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The Dotonbori canal and Ebisubashi (Ebisu Bridge) in Osaka’s famed entertainment district. Wooden teahouses crowd the left side of the canal. Italian born photographer Adolfo Farsari shot this photograph sometime between 1877 and 1887 facing east. At the time, the city experienced a high level of prosperity as can be seen by the presence of gas lamps on the right side of the bridge.1
Dotonbori’s origins date back to 1612 (Keicho 17) when the administrator of new canals Doton Nariyasu began building a canal on the southern edge of Osaka. Unfortunately, he was killed in the Summer Siege of Osaka Castle (1615) before he could finish the job.2
The canal was completed by his apprentices, among which Douboku Yasui. Amazingly, in the same year that the siege took place.
The new waterway was initially called Shinkawa (New River), but the new lord of Osaka Castle, Tadaaki Matsudaira, decided to rename it Dotonbori (Doton Canal) in memory of its creator.
Over the years a story evolved that the canal had been created by a certain Doton Yasui who had used his personal fortune. This was, and still is, so commonly believed that in 1915 (Taisho 4) an engraved stone monument was erected for Doton Yasui at the north side of Nipponbashi.
It took a judicial trial to re-discover the truth. Doton Yasui was determined to be a fictional character during the so-called Dotonbori Trial (道頓堀裁判) in 1965. The trial was started over ownership rights of the canal by Asao Yasui, a descendent of Douboku Yasui.3
1877 (Meiji 10) Map of Osaka: 1. Nagahori; 2. Shinsaibashi; 3. Dotonbori; 4. Ebisubashi
The canal is still there, one of the view waterways in Osaka that was not filled in during Osaka’s frenzied industrialization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t resemble the view on this photograph at all anymore.
Celebrated canal cities like Venice, Amsterdam and Bruges have built a rich lifestyle and a thriving tourist industry around their romantic canals and narrow roads. Osaka however, saw its waterways, including Dotonbori, more as a liability than an asset. Incredibly, they were pushed out of sight whenever possible.
Even though Osaka promoted itself as a “Water City” and the “Venice of the East,” buildings were actually built with their backs facing the water during the 20th century. Waterways were either filled in and transformed into crowded motor-ways or hidden below hideous elevated highways. Virtually no hotels and restaurants have taken advantage of Osaka’s waterways and there are shockingly few places where you can really relax and enjoy Osaka’s rivers and canals.
Around the turn of the century, some people finally started to realize that this had been a terrible mistake. In 2001, when urban revitalization projects were thought out for Osaka, the city’s waterways were given a little bit more attention.
Among the revitalization projects was a plan to create a 1.3 kilometer pedestrian walkway along the waterways between Minatomachi and Higashi Yokobori. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2010.5
The first 170 m stretch, between Ebisubashi and Tazaemonbashi, was opened in December 2004. Although most shops and restaurants still show their backs to the water here, it is already a wonderful city-centered hideaway where you can take a break from a frantic shopping trip or have a relaxed conversation.
For another view of Ebisubashi, taken from a location on the right side of this photograph, see Ebisubashi Bridge.
1 Nagasaki University Library, Database of Old Photographs of Japan. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
2 Doton Nariyasu is also spelled Douton Nariyasu or Dohton Nariyasu.
3 Osaka Municipal Library, 道頓堀の名の由来について. Retrieved on 2008-02-16.
4 More information about the history of this area at the site of Shinsaibashisuji Kita Shoutengai
5 Kippo News (2002), Kansai in Focus: Efforts to revitalize urban areas by enhancing appeal of rivers. Retrieved on 2008-02-17.