Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

John Salazar, my former co-worker at Gray Line is a man of the world, in part as a result of his work as a tour guide and from his overseas service for the country in the army. Among his favorite places is Japan, the highly urbanized island country whose cities feature numerous canals and hidden streams. A book could be written on this topic, but having little knowledge on Japan’s urban streams, for now I’ll share the story of its most famous example, shared by John.

osaka 1

The Dotonbori is a canal constructed after 1612 by merchant Yasui Doton, seeking to connect the Umezu River, which ran east to west, hoping to increase commerce in the Minami section of Osaka by connecting the two branches of the Yokobori River. The canal’s neighborhood is often compared to New York’s Times Square, albeit with a stream running through it.

Osaka’s Theater District

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Although Yadui Doton had fought and died for a local warlord who resisted against the Tokugawa government, once it won the war, it finished the canal and assigned Doton’s name to it. In 1626, urban planner Kyubei Yasui designated Dotonbori as an entertainment district. The photos above, taken in the 1930s show a bustling theater district along the canal’s banks. At the time of the photos above, traditional kabuki theaters stood side by size with jazz clubs playing the latest in American music. Who could predict that in less than a decade, Japan will declare declare war with the United States?

Although American bombs turned Dotonbori to rubble in 1945, the district was quickly rebuilt and along with theaters also became known for restaurants and gaudy neon billboards.

glico man.jpg

The oldest and most famous of the advertisements precedes the war. Representing Ezaki Glico candy, it dates to 1935. What the Pepsi-Cola sign is to Queens, this sign is to Osaka.

The Dotonbori’s leading tourist attractions are located between the Midousuji and Alai-bashi bridges. Notice how the amusement, shopping and food establishments greatly outnumber “entertainment” venues. Thankfully, Times Square still has its theaters, despite the overabundance of retail chains.

Along the canal going west to east, the nondescript postwar high-rises gradually pick up more advertisements. At the center of the famous district, oversize advertising mascots compete with the Glico runner for attention.

Beneath a highway

As with many urban streams that I’ve documented, when urban planners have no room to extend a highway through a city, they rely on waterways to provide the path. In 1962, Loop 1 of the Hanshin Expressway was routed above a portion of Dotonbori that turn to the north. The bridges vary in design between functional, modernist and traditional-inspired, all in the shadow of the expressway, which follows its to the canal’s confluence with the Tasabori River. The images below were taken from Google Street View.

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In recent years, the Dotonbori has experienced a revival that includes cleanup of its water, pedestrian shoreline promenades, and a 400th anniversary celebration in 2015. This year of events made use of the canal for special events such as a jazz walk, lanterns on the water, and theatrical performances.

Swim the Dotonbori

The canal has a robust boat tour operation on it that participated in Google Street View for views from the water in September 2015, there is a proposal to make the experience even more intimate. In 2013, Osaka city official Taichi Sakaiya proposed damming an 800-meter section of the canal and filling it with clean city drinking water for use as a pool.


If this idea becomes reality, it would be Osaka’s unique linear park, one that would rival New York’s High Line in exemplifying the creative reuse of a transportation route for recreational purposes. One cannot say that this idea is original to Osaka as similar proposals were drawn up for Regent’s Canal in London and the Spree River in Berlin.

The best time to see the Dotonbori is at night, when the billboards are lit.

doton night

For more information on the Dotonbori, you can download the official tourist guide to Osaka. Images of the neighborhood prior to modernization can be found on the Old Photos of Japan site.



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