People Power

Posted by on Nov 5, 2011 in Osaka, Travel Volunteer Journey | 2 Comments
People Power

Today we left Osaka city centre and headed to the east of the sprawl. This area has drawn artistic souls from around Japan – and even further afield – to come and create. While their trades aren’t related to each other at all, each of them has a irrepressible creative spirit that we couldn’t help admire. By April next year, this tour, or something like it, may well be available to visitors; we’d sincerely recommend it, and the people, when it arrives.


Dianne Orrett – A permanent resident in Japan for ages, in some ways Liverpool’s Dianne is more Japanese than many actual Japanese people we’ve met. She first arrived in similar circumstances to us: after a couple of years of backpacking, and with no real idea what to expect. More than two decades later she’s fluent in Osaka’s own brand of Japanese, and skilled in a handful of ancient Japanese practises: kimono dressing (she owns over 200), tea-making, ikebana (traditional flower arranging) and – her speciality – rakugo, a comedy performance from the Edo Period . It’s odd work for a blue-eyed gaijin, but the Englishwoman relishes it. “I’d do this for free, I love it,” she says. “The Japanese crowds are great and you can have a real laugh with them.” When she puts on a rakugo display, full of cartoonish expressions and some quite brilliant slapstick, it’s easy to see the appeal. Something about it reminds us of the manic Lee Evans in his pomp, which, trust us, is no bad thing.


Koji Tobase – I can’t help worry that the job of the print journalist will soon go the way of the lighthouse keeper and the dodo. In the next 50 years or so, who knows what other careers will disappear? For master builder Koji Tobase, it must be nice to have a job that’s future-proof. He’s not just a regular builder, but rather a doyen of renovation, with typical clients being temples, shrines and ancient tea houses, most of which are national treasures, if not fully-fledged UNESCO World Heritage sites. Every time he takes on a project, the goal is to replace the absolute minimum of wood – Tobase believes that the base materials themselves are the real treasures. But the ageing buildings are nothing if not reliable: something will always need to be replaced. In his experience, dismantling something has been the best way to learn historic building techniques: “Really, my teachers are those masters who built the structures 800 years ago.”


Toyohiko Aoki – Everyone likes the underdog, to support the little man. Sometimes, though, the pooch in question is a bombastic terrier that hardly needs looking after at all. Several years ago Mr Aoki looked at industrial Japan and didn’t like what he saw. Why did mega corporations have to have all of the glory all of the time? He decided to club together with a number of other small businesses and do… something. Something that would get the nation’s attention. To use another cliché, he decided to shoot for the moon – literally. Aoki set himself a deadline of three years to get his Maido satellite into space. It ended up taking eight, but the dream was realised: the little guys had won out against their richer rivals, and inspired a generation of others to similarly reject the status quo. His latest project is a lightweight drone capable of vertical take-off and landing, like the British Harrier jump-jet. Will it work? Only a fool would bet against him.


Tomio Ueda – After spending just 15 minutes in Mr Ueda’s bronze alloy smelting room, it’s a wonder anyone can work in there full time. The air is acrid, the heat intense and always there’s a fear that a stray spark or dollop of molten metal might cause horrific injury. The boss man has been forging a life in this hellish environment for longer than he can remember, though, and at 76, is still keen to “challenge ideas”. That said, he still meticulously follows the hands-on approach of old, (or at least as hands-on as you can be with a 800C product.) His firm, Ueda Gokin, has a contract to make bronze alloy valves for the Japanese Defence Department, which helps to pay the bills, but Ueda’s greatest pride comes from another document: his certification as being the only person in Japan who can legally reproduce authentic Japanese bronze mirrors. He mostly makes them to teach visiting students the technique, or occasionally on commission from shrines. The results are uniformly splendid mirrors into history. We can vouch for their loveliness – to our total surprise, Ueda gave us one with an unique design. “It’s an engagement present,” he said through a crooked smile as we fought back the tears.


