and investment that concern their occupants. They culminate in the rambling complex of the Rihga Royal Hotel, a prestigious travel destination and dining spot, whose huge, stained glass widow wordlessly advertises a wedding chapel.
Just beyond, the doors of the Osaka Science Museum and the Osaka National Museum of Art face each other across a narrow plaza. Although the art museum's galleries are below ground, the facade is, itself, a work of modern expression. Insectile curves of stainless steel seem to either challenge or attempt an embrace with its neighbor's straight-ruled brickwork.
Moving on you will find some of Osaka's most revered architectural achievements. The Bank of Japan, first built in 1903 and reconstructed from 1980 to 1982, and the Osaka Prefectural Library, built in 1904 and restored in 1922 and 1974, lend a Grecian influence that would not seem out of place in many western countries.
Along with a more artistic and intellectual bent, you will find the island more welcoming to visitors as you move towards the eastern tip. Sculptures accent the sidewalks here. The art and science museums, of course, admit patrons for a fee, but the library is free to all, and worth a visit. The available titles are almost exclusively Japanese, but the central hall, with its domed atrium, is a lovely example of Meiji era architecture, and there is free internet access in the library as well.
Next to the library is the Central Public Hall, built in 1918 and restored in 2002. It is a brickwork and stone edifice with statuary perched above its arched entryways, that is a popular study for painters and photographers who gather in the well groomed patios and plazas that flank the island's eastern end. The hall is also open to visitors and its interior design and fixtures are a preservation from the Taisho era. You can refresh yourself in these surroundings at the the cafe on the basement floor.
A little further east, another brick building, unremarkable from the outside, houses the Osaka Museum of Oriental Ceramics. Within is a permanent display of fine Asian pottery that is often augmented with special collections.
Just across the street from the museum the restaurant Garb Weeks should not be missed. Although it might not be Michelin star fare, it is certainly above average, and its constantly changing menu offers ample portions and meals between 000 and 000 along with a riverside view.
To go further west on Nakanoshima you will have to cross under the bridge, Naniwabashi, nicknamed the Lion Bridge for the statues that guard either end. Do so in the spring or early summer and this is like walking into Wonderland, because you will emerge into the heart of the Nakanoshima Rose Garden in full bloom. In the space of a couple of city blocks, arranged in order of the year they were created, eighty-nine varieties stand in their beds, ramble, and climb over trellises.
Another riverside dining venue, the Riverside Beer Garden, is open on the north side of this garden during the warmer months. The fare is not so sophisticated (Korean barbecue, Japanese curries, etc.) but the prices are, again, very reasonable and include all-you-can-drink coffee, soft drinks, beer, wine, and cocktails.
Beyond the rose garden you will come at last to Nakanoshima Park. Opened in 1891 it is the site of numerous summer festivals, exhibitions, and celebrations throughout the year. Even when nothing is on the docket, it is a fine place to come and take a break on the grass, surrounded by rippling water, in the midst of the city.
Even when you have reached the very end, this little island is not done. Arrive at the eastern tip on the hour and a huge jet of water will arc out over the Ogawa as if to extend Nakanoshima's reach just a little farther and remind you that the surrounding waters are part of the environment.
In fact, there are several tours that run on the water. Tour boats, water taxis - some of which run special tours at the peak of the rose season - and even water boarding (think snowboarding with a paddle, not the form of torture) will give you another perspective on this multifarious island.
The Nakanoshima area has a number of excellent hotels. Hotels located in Nakanoshima include the 900+ room, luxyry Rihga Royal Hotel Nakanoshima, the Apa Hotel Osaka Higobashi Ekimae, the Chisun Inn Umeda, and the 3-star Hotel NCB.
Access - how to get to Nakanoshima
Nakanoshima is south of Umeda and just north of Higobashi Station (Yotsubashi Line) and Yodoyabashi (Midosuji Line and Keihan Line) Station for Osaka subway trains. There are a number of stations on Nakanoshima island itself including Watanabebashi Station, Nakanoshima Station, Oebashi Station and Naniwabashi Station all on the Keihan Nakanoshima Line with trains to Hirakata-shi, Chushojima, Sanjo and Demachiyanagi stations in Kyoto.