Generations of dancers call Ponte Square home

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People practice street dancing at Ponte Square in Naniwa Ward, Osaka.

OSAKA — Young people danced to music they played on their smartphones in an outdoor atrium under a vast sky. I noticed the ground was scraped here and there in the open space — mementos from past dancers.

Part of the Osaka City Air Terminal (OCAT) in the Namba district in Naniwa Ward, Ponte Square is an open space where people practice street dancing like hip-hop and break dancing.

Dancers have spread the word about the value of the space as a practice spot because it’s so easily accessible. In fact, it has continued drawing in dancers for more than 20 years and has played its part in bringing promising dancers into the world’s spotlight.

Mirrors for improving skills

OCAT — pronounced like “Oh, cat!” — was built in 1996 and has a commercial facility and bus terminal with service to Kansai Airport, among other destinations.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People dance in front of a large mirror set up in the plaza so they can check their movements.

Ponte Square is next to a passageway guiding people to nearby JR Namba Station. The granite-walled plaza centers on a 1.5-meter sphere with a mirror-like surface. Upon hearing they could see themselves in the sphere while they danced, young people began to come around 1998.

Two mirrors were installed on the walls in April 2000, drawing in even more dancers. Each mirror is 1.85 meters high and 3 meters wide. They were installed specifically for dancers by the Minatomachi Development Center Co., OCAT’s managing company based in Osaka.

An annual dance competition was held on the stage here until 2018, where performers demonstrated their skills.

“This place is widely known,” said a 38-year-old man, whom I met. “Some people came here from far away rural areas.”

The man came from Izumi in the prefecture to practice. Though it has been a while since he last visited, he said he used the plaza almost every day for about 10 years after graduating high school.

“Everyone even said, ‘Whenever we think of Osaka, we think of OCAT,’” he said.

Free to practice

Street dancing is a generic term for dances that developed mainly on the streets, such as hip-hop, locking and break dancing, according to the Street Dance Association, which is based in Osaka. The dancing styles originated in the United States in the 1970s and spread to Japan in the 1980s.

It is said dancing is now more familiar to young Japanese people because they learned about it in junior high school. In April 2012, dancing became a compulsory part of physical education.

However, there are not many places in cities where people are allowed to freely dance, making Ponte Square a valuable practice space.

“I can practice whenever I want,” said a 15-year-old boy who came from Suita in the prefecture to dance.

The plaza has rules such as no littering and no smoking. Wearing masks has also been required since the pandemic began. The importance of following the rules has been passed down among people dancing there as they are aware failure to do so would mean no more practicing in the space.

OCAT’s managing company warmly watches over those coming to practice.

“We hope that the lively atmosphere in the plaza will spread to the entire facility,” said an official of the company.

Toward world spotlight

Promising dancer Shigeyuki Nakarai, 19, uses Ponte Square for practice. Nakarai is known as the dancer Shigekix and is considered a strong contender to win gold at the Paris 2024 Olympics, at which break dancing is being included as an official medal event for the first time. Break dancing will be called breaking at the Olympics.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shigeyuki Nakarai performs in front of the press in Kawasaki in December 2020 after break dancing was selected as a sport for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

He started breaking when he was 7, when an acquaintance took him to the plaza.

“This is my home ground,” Nakarai said.

He remembered he used to so earnestly watch a famous and idolized dancer using the plaza that he forgot to blink. Nakarai gradually made friends there.

“We shared an environment where we could improve and inspire each other,” he said.

Last year, Nakarai won one of the world’s top competitions.

It is not only dancers aiming for the world who are dancing in the plaza. I also saw students and working adults practicing on their own to prepare for events.

“It doesn’t matter how good your technique is,” Nakarai said. “Ponte Square is precious as it is a place for all people. I hope it will continue being a good place for everyone.”

— Extend your trip!

Namba Yasaka Shrine

The shrine has been popular since ancient times. Every January, a tug-of-war ritual is held to pray for family safety and business success.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shishiden hall of Namba Yasaka Shrine

On the grounds there is a 12-meter-tall hall designed after the face of a lion — more exactly, a lion-like imaginary animal called a shishi. The name of the hall is Shishiden (Lion hall), and it was built in 1974 because shishimai, a lion dancing event, was popular in the area.

The mouth of the lion draws people hoping to win in sports as the wide open mouth is said to swallow evil spirits and bring good luck with winning. Shrine talismans sold at the shrine office are popular for the embroidered lions on them.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

— How to get there

Ponte Square is directly connected to JR Namba Station. For subway users, it is about a 5-minute walk through the underground passage from Namba Station on the Osaka Subway Midosuji Line. For those using Hanshin or Kintetsu railways, it is about a 2-minute walk from Osaka Namba Station. By car, it is close to the Minatomachi exit of the Hanshin Expressway.