Ten minutes south of Namba and across the Yamatogawa River is a city called Sakai[堺]. Most foreign tourists to Osaka, or even the Kansai region, probably have never heard of this city, even though it is the second largest city in Osaka prefecture with an abundantly rich history. It also played a major role in foreign trade allowing it to become one of the most prosperous cities in feudal Japan.
The History of Sakai
The earliest origins of this city date back to around the 4 and 5th centuries before it even existed. Near what would one day become Sakai, the people of Osaka built huge burial mounds, Kofun, to serve as the resting places of several emperors. A few centuries later, a small town people called Sakai sprung up on the border of the three provinces: Izumi, Kawachi, and Settsu. Then later, in the Kamakura Period (12th century), Sakai established itself as a port city. Although it was not a very large port town, it was already a medium sized city and decent number of people lived there.
The Onin War
However, it was the Onin War (1467-77) that changed the city completely. During the Onin War, much of Kyoto completely burned down. The fires of the Onin War also devastated the port of Hyogo, i.e. present day Kobe. Without Hyogo Port, international trade in Japan took a big hit. At this time, merchants and traders started to use the port of Sakai, allowing the city to become an essential hub of international trade and commerce.
From 1469 on, Sakai’s newfound role as a major port for international trade allowed it to prosper. Lots of rare, exotic things such as a guns, were brought into this city and merchants in Sakai made a huge fortune by trading these goods with the rest of Japan. In fact, the city became so rich that the wealthy merchants decided they wanted to govern of the city by themselves. They creates a series of moats around the city and paid large sums to nearby samurai clans in exchange for leaving Sakai to its own devices. There is evidence to suggest that the formidable Miyoshi clan also guarded Sakai from those who might threatened it.
As a result, Sakai became one of the richest and most peaceful cities, not only in Kansai, but in the whole of Japan. The Europeans who visited Sakai were equally impressed and called Sakai “the Venice in East Asia”.
However, this golden age did not last long. Since they developed a reputation as a firearms distributor and manufacture, the ambitious warlord Nobunaga sought to control this city so as to secure the firepower he needed to actualize his dream of unifying Japan. Nobunaga demanded the people pay an obscene amount of money and when Sakai declined, he invaded and conquered the city.
Then in 1586, Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, filled in Sakai’s moats. The citizens of Sakai took this hard since the moats represented the city’s autonomy. The destruction of Sakai’s moats inevitably destroyed the port of Sakai as well, because the sand used to fill in the moats flowed down into the port. At last, in 1615 fire from the Osaka War completely destroyed the city.
The City’s Revival
The people however, did not give up. By the Edo Period, the residents had not only fixed the port, but the many skilled craftsman who now lived there gave the city a new reputation as an artisan mecca. These craftsmen expertly created many goods, such as knives, which the city became famous for. Their goods attracted a lot of industry to Sakai, and factories began popping up one after the other. Because of this, the city developed into a big modernized factory city by the start of the Meiji Period.
Although the city Osaka overtook Sakai in terms of economic power during the Edo Period, Sakai was still important to the economic success of Osaka.
The Culture of Sakai
Sakai has always been strongly influenced by foreign trade. This trade, in turn, not only spawned new ideas that soon flourished throughout Japan, but also created new skills for Japanese craftsmen. A good example of this is guns. The Portuguese brought the very first two guns in Japan to the island of Kagoshima. There, Sakai merchants purchased one of the guns and brought it back home. Shortly after that, the city started to produce large volumes of guns and amassed a fortune by selling these guns to samurai throughout Japan.
Although the demand for guns significantly dropped in Edo Period, the merchants and craftsmen simply switched gears. The craftsmen drew upon their blacksmithing skills and started to produce knives instead. The merchants easily convert the same factories that had once been created for producing guns, for knife making and the city continued to flourish. Gradually, so many other things began originating from Sakai such as: Western medical books, silver coins, incense, shamisen, and even gold fish, that people say [もののはじまりなんでも堺] “Everything originates from Sakai”.
After the Ounin War, the once proud and glittering city of Kyoto lay in ruin. Hoping to find a new more peaceful place to live lots of people, including intellectuals, fled to Sakai. Those intellectuals began mingling with the rich merchant class already living in the city. Together, they enjoyed a variety pastimes that are now traditional Japanese activities, such as poetry and tea ceremony.
Home of Sen no Rikyu
Specifically, one very famous thing that emerged at this time was Wabi-style tea ceremony. This new style of tea ceremony was invented by Sen no Rikyu[千利休], who was from a rich merchant family in Sakai. He learned tea philosophy from the tea masters who fled Kyoto after the Ounin War. Before Sen no Rikyu, tea ceremoney was a luxurious experience, often reserved for rich elites. Wabi-style tea ceremony on the other hand, adapted from the philosophy of wabi-sabi, a concept marked by cacepting imperfections. Compared to other tea ceremonies, Wabi-style ceremonies were very simple. The simplicity made the tea ceremonies more affordable, allowing even the common man to enjoy tea ceremony. This Wabi-style tea ceremony got so popular that almost all modern tea ceremony groups base their practices on this style.
Today, the city actively tries to preserve its rich heritage. Many of the goods developed centuries ago are still sold even now. Check out the Sakai city’s official sightseeing page to help plan your trip.