Daniel Heyman
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January 8, 2011

There are many ways for a city to be beautiful.

There are many ways for a city to be beautiful. Like a man, a city can be slender or muscular, youthful or mature, impeccably turned out or casually put together. Most cities are beautiful, but not all cities reveal their beauty at first or even second glance. Osaka is just such a city, and this week, on my second visit to the city, on the afternoon before I left, the city unfurled itself before me to contain within it all the beauty and mystery of even the most renowned cities.

When you think of Osaka, if you think of Osaka at all (even most Japan-o-philes barely consider a visit to Osaka other than to taste its admittedly wonderful food), you think of a mass of energy, an endless tangle of intersecting highways, train routes, pedestrian overpasses that creep and crawl with hideous regularity, and the noise, both visual and aural, of pachinko parlors, cheesy trinket stores and oversized abandoned developments, sprinkled with malls of all kinds. The hotel where I stayed on this visit was a non-descript, kind of Japanese version of a traveler's flea ridden stop along the way: the rooms small, the pillow too hard and too big, the walls too thin for any semblance of privacy. It was on a broad boulevard bisected by train lines and crisscrossed by cement towers holding up what back home would be considered interstate highway intersections. Down the street to the left, convenience stores and a slots parlor, its bright red neon blinking 24/7; to the right, a busy train station, with much of the human traffic spilling outside on again a crisscross of overpasses and subway entrances. Up past the interstate, on one side an alley led into a warren of small wooden and cement buildings sporting banners of all kinds, and a bit further on found no less than four shopping malls, each massive, two of them with five or six floors full of sophisticated and elegant Japanese products from the smallest note pad to the most expensive cashmeres. And though the visual noise should have provided a great urban experience, the pleasure was entirely in the small things, the views into a noodle shop, or the scent of meats grilling, the play of textures in a display of woolen scarves and gloves. Osaka is Japanese to be sure, but a beautiful city?

As it happens I am co-leading a group of American art students through Japan, our goal to learn traditional paper making on Shikoku Island and draw inspiration from the temples, shrines, palaces, and museums of the Kyoto/Nara region. Frankly, my goal was simply to return to Japan and introduce students to a culture so full of vital visual ideas. We are a group of 21: 19 students and a small Russian woman, an art historian, whose path, as a Jewish Russian who left Russia only a decade ago, could have been my own had my ancestors not left when they did. Elana took us to Osaka-jo, the rebuilt castle that mimics the seat of the once most powerful and brilliant daimyo Toyotome Hideoshi who unified Japan once and for all (mostly by decapitation) in the late 15th century. Hideoshi's castle, or jo, with its layers of roofs and gables, sits on stones the size of wooly mammoths, their size dwarfing and enlarging - dwarfing one's sense of place in the world as the place of the great Lord seems ever bigger. Passing moats and walls, the road climbs as it snakes up to the castle's perch. The great wings of the gables are studded with gold leaf, and the massive clay tiles reflect the winter sun's silver tones and seem to lift the mass up ever higher. Without noticing, we have left the bustling cacophony behind, the chaotic miasma, the clash of materials and speed and entered into another city, a place of wide open spaces and grand vistas. Those lackluster buildings that seem so omnipresent on the city's streets, and whose ugliness is aggressive like heat rash but cold and damp, fade in a shimmering mass seen from afar, beyond the wide paths and moats of the garden, like distant trees between the earthbound and the heavenly. Now, sitting on one of the steep inner walls almost at the foot of the great castle, the grey mass beyond is pierced and soaring -- shiny glass boxes which float weightlessly in dialogue one with the other, their corporate voices murmuring stylish chitchat one to the other. I saw Osaka for what it was, a great built mass, vaporous, no longer solid, shimmering, no longer foul, expanding ever outward along a vast valley floor, all ringed by jagged whispers of mountains. Here at last was Osaka's beauty, its mystery, its unknowability.