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Touchdown Japan: Fusion of old and new lures foreign tourists to food capital Osaka

Tourists from Singapore take commemorative photos in rented kimono in the evening light at Shitennoji Temple in Osaka's Tennoji Ward on April 13, 2018. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- The pagoda at sightseeing hotspot Arakurayama Sengen Park in Yamanashi Prefecture, which is popular with Southeast Asian tourists, is in fact modeled after the five-story pagoda at Shitennoj i Temple here.

The tower in Osaka was built in 593, opened by Prince Shotoku (574-622) to expand the presence of Buddhism not long after it hit the country's shores, making it the oldest government-regulated temple in Japan. It is now in its eighth incarnation after being destroyed by both natural disasters and war. After being lit aflame in the 1945 U.S. aerial bombings of Osaka, it was rebuilt out of steel-reinforced concrete in 1959 and stands at 39.2 meters tall.

Nearby, in front of Tennoji Station, Japan's tallest skyscraper Abeno Harukas rises 300 meters above the bustling city, but some 1,400 years ago, the five-story pagoda of Shitennoji Temple perhaps commanded a similar splendid presence in the sky over Osaka. This area is truly a blend of the modern and the ancient.

When visiting the temple on a warmer than usual day, there was a group of six friends from Singapore soaking up the sights. All of them seemed to be enjoying wearing traditional Japanese clothing.

This was their fourth or fifth time visiting Japan. They had already visited staples like Tokyo, Hokkaido, Kyoto, Kobe and the like, and this time the focus of their trip was Osaka. On this particular day, they had first visited a kimono rental shop in the Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store to change into the garments before going to take commemorative shots at Osaka Castle and Shitennoji Temple.

"I wanted to try wearing one at least once. I made a reservation online two weeks ago," said Beehong, a member of the group. "It took 20 minutes for them to dress me. At first the kimono was a little tight around my chest, but I'm fine now. Today the weather is nice and it isn't even cold. What do you think? Does it suit me?"

According to the firm "Kyoto Kimono Rental Wargo," with shops located mainly in Kyoto as well as the Shinsaibashi district of Osaka and the Asakusa district of Tokyo, roughly 30 percent of their some 150,000 annual customers are foreign nationals.

"The shop's very popular among people from pro-Japanese places, such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia," said Ai Wakatsuki of the company's public relations division. "In comparison to Kyoto where most rentals are reserved ahead of time, there are a significant number of walk-ins in Osaka." The customers are apparently those who have discovered Osaka's traditional scenery.

When one member of the group clad in a men's kimono, Alex, was asked about Japan's charms, he said, "There is both traditional and ultra-modern culture. The combination of the two is the most attractive thing. There is also a lot of diversity in Singapore, but there are few truly original things because it's a young country."

Due in part to the increase of flights into Kansai International Airport from other Asian countries by low cost carriers, inbound tourism into Osaka is on the rise. The department stores in central Osaka have all seen a continuing trend of roughly 10 percent growth in sales compared to the previous year.

Along with a different atmosphere than Tokyo or Kyoto, Osaka has the added draw of being the "food capital" of Japan. The entire group of six enjoyed eating famed Osaka dishes like okonomiyaki (a savory pancake), takoyaki (fried octopus dumplings) and ramen.

When they asked, "It's our last night. Do you have any recommendations?" I advised them, "If you haven't tried kushikatsu (deep fried food on a stick), then that would be best, but make sure you change your clothes first!"

At that, they set off back in the direction of Shinsaibashi to return their rental outfits. With its endless charms, Osaka truly is the spot for dressing up in traditional clothes and eating until you drop.

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)

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