After a few months’ break while relocating from the US to China, like a fish in water has resumed documenting and sharing unique neighborhoods and places through exploratory photo walks. While I will continue to use many examples of transit-oriented and walkable development from Japan, I will also be exploring my new stomping grounds of Beijing and, in time, other cities in Mainland China and Hong Kong. This current leg of the journey begins on a rainy day in Osaka. Like my Osaka-jin friends, I’ll forgo a gradual approach and get right to business, jumping headfirst into a mother lode of pedestrian-centric development, the Tenjinbashisuji Shōtengai (天神橋筋商店街).
The shōtengai runs north south, parallel to the arterial road of the same name, spanning 1-chōme through 7-chōme (chōme is like a district) of the unusually long and narrow Tenjinbashi municipality, which encompasses the road and shopping arcade. The first six chōme are completely pedestrian, while the last is a narrow neighborhood street with little through traffic. The name comes from the Tenman-gū (天満宮) in 2-chōme, which enshrines Tenjin (天神), the Shinto god of scholarship. Official accounts have the shōtengai measuring 2.6km. According to the map, if you count only the portions in the 7 chōme you end up with 2.4km, though this becomes 2.7km if you include the unrelated shōtengai that completes the path toward the Tenjin-bashi (bridge) in 8-chōme. By its own account, this is the longest shōtengai in Japan. Be sure to wear comfy shoes.
At the south end, 1-chōme stops just short of the Okawa River.
The arcade begins with a short, open air segment that has a handful of restaurants and boutiques.
In order to cover Tenjinbashisuji and several other locations over the course of a day in the city, I had to start a bit early in the morning, arriving at 1-chōme around 9:30. On average, most of the businesses here begin to open doors around 10:00, and certainly by 12:00 if targeting the lunch crowd. Early risers come not so much to shop, but to enjoy a stroll before the crowds arrive.
As you approach the entrance to the covered arcade, you’re proudly if somewhat cheekily greeted with “日本一長～い商店街” (The Loooongest Shōtengai in Japan).
At the boundary of 1-chōme and 2-chōme you can made a quick detour to the east for Tenman-gū.
The first three segments of the shopping arcade share one website: http://tenjin123.com/
A few differences in the design of the sconces, shop signs and banners, as well as a change in the arc of the translucent roof, are about the only things that will clue you in to the change from the first to the second segment. The atmosphere is quite calm (though as before, this was still on the early side of the day), the street is quite wide and the ambient light cool.
Though the shōtengai is enclosed, openings at regular intervals ensure that the surrounding neighborhood is never far away.
To chew or not to chew? This clothing store has arranged a fair amount of inventory “chewing” the street, blurring the boundary between them.
The Keihan National Highway bisects 2-chōme with six lanes of traffic, but a crosswalk and signal make it relatively easy to maneuver. Once across, an entrance to the Osaka Municipal Subway Minamimorimachi Station pops up right into the shōtengai.
Though some shōtengai seek to capitalize on their tourism draw and may move upmarket or load up with kitsch and souvenirs, most remain responsive to local, quotidian needs. This means groceries—
—and personal care are in the wide part of the distribution.
Entering 3-chōme there is a noticeable increase of warmth, literal and figurative. The use of reddish-brown tiles, red and yellow decorative elements, and more warm spectrum lighting give this section a livelier aesthetic, and the energy of the vendors and shoppers seems to respond in kind. (It was also after 10:00am, when foot traffic begins to pickup for the day.)
Several colors of torii suspended from the ceiling are a distinctive feature of this section, symbolizing the street’s role as the approach to Tenman-gū.
This shoebox sized restaurant wedged under some stairs makes the most out of it entirely windowed front, broadcasting the cozy atmosphere of its wood interior and counter seating to the street outside.
Visuals are important. Shops that really want to make sure you get at least a quick look at what they offer will push the product out to the front.
