If Tokyo is the crazy and cutting-edge sibling, and Kyoto the sensible and traditional, Osaka is the rebellious, edgy one. Japan’s third largest city, Osaka certainly knows how to hold its own. Rough around the edges, brash, bold and a little removed from its ultra-clinical sister cities of Japan, a visit to Osaka has plenty to keep you occupied – day and night.
Give yourself at least two or three days there to explore, for although it’s best known for coming alive when the sun goes down, and the Dōtonbori district beams in a fun and kooky glow that MUST be experienced, it’s also a great city to explore by day, oozing the same buzz as London’s Camden or San Francisco’s Haight Street, yet juxtaposed with ultra-modern underground malls and skyscrapers.
Osaka by Day
Minami (Southern Osaka)
I stayed in Amerikamura (also known as ‘American Village’) in the central Minami district – a place where the kids of cool come to play. Modern western fixtures mix with Japanese fashion and pop culture, creating a generation of urban street-cred locals who surpass the calm cool of Tokyoites.
Cheap eats, bold fashions, must-have mobile accessories and arty stick man style street lights protrude from every corner, surrounded by a multitude of booming pop tunes, anime stores and arcades.
For those looking for something more upmarket in Osaka, and away from the huge shopping arcade of Shinsaibashi Suji, a five-minute walk west of Amerikamura will bring you to Tachibana-touri, also known as ‘Orange Street’ – originally an Edo Period furniture street store, but now lined with beautiful cafes and boutique stores… and locals with adorable, accessory clad puppies.
I enjoyed strolling around these areas and people watching, ignoring the large chain stores and stumbling upon tucked away corners and quirky outlets. There’s even one guy proud of his ‘tallest’ ice cream creation and whilst this can be found in many places in Asia (notably Taiwan), his dedication to the art deserves your attention and your business.
My other great find was Shinsekai, a more concentrated version of Dōtonbori, with its chromatic streets lined with kushikatsu restaurants (various battered and deep-fried foods – one of Osaka’s many culinary specialities) and dominated by the looming (and unattractive) 1950’s Tsutenkaku Tower. There is a slight ‘seedy’ feel to this area, (hence choosing to visit during the day), but nevertheless, there is a buzzing atmosphere here, worthy of the small trek to get here.
Kita (Northern Osaka)
Home to the Umeda district, this area of Osaka is full of skyscrapers, shopping malls and department stores, and so I wasn’t too keen on spending a lot of time here – this soon gets tiresome after many days in Tokyo!
However, only a few minutes walk from Umeda’s main station, you will spot a giant red Ferris Wheel protruding from the roof of the HEP (Hankyu Entertainment Park) FIVE shopping and entertainment complex. For 500Yen (£3 / $5), you can score a bird’s eye view over this burgeoning modern cityscape, if shopping isn’t your thing.
Osaka by Night
Minami is home to the Dōtonburi shopping and entertainment district, and once you cross south over the Dōtonburi Bridge you will hit an area that pulsates with hundreds of neon lights, mechanical sea creatures and hungry people looking for the next foodie fix.
One of the first things you will see when crossing the bridge, nestled between the huge H&M, Starbucks and TV screens, is the famous Glico Running Man sign, amongst other advertising, illuminating a small space for an excited crowd.
Right around the corner sits the giant Kani Doraku crab sign, which marks the start of a long street full of quirky and comedic advertising alongside many a giant octopus and pufferfish, marking restaurants of that particular speciality.
This area really is only best seen at night. The red and orange hues of the streets, combined with the bustling crowds, were not something I found elsewhere in Japan – whilst Tokyo has it’s own vibrant night light districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya, Osaka’s is more unique and flamboyant. To miss this district of Osaka, would really mean missing out on the more edgy character of the city.
And for those seeking a calmer spot from which to recuperate from the bright onslaught of the frenzy of streets, the Dōtonburi canal runs parallel, where lanterns line the water, unruffled by the glare of giant underwater critters.
Osaka may be another ‘big’ city to explore on the Japan travel circuit, but it’s different. It’s not the sleek capital of Tokyo, or the conservative Kyoto. Each district here has it’s own charm and character that blur the lines of Japan’s distinct contrast of modernism and manners.
Osaka is rebellious and proud of it, without loosing its sense of history (there’s a castle and various museums here for the culture vultures) and gritty without being too ugly. Don’t dismiss it as ‘just another city’ – it’s far too bold to be ignored.