Osaka is little-known and underrated, yet it has the resources to excite even the most jaded explorer. As both a shoppers’ paradise and a time capsule, it is alive with history and innovation, excelling in entertainment and gastronomy. Osaka is Japan’s up-and-coming metropolis, a rival to Tokyo and a true city of culture, and here we explore why.
There is an unrivalled charm to the Japanese port city of Osaka. Quaint side streets harbour traditional eateries, Cat Café’s and ancient hidden temples, while youngsters showcase their eclectic style in the bustling shopping arcade of Shinsaibashi. This retail Mecca seems endless, stretching in a straight line for miles. The street features both global brands and independent stores selling conventional clothing and souvenirs. It is a hot spot for the youth of Osaka and a magnet for bargain-hunters. Head here for a sense of modern Japanese culture, to source the latest trends or simply to people watch.
Physically minutes from Shinsaibashi, but historically worlds away, is the beautifully preserved street of Hozen-ji Yokocho. This unspoiled passageway features genuine motifs from Imperial Japan while cleverly crafted 17th century style izakayas, traditional diners serving authentic cuisine, line the street. A stroll down this narrow passage will take you away from the hustle and bustle of 21st Century Japan and straight into the calming customs of the Edo period. If you walk a few minutes further you will discover Osaka’s smallest tourist destination, the miniature Hozen-ji Temple. This charming and tranquil space takes moments to explore but delivers true escapism.
Osaka Castle is the city’s jewel. Built in 1583 by politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it is a triumph of Sengoku architecture and remains the most famous and popular tourist spot in the area. The castle helped to unite the Japanese people during the Azuchi-Momoyama period and remains a special part of Japanese identity. Open daily from 9am until 5pm, this majestic fortress dominates the landscape of Chuo-ku, standing at almost 60 metres tall. The castle features an interior gilded with gold and floors of opulent relics, transporting you back to numerous fascinating time periods. If you are feeling energetic, a climb to the top of the tower will reward you with truly spectacular views of the city.
When night falls in Osaka there is only one place to be. Half way up Shinsaibashi you will find a lively canal area and a square of monstrous billboards. This is Dotonbori, the heart of the city. Running the length of the river between the bridges of Dotonboribashi and Nipponbashi, this region is a city in itself. Dotonbori competes with Tokyo for the best displays, so when you picture Shibuya, increase the lights, the sound and the wow- factor. This is not the place for a quiet evening, but a fun-fair for the young and the old. Here you can watch the Kani Dōraku crab dancing above your head, ride the Don Quijote Ferris Wheel or simply take in the sights and sounds of this impressive district. Dotonbori is the perfect place for family entertainment, a long evening stroll, or waterside drinks with friends.
For something a little different, but equally as impressive, head to the Kuchu Teien Observatory in the Umeda Sky Building. Until 10.30pm every evening you can ascend the 40 floors to the observation deck, for 360 degree views of Osaka. The nineteenth-tallest building in the city, the views from up here are simply mesmerising, and at just ¥700 per person, this is an affordable night-time activity for any visitor.
Osaka boasts Japan’s best and most bizarre delicacies, catering for the fine-diner and the budget traveller alike. At one end of the spectrum restaurants like Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M specialise in premium Wagyu, charging ¥12,000 (US$105) for one dish. On the opposite end of the scale are places like Mizuno, where you can order okonomiyaki. These moreish savoury pancakes cost around ¥1,500 (US$13) and are filled with meat, fish and noodles, cooked before your eyes on your tables’ very own hot plate. These pancakes do not come unadorned; watch as staff decorate the top with your favourite anime character, using authentic Japanese mayonnaise held from a metre above their head.
The best way to taste Osaka though, is via street food markets. Begin in Dotonbori, where the delights range from 30 centimetres tall ice creams to freshly boiled crab claws. For local delicacy takoyaki, head to Kuromon Ichiba Market, open during daylight hours. These golf-ball sized treats are essentially pieces of octopus cooked in batter on specially crafted hot plates, and drizzled with sauce and dried fish shavings. These eccentrically Japanese delights will cost between ¥400 and ¥600 (US$3.5 – US$5.2) for a tray of eight.
For dessert, try any of Osaka’s Rikuro Ojisan no Mise outlets, a chain that has been serving baked cheesecakes since the 1950s. These bouncy domes have golden crusts and a light, creamy centre. It is cheesecake, but not quite as you know it.
If you have the time, try the following recommendations:
- For a night of traditional Japanese culture head to the National Bunraku Theatre in Nipponbashi. This puppet show features authentic stories and music and makes for a unique night out: http://www.ntj.jac.go.jp/english/access/facilities_04.html
- For true Japanese entertainment, make your way to Video Game Bar Space Station, where saké and computer games are on the menu (https://www.facebook.com/groups/187209477967297/) or create a pot noodle at Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum (http://www.instantramen-museum.jp/en/).