This being my first trip to Osaka, I was not sure what to expect. I knew some things about Osaka (like the magnificent Osaka Castle, below), but I must confess that I know so much more about Tokyo. In fact, I know more about Kyoto, the next stop on this trip, than I do Osaka. So despite much pre-trip research, I felt like I was going an unknown city that’s just begging to be explored, and that was exciting. I liked the prospect of not knowing what to expect.
Unsurprisingly, I found the city as something of a midpoint between Tokyo and Kyoto, not as serene as the latter or as hectic as the former. It also seemed grittier, more lived in, and I mean that in a very good way.
I guess it’s easy to compare Osaka and Tokyo, two of Japan’s biggest cities, and at first I was slightly disappointed with Osaka simply because it was not Tokyo. Osaka is not as big or vibrant or bustling or space age as Tokyo, and whereas I found that somewhat disconcerting at first (as if assuming all Japanese cities are like Tokyo), I soon came to appreciate Osaka’s more sedate charms and its take-it-easy, relaxed pace.
I found the city to be full of surprises, like the amazing Yasaka-jinja lion shrine in Namba (above) …
…the giant whales in the Hep 5 shopping mall in Umeda (above) …
…the awesome Kuromon Market (above), a true feast for the senses, especially if you’re hungry …
… and the trippy modern architecture of the Osaka National Museum of Art (above).
The city is not as sprawling as Tokyo and the subways seemed less packed, so getting around Osaka was fairly easy … or as easy as something can be if you don’t speak or read the language. I also found the people in Osaka to be nicer, more ready with a smile and a polite bow, especially when visiting some of the streets and neighborhoods off the tourist paths, like the scenes below.
Some fun facts about Osaka: it is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan, and with 19 million inhabitants, one of the largest in the world. “Osaka” literally means “large hill” or “large slope,” a name which dates back to 1496, but which seems strange since the city was mostly flat. Osaka contains numerous urban canals and waterways, and 872 bridges. It is a major economic hub and is home to the headquarters of Panasonic, Sharp and Sanyo.
Osaka takes great pride in being known as “the nation’s kitchen” so I was anxious to dive into its many culinary delights, and I was happy to find that their reputation is very well-earned, with excellent restaurants of all cuisines easily found everywhere. The best news is that great meals can be had at very reasonable prices, so when dining in Osaka, splurge a little. And splurge I did, and you can see more of my many indulgences here.
Sure enough, the eating is excellent in Osaka, with an emphasis on beef from the nearby Kobe region (known as some of the finest in the world) and lots of seafood and crustacean-centric restaurants. As a fan of the really big things that the Japanese do so well, I never got tired of seeing giant pufferfish, crabs, and octopus hanging above many of the restaurants, particularly in the touristy Dotonbori area (below).
Giant octopi were seemingly everywhere, legs and tentacles flailing right above your head, like the impressive eight-legger seen in the city’s Shinsekai area (below).
And that’s probably because Osaka is the birthplace of takoyaki, or fried octopus balls, an immensely popular Japanese street food.The name is derived from tako (octopus) and yaki (“to fry or grill”). Takoyaki stands of all sizes are everywhere in this city, usually with many people waiting in line, like the popular take-away place in Dotonbori (below).
Having never been to Japan in the spring, there was some concern as to what the weather would be like, which in turn would affect how to pack. In the two weeks leading up to the trip I took diligent daily readings of Osaka weather on my Weather Channel app, and it appeared daily temps could range between 55F and 60F (12C-15C).
In reality, most days started cool and warmed up fairly quickly. So think of dressing in layers, wearing light things like cardigans, sweaters, hoodies, and thick flannels that can be taken off during the day, when the temperatures actually ranged between 60F and 65F (15C-18C), and put back on in the evening, which could get cool. Ironically, that’s the same advice I give to friends visiting San Francisco.
So the beautiful springtime weather was perfect for exploring the city. Osaka is divided into downtown and uptown areas known as Minami (south) and Kita (north). Some of the “must visit” areas in Minami include Dotonbori, home of the famous Glica running man sign (pic at top of this post), Namba, Shinsaibashi, the fashion and youth culture area of Amerikamura (or “Ame-mura”), and Nipponbashi, or Den Den Town, famous for its wide variety of consumer electronics and manga/anime stores (below).
Kita, or Umeda, is a major retail and business hub and is home to the massive Osaka Station City, which houses the busy Osaka train station. Pictured below is the Toki no Hiroba (Time and Space) Plaza, which spans over the railway tracks. Osaka Station and Umeda Station, both part of the same complex, together make up the busiest station in Western Japan, serving 2,343,727 passengers daily, and the fourth-busiest railway station in the world.
Kita also home to a large portion of the city’s skyscrapers and many of the city’s more upscale retail boutiques and restaurants. But if shopping, eating, and drinking are your thing, then there’s no better place in all of Kita than Grand Front Osaka, Japan’s biggest domestic shopping town (below).
Speaking of shopping and spending money, the Japanese yen is still very weak, so the U.S. dollar goes a long way. Also, shopaholics will be happy to learn that many stores are tax free, and in many retail establishments if you show your passport you get an additional 10% off. So there are many incentives to spend, especially on clothing, and I took great advantage of that. That also extends to eating out, and as I mentioned earlier, great meals at excellent restaurants at affordable prices are as easy to find as gigantic octopi signs.
I spent four full days in Osaka, which in some ways didn’t feel like enough, and in some ways seemed like just enough. There’s still a lot more of Osaka to explore and many places I did not visit, and that makes for a good enough excuse to make the inevitable second trip to Osaka sometime in the future.
Hope you enjoyed this quick tour of Osaka, and here’s a gallery that delves a little deeper.
Next stop, an orgy of cherry blossoms in Kyoto, so stay tuned!