Yasuo Koide – Don’t start a staring match with one of Mr Koide’s dolls. You can’t win, and if you keep going long enough, you may start to imagine their lifelike faces watching over you while you sleep. The longer you meet its hypnotic gaze, there’s also a chance you might accidentally damage one of the dolls too. With prices reaching 200,000 per piece, that would be an expensive bit of clumsiness. Made in preparation for Girls’ Day (3 March every year) the uncannily lifelike dolls are dressed in Heian Period costume and displayed in households for a month leading up to the festival. Each one is hand-crafted by Koide’s expert team, right down to the individual eyelashes, using real kimono fabric for their multi-layered clothes, and a hairdresser making sure they look just right. The master dollmaker has been in the business for over 40 years, but still isn’t 100% on the origins. Some say the dolls help to absorb evil spirits, stopping them from bringing misery and bad fortune on the family. That would certainly explain the dolls’ unerring glare…


Our time in Osaka prefecture was made possible by:

All of the people above.

And perhaps Travel Volunteer’s biggest fan Mickey Honda, who we’ll see again and again on this trip. Head of the Japanese Guiding Mafia* it seems she knows someone in virtually every prefecture of the country. She’s endlessly helpful, enthusiastic and supportive – a great ally to have.

*may not actually exist

Everyone at Suntory Whisky for not laughing at my kilt, or the fact that, as a Scotsman, I was clueless about my own national drink. Also, for taking such a huge chunk out of their busy days to show us around. And then to top it all off with free whisky – amazing.

The sprawling historic building known as Konoike Shinden Kaisho, which kindly hosted our first couple of meetings, and which had been thoroughly renovated by Mr Tobase.

Mr Adachi Katsumi who has seen the potential of east Osaka’s creative residents, not just as an educational school for youngsters (as they occasionally are now) but as a potential tourist attraction. He’s right, too – it’s a great way to spend a day.

He’d already given us more than we deserved with arranging so many meetings, but he rounded off the day by taking us back to the Hotel Seiryu, to try our hands at making takoyaki (small fried octopus dumplings). What they lacked in aesthetic finesse, they made up for in deliciousness.

The friendly family (pictured) in charge of Ekubo (“Dimples” in English) an okonomiyaki restaurant that Mr Aoki insisted we go to. Amid the sound and the fury, with tasty food and beer flying everywhere, we heard that the owners had decided to give us all lunch for free in support of the project. Amazing generosity and a trick we might try to repeat further down the line…

The Swiss Hotel, Osaka. Which we hated almost as much as we loved. Why? Because our frantic schedule meant we didn’t get there until 9pm and had to leave again before 8am. That meant we couldn’t enjoy the club benefits awaiting us on the the 33rd floor, nor the complimentary gym, nor the bespoke spa. Nope, all we got was the comfortable beds – not fair!

The Hotel Granvia, Osaka, which like its cousin in Wakayama shows other business hotels how it should be done. Fast free internet, roomy, umm, rooms and superlative views across the city. It all sounds so simple, but so many places don’t get it right. We’re genuinely looking forward to our next Granvia installment.














青木さん御贔屓のお店「うまいもん処 風流お好み焼・焼きそばロール・おふくろ定食 えくぼ」さん。是非にと勧められて興奮状態冷めやらぬまま、おいしいお好み焼きとビールで楽しいひと時を過ごしていたら、なんとこのプロジェクトの詳細を知った御主人が急遽サポーターになって下さって、すべて御馳走して下さいました!本当にありがとうございました。




  1. Mickey Honda
    November 6, 2011

    As an English speaking tourguide, the tour yesterday was absolutely new to me.
    What we focused on were not the places or things but PEOPLE.
    We enjoyed direct communication with them: asked what their goals are, how they think to invent and improve things,
    We were moved by seeing their super skills, smelling acrid fume, feeling heat from melting copper, hearing noise from machinery….everything on the ground.
    Above all, we were encouraged by their ebullience.
    I express my heartfelt thanks to all the people we met yesterday for taking the time to show their works.
    I also sincerely appreciate the perfect cordination and corporation of Mr Katsumi Adachi, the directer of Higashiosaka Sightseeing of manufacturing Project.

  2. Harmony McChesney
    November 6, 2011

    Hi All,

    I’m really enjoying the blog, but especially this installment with a focus on the interesting and talented people living in the Osaka area.
    Thanks for all of the quick links to hotels and restaurants you are trying out.
    I’ll keep checking in everyday to hear about all the lovely experiences you are having to help me plan which part of Japan I would like too visit!

    Orlando, Florida USA