Cruising through Sakai's rich past by the river
It was not too long ago when the Sakai tidal river of Japan was mockingly called dobegawa or the "stinking river," finding infamy in its then filthy black waters and putrid stench. It
was all blamed on a then booming industrial economy that fostered large, lucrative factories but also left behind hazardous chemical by-products that literally killed the river.
That is why, during a recent cruise on the Sakai River, I was beyond shock and was surprised upon seeing the waterway nowadays—what with its clean and tranquil waters, thriving aquatic life,
and zero water pollutants.
The tidal river was originally created by excavation some 600 years ago to serve as the locals' defense against the changing sea tides. The city is located inside the Osaka prefecture,
southwest of Tokyo. With the tidal river system in place, water racing from the neighboring Osaka Bay gets evenly distributed to the river stream running around Sakai, instead of flooding the
coastal city during high tide.
Strategically located at the mouth of Osaka Bay, the Sakai tidal river also served as a gateway that connected foreign trade to inland trade, and once accommodated large merchant vessels and
had a reputation as a busy and bustling international port.
But with the advent of industrialization, coupled with several wars that swept Japan, came the degradation of the Sakai tidal river.
It was only several decades ago that the city was able to revive the river. It took locals around 50 years to tidy it up by pumping out trash and dirt that had accumulated on the riverbed over
And so thanks to the collective efforts of the local government and the people of Sakai, the once hated tidal river has transformed into a tourist attraction, with daily river cruises (for
1,000 yen or around P400 each) that would take tourists around the city—similar to the gondola rides of Venice. Going around the city via the river is like taking a tour of Sakai's history
Cherry blossoms along the way
Currently, a huge portion of the winding river stream had already been closed to the public, but a good half of the river remains accessible by boat. From the docking station near the Old Sakai
Port area, cruisers get to sail along the sakura- or cherry blossom-surrounded river.
Apart from sakura trees, somber-looking but majestic weeping willow trees are also lined up along the riverbanks. In the 1960s, the locals chose the willow tree as the city's official
Not too far away from the dock, a huge orange structure stands. The statue resembles two things: the number "21" to symbolize the 21st century, and the mythical bird phoenix—with its wings
spread while standing on one leg—to symbolize rebirth.
Farther along the river, tourists can view the Tsukishu Junior High School, where the first ever airconditioning units in Japan were said to have been installed.
More than cooling the rooms inside the school, the AC units were actually used at the time to provide ventilation since the doors and windows had to be closed to prevent the odor of the then
stinking river from seeping in.
The river also still has evidence that the city was once a thriving site for cultural and economic trade between the Japanese and westerners. At the edge of the south bridge, a brass statue of
a European merchant was erected to symbolize Sakai's ancient trade relations with Europe.
Over at another section of the river, a park named after the Spanish missionary St. Francis Xavier can be found. The missionary was said to have visited Japan in the 16th century to promote
Christianity. Today, only two million Japanese are Christians while the majority of the population are mostly Buddhist or Shintoist.
At the portion of the river leading out into Osaka Bay, a towering statue of a woman called the "Princess of the Dragon" was placed to symbolize peace and prosperity. She also acts as a
"protector" of the ancient city.
And not too far from the lady statue sits what is considered as one of Sakai's natural treasures: an ancient wooden lighthouse—the last of its kind—that guided docking ships in ancient times.
The lighthouse is no longer in operation, but remains as a reminder of the once thriving international trade in the city.
The almost 400-year-old lighthouse was constructed in 1615. Since then, it had undergone only two renovations, one in 1775 and another one in 1800.
Currently, sprawling industrial factories can still be seen along Osaka Bay, not too far away from the Sakai River and juxtaposed along the horizon with cultural symbols like the ancient
But perhaps learning from their past mistakes, the people of Sakai this time have succeeded in preserving their culture and history—through these ancient landmarks and structures—but at the
same time not doing away with the benefits of a modernized society. And throughout Sakai's evolution and transformation, the tidal river was there to witness everything.
And so, more than serving as a mere deterrent against the tides or a passageway for traders, the Sakai tidal river has over the years served as a venue where people—locals and foreigners
alike—take a cruise down memory lane to relive the city's rich past—from its lively global trade era to the trying times of surviving three wars to its current laidback atmosphere set against
an industrialized setting. —KG, GMA News