Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Wonder of Osaka: The JR Tozai Line

I’ve been living in Osaka for about 12 years now. I’m the kind of person that likes to notice every little thing about my surroundings. I notice them, and I ask myself why they have come to be this way. Is it coincidence? Or is there a reason? When it comes to Japanese culture, there’s always a reason for something. No one just places an ornament or an object somewhere randomly; there is always meaning behind the image a Japanese person wants to create; a landscape he or she wishes to invoke. So when I see something, and I sense something, and I decide to dig deeper, I always find out what that reason is in the end. There's always a reason.

For this post, I’m going to present and talk about the stops on the Tozai Line on the West Japan Railway (JR) system in Osaka. This is a train line that is used heavily every day by commuters to work. There is something about this line that people won't notice at first glance. In fact, people may never notice it unless they ride the train every day. Even then, people may not notice because they're just too busy with all the hustle and bustle of city life, that they have no time to notice or care about the little things that I do.

Map of the Tozai Line which runs from Amagasaki to Kyobashi (light purple)

What is the JR Tozai Line?
The JR Tozai Line runs from Amagasaki to Kyobashi Stations, connecting the Gakkentoshi line to the Takarazuka and Kobe Lines at Amagasaki. One of the peculiarities of this JR line is that it runs underground for most stations within Osaka City limits. It is apparently the first (only?) part of JR West that is underground, spanning seven stations from Kashima to Osaka-jo Kitazume Stations. After leaving Amagasaki Station, the train line dips underground and does not surface until it gets to Kyobashi Station on the other side of Osaka City.

What does it all mean?
Train lines in Japan can be confusing. For example, even though the JR Tozai Line runs underground for a few stations, it is not considered the "subway." The Osaka subway system, known as the "Osaka Metro" is separate from the JR system, and that is considered to be the actual "subway." Some "subway" lines, however, such as the Midosuji and Chuo lines, run above the ground for a great deal of their length. To confuse things further, the Osaka Metro system has partnerships with other private railways, such as the Kintetsu and Hankyu railways, which connect to track above the ground.

One of the things that I noticed about the underground stations on the JR Tozai Line, is that there is a theme to the way the train tunnel walls in each station are decorated. In contrast, the tunnel walls in Osaka Metro stations are rather plain and inconsistent. At first, it doesn't seem too outstanding, but if one pays attention to the walls of each station as the train approaches the lit underground platform, one will see that there is a similar theme connecting each station; all the walls are tiled in white and another color (a different color for each station), with a symbol that repeats sporadically throughout the span of the wall.

"What could these symbols possibly mean?" I thought to myself. "Why is it a different symbol for every station? There's gotta be a reason for each symbol." It wasn't until much later, two or three years later, that I stumbled upon a placard at one of the stations, which had the symbol for that station, and a short caption in Japanese about it. "Eureka!" I thought to myself. "I found it! A placard for each symbol at each station must exist!" I decided that I was going to set aside a weekend to ride the JR Tozai Line and stop at each station to look for the placard that would explain the symbol used. This post was the result of this adventure.

I was right.
Having stopped at each station, taken a picture of each placard and translated the Japanese caption, my suspicions were confirmed. As it turns out, not only does the tiled theme connect every station on the Tozai Line together, each symbol on the wall of every station was carefully chosen to represent some of the history and/or geography of the surrounding area. Passengers can learn a bit of the history of Osaka enshrined on the walls of this train line as they stop at each station.

First stop, Kashima Station
Kashima Station is the first stop on the Tozai Line as it burrows underground, just after leaving Amagasaki, headed for Kyobashi. As the train pulls into Kashima Station one can see blue, round figures against a background of white and yellow tiles here and there. But what are these shapes, and what are they supposed to mean?

  This Japanese pattern is called "seigaiha" 青海波, lit. “blue ocean waves”

Well, since long ago, "Naniwa," the old name for Osaka, was famous for its many islands. Collectively they were known as "The Eighty Islands of Naniwa," and to this day, there are many place names in the area with the suffix "-shima," which means "island." The blue, round shapes represent the waves of the ocean (青海波, seigaiha, lit. “blue ocean waves”) that washed up on the shores of those islands, and they have become the symbol of Kashima Station.