A good shōtengai achieves balance. Funky shops and cute restaurants are sexy, but people need to be able take clothes to the cleaners, too.
Most cyclists are considerate, only biking through the shōtengai when things aren’t very busy, then dismounting or leaving as people arrive. Still, watch out for the occasional scofflaw.
That’s no ordinary ladybug, it’s a Tenyon bug! Now would be a good time to mention the shorthand names used for the different segments of Tenjinbashisuji Shōtengai. With the exception of 2-chōme, each segment takes the first character 天, pronounced ten and meaning sky, then combines with the chōme number, giving 天一 (1), 天三 (3) and so on. Things get interesting when we arrive at four, because this has two pronunciations in Japanese. The southern portion of 4-chōme uses yon, so we get tenyon. Coming back to the ladybug, 天 is a homophone of 点 (spot), so tenyon also sounds like “four spots”. Fun, no? Homophones come into play again in the next segment.
Like the huge blowfish, crabs and takoyaki suspended over the street in front of restaurants in places like Dōtonbori, this oversized photo of crispy, mouthwatering tonkatsu is a not very subtle approach to alerting passersby of tasty things within.
Personally, I’m more of a fan of the humble chalkboard listing the daily recommendation with obligatory cute drawing.
Looks like a pachinko parlor. Actually a supermarket.
Heading into this section, the energy in the arcade really picked up. It was getting closer to 12:00, but there was another reason for it that I’d figure out after I walked a little further.
Salarymen out for a Nagasaki champon lunch
Okonomiyaki griddle in the street
At the north end of the Tenyon section, the JR West Osaka Loop Line crosses the shōtengai, with Tenma Station depositing passengers directly into the shopping arcade. This is what transit-oriented development looks like.
Official site: http://www.4bangai.com/
4 Chome North
To differentiate itself, the section north of the station uses the nickname 天四北 (Tenshikita), using the shi pronounciation of four and kita denoting north. The twist is that tenshi is a homophone for 天使 (angel), hence the little blonde, winged girl holding a four-leaf clover on the banners.
One of the few pachinko parlors in the shōtengai
Official site: http://ten4kita.net/
5-chōme is where things start to get funky, in a good way. The street narrows, inducing more (gentle) collisions or, looked at another way, opportunities for interactions with others. The colorful back-lit signage creates a canopy overhead. Compared with the other segments, the overall grungy yet friendly ambiance of this section is closer to a Hong Kong street market.
Peering across the dividing line to the next section
Official site: http://www.ten5.com/
6-chōme incorporates many different characteristics of the previous segments. Like 5-chōme the street is narrow, but the large arches and high light transmittance of the canopy give it a more sophisticated, if somewhat cool ambiance.
Just outside the north entrance to 6-chōme is the entrance to Osaka Municipal Subway Tenjinbashisuji Rokuchome Station.
The large arch over the entrance features several rows of glass panels, some painted with different colors to invoke the image of stained glass, and is an signature image of the shōtengai.
Official site: http://www.tenrokuworld.com/
Unfortunately, the heavy rain kept me from completing the walk through 7-chōme, though the end of the enclosed portion of the arcade does make this a natural stopping point. Though considered part of the same group, this last segment is open to car traffic and not covered, a commercial street woven into a neighborhood, thus falls under a different category in the taxonomy of public space in Japan.
To get a more complete picture of a space like a shōtengai, it’s essential to understand its rhythm, visiting each part at multiple times throughout the day to observe activity, comparing a weekday with a weekend, and so on. Some shopping arcades cater to the morning and lunch crowds, while others have little to no presence until after sundown. Obtaining a full survey for something as expansive as Tenjinbashisuji would be quite an undertaking, though I was glad to have at least gotten a small taste of things in the few hours I had to work from one end to the other. Though rain and gloomy skies had set in early and showed no plans of moving for the day, the sanctuary of sounds, smells and smiles in the shōtengai was a warm embrace.