Groovy Osaka: From Occupied Airstrip to Outdoor Art Gallery
By Quincy B. Fox
On November 19, 2015
On a map of Osaka’s Nishi ward, there is a very distinct strip of green. The perfectly proportioned rectangular park is now known as Utsubo Park, but its unique shape betrays some of its colorful history.
The Bombing of Osaka
Just before midnight on March 13, 1945, hundreds of heavily armed B-29 bombers dropped over a thousand tons of bombs on the city of Osaka. Since Osaka was the second largest city in Japan and the center for Japanese industry, almost no parts of the city were spared. In the first raid alone, nearly 4 thousand people were killed and most of the historic regions of the city were completely destroyed.
A Lost Historic Market
One such decimated region was the famous wholesale market in Nishi ward. It had been open as a fish market since before the start of the Tokugawa shogunate. In fact, according to local lore, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the great uniter himself, named the region after taking a stroll among the market stalls. He heard the fish sellers yelling that their goods were cheap. “Yasui! Yasui!” they cried. Being a military man, Hideyoshi mused that “yasu” could also mean “ya” (矢, arrow) and “su” (巣, nest). This reminded him of a quiver, or “utsubo” (靭). From that time onward, the region was known as Utsubo.
An Allied Airstrip
The market lasted over 300 years, but lost popularity a decade prior to the bombing because another market opened in the city. Whatever shops or stalls were still left in the area were completely destroyed. About half a year later, Japan surrendered to the Allied forces. The Allies took over the barren ruins of the market land and repurposed the area as an airfield. The flat and open expanse made for the perfect runway. After the occupation ended in 1952, the airfield was abandoned, so the city had a new idea for the area. They decided to turn it into a park.
From War to Peace
By 1955, the park was completed. It became home to a beautiful rose garden, now the eldest in the city. Over the years, art installations and exhibits have been displayed throughout the park. Aside from being visually appealing, the park also appeals to fitness lovers. Not only is the long flat park perfect for running laps, but the park also has a very large tennis center. The center has 16 courts and occasionally hosts international competitions. Naniwa-suji cuts through the center of what used to be an airfield, separating the open air art gallery and the tennis center.
When I lived in the city proper, I loved to spend time in Utsubo Park. It was always one of my favorite parks in Osaka because it was far more than just a patch of dirt, as most parks in the city tend to be. I didn’t know its history at the time, so I felt like I hadn’t truly appreciated it. One night in October when I had some time to kill in the city, I decided to visit the park again, this time armed with my newfound knowledge and quite a bit of nostalgia.
I came up from Hommachi subway exit 28 and made my way straight toward the park, a few blocks away. There’s a large building with a massive air conditioning unit next to the park entrance. The air conditioning unit was going at full speed, blowing the overhanging trees from the park and making quite a bit of sound. The trees were dancing frantically.
I had just done the bulk of my research on the park, so its wartime history was still fresh in my mind. It was easy to imagine the B-29 bombers or the allied planes coming and going. My mind inevitably wandered in morbid directions. How many people were passing through the market that night during the bombing? How many people perished here? Am I unknowingly walking into a haunted park? Is this another unintentional kimodameshi?
Once I got into the park, however, the art and nature took over. It was almost otherworldly. The abstract or humanoid figures looked even stranger in the light of the street lamps. The shadows seemed to be just as artistic as the figures themselves. If there are spirits here, they are the benevolent muses.
As you head down what used to be the main airstrip, there are several rows of displays to explore. You can easily use the rows as running lanes and run laps, or just take your time inspecting all the art.
At the end of the first half of the runway, you can venture into a garden full of art, roses, and paths over a manmade waterfall and stream. There’s a fountain at the bottom. The pathways are well lit with many different types of lights, some of which are art pieces themselves.
Even though the paths meander, you don’t need to worry about misstepping. It’s highly unlikely that you will end up in the stream by mistake. I was initially concerned about this because I’m notoriously clumsy. However, even when I chose to blindly wander down various paths, I didn’t have a problem. The ease of navigating the paths makes it popular with runners and dog walkers, several of whom passed me on my late night adventure. If you keep going straight and cross Naniwa-suji, you will find the tennis center and more walking paths.
If you are looking for a nice oasis in the urban jungle, this historic gem is the perfect place to take a break at any time of day or night.