Second stop, Mitejima Station
The next stop is Mitejima Station. As the train pulls in, one can see brown rowboats against a background of white and grey tiles scattered here and there. Simple in nature, one might feel a sense of loneliness, as the simple, single rowboats look strewn out in the middle of the ocean. What do these rowboats symbolize? 

Ferry boats, or "watashibune", 渡し船

Well, long ago, these rowboats were the mode of transportation, and it was profitable to offer ferry service in the area. The Nozato and Oura docking areas are depicted in the works of the famous 8th century poet, Otomo no Yakamochi. The ruins of these docks can still be found near this area today, and for this reason, rowboats decorate the walls of Mitejima Station. These boats symbolize the ferry boats (渡し船, watashibune) that once floated on the Yodo River.

Third stop, Ebie Station
Next on the Tozai Line is Ebie Station. As the train pulls into the station, one can see white and yellow tiles on the walls of the platform. Against this background, one can see the images of hanging wisteria blossoms, known as “fuji” 藤, in Japanese, placed at irregular intervals along the wall. So what is the connection between wisteria blossoms and Ebie Station?

 Wysteria blossoms, or "fuji" 藤

Actually, the wisteria blossoms that appear on the walls of Ebie Station represent "Noda Wisteria" (野田藤, noda fuji). Just like Yoshino cherry blossoms and Takao maple, Noda wisteria has been praised for its natural beauty since the days of old. The blossoms appear in poetry by Ashikaga Yoshiakira, the second shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate, as he tells of their beauty. Furthermore, history tells of a tea gathering held by Taiko Hideyoshi in the area to appreciate the blossoms. In short, the area around Ebie Station was once famous for Noda Wisteria, and they have become the station's symbol.

Fourth stop, Shin Fukushima Station.
After Ebie Station, the train will stop at Shin Fukushima Station. As the train pulls in, one can see white and green tiles on the walls of the platform. Furthermore, one will see green, uniform shapes placed here and there against this background. This green shape is a traditionally Japanese representation of the pine tree (松, matsu). Once visitors realize that the shapes they see are supposed to depict branches of evergreen pine, the next question would be, how are pine trees related to Shin Fukushima Station?

 Traditional Japanese artistic depiction of a pine tree, or "matsu" 松

The pines at Shin Fukushima have an historical significance. In the first year of Bunji (1185), Yoshitsune Minamoto had received orders to attack the Heike clan, who were encamped at Yashima, on Shikoku Island. He was to attempt a surprise attack by boat from Fukushima, but he had no experience attacking by boat. A staff member working with Yoshitsune to plan the attack, Kajiwara Kagetoki, insisted that the sterns of the boats be equipped with rudders as well as oars, for ease of moving forwards, as well as backwards. But Yoshitsune was opposed to this idea saying "Nothing good can come from thinking of retreat before even starting."

On the midnight of the 17th of February, Yoshitsune started from Fukushima in the middle of a violent storm, with 150 soldiers and 5 vessels. Early the next morning he succeeded in reaching Yashima and on the 19th of February; he won the sea-battle of Yashima. It is said that Yoshitsune won out in the deliberation he had with Kajiwara, and the battle of Yashima was won without rudders at the sterns of the boats. The deliberation was said to have happened under the branches of a pine tree, for which it became known as "Sakaro no Matsu" (逆櫓の松), or literally, "The Pine of the Rudder."

The famous argument that the pine recalls became the theme of a Bunraku puppet play called "Hiragana Seisuiki." The pine no longer exists, but a monument was raised in remembrance of it. The monument is very close to Shin-Fukushima station, which is why "Sakaro no Matsu" has become the symbol of this station.

Fifth stop, Kitashinchi Station.
The next station is one of the stations around the Umeda area, close to a historic tetrad of buildings known as the "Ekimae Biru," 駅前ビル. As the train pulls into Kita Shinchi Station one can see white and brown tiles on the walls of the platform. Against this background, one can see golden ears of rice (稲穂, inaho) here and there, with their heads bowing low, heavy with fruit. So what in the world do ears of rice have to do with Kita Shinchi Station?

 Golden ears of rice, or "inaho" 稲穂

From the Genroku Period, the trade of rice was conducted in the southern banks of Dojima, between Oebashi and Watanabebashi. At one point, this was the center of the largest rice market in Japan, and the storehouses of major daimyos lined the area. For this reason, golden rice plants bearing plentiful fruit became the symbol of Kita Shinchi Station. The Japanese have a proverb: “minoru hodo kobe wo tareru inaho kana.” (実るほど頭を垂れる稲穂かな) Roughly translated it means “The more a rice plant matures, the lower it bows its head.” Meaning: Humility is a sign of maturity.

Sixth stop, Osaka Tenmangu Station.
After Kita Shinchi Station, the train will stop at Osaka Tenmangu Station. As the train pulls into the station, one can see white and blue tiles on the walls of the platform. Against this background, one can see pink flowers that resemble cherry blossoms scattered here and there. What is the meaning behind these flowers? And furthermore, why have they become the symbol of this station?

 Plum blossoms, or "ume" 梅

The color is a bit faded, so it may not be immediately obvious, but the flowers on the walls near the platform at Osaka Tenmangu Station represent plum blossoms (梅, ume).

Osaka Tenmangu shrine, which is near the area, enshrines the spirit of Michizane Sugawara, and it has long been dear to the hearts of local residents as "Tenma no Tenjin-san." The Tenjin Matsuri festival which adorns the summer of Osaka, has been known since the times of old as one of Japan's three greatest festivals, and it is held at this shrine. Plum blossoms have been long associated with Osaka Tenmangu shrine, and for this reason, they are the symbol of Osaka Tenmangu Station.

Seventh stop, Osaka-jo Kitazume Station.
And finally, the last underground station on the Tozai Line from Amagasaki is Osaka-jo Kitazume Station. As the train pulls in, one can see white and dark blue tiles on the walls of the platform. Against this background, one can see brown, hourglass shaped figures. What are they? What do they symbolize?

 Bottle gourds, or "hyotan" 瓢箪, ensign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The figures represent "hyotan" (瓢箪) or bottle gourds. The bottle gourd is a multi-faceted symbol which was imported from China, where it is often called hulu (葫蘆) or pao (瓟). Because of its shape, the hyotan can symbolize heaven and earth, and hence the universe. It was believed to contain an alternate universe within it, or the entrance to another world. For these reasons, the hyotan gourd is also regarded as a symbol of Buddhism as well as Daoism.

Hyotan were also believed to be magical objects that could be used to overcome malevolent forces of nature, such as demons and monsters. It used to be common for small children and elderly people to wear small bottle-gourds as protective amulets. It is said that in China, doctors would carry medicine inside it, so it has fabled healing properties. In Japan, the hyotan is associated with medicine, magic elixir, and strong liquor. It was adopted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as his ensign.

Near Osaka-jo Kitazume Station, one can see Osaka Castle, the old Kyokaido road from Osaka to Kyoto, as well as Seiwan, a spring historically known for being a source of good water for making tea. These areas and more are closely tied to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and for this reason his ensign, the hyotan gourd, has become the symbol of this station. The hyotan gourd has become associated with Osaka in general.

Ascent to Kyobashi.
As travelers move past Osaka-jo Kitazume Station, the train resurfaces just before arriving in Kyobashi. As there are no walls surrounding the platform, the appearance of symbols ends, but Kyobashi is a major point convergence where passengers can transfer to the Osaka Loop Line, the Nagahori Tsurumi Ryokuchi Subway Line, or the Keihan Line. Readers may also be interested to know that there is also a Kyobashi Station in Tokyo, albeit on the Tokyo Metro transit system. There are also Tozai Lines in Kobe, Kyoto, Sapporo, and Tokyo, although they are not operated by JR.

And thus, this article draw to a close. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you ever came to Osaka and rode the JR Tozai Line, and furthermore, if I ever wondered what the symbols an the subway walls meant, well, now you know.