Japan’s second city is coming into its own with a heady mix of high culture, thriving nightlife and the tastiest street food, writes Cathy Adams.
Osaka is a classic second city. Less sprawling than megalopolis capital Tokyo, this lively and playful city in Japan’s central Kansai region mixes historic castles and temples with thrusting, high-tech modernity. The city has traditionally been used as a springboard to central Japan (the cities of Kyoto, Kobe and Nara are within easy reach), but will come into its own as a city break destination with the recent launch of direct British Airways flights from London. Osaka is a host city for this autumn’s Rugby World Cup, which will also help shine a light on Japan’s third-largest city.
For visitors, Osaka’s crown jewel is its spectacular tiered castle and gardens. Buried amid Osaka’s downtown skyscrapers, Osaka Castle dates back to the 16th century, although it was actually rebuilt after the Second World War. The surrounding 106-hectare park has apricot flowers and around 600 cherry trees, which flower beautifully in spring. Other historical landmarks include what some consider to be Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple, Shitennō-ji. The quiet complex includes a five-storey pagoda, a Zen garden and a monthly
The city’s rich industrial heritage, today borne out by Osaka’s tech companies and carpet of skyscrapers, is also evident at ground level in the covered Kuromon Market, known anecdotally as “Osaka’s kitchen”. This lively century-old market has fresh sushi, sashimi and standing-room-only ramen joints, as well as stalls selling everything from T-shirts and shoes to homewares and tourist trinkets.
Not far from Kuromon is ground-zero for Osaka’s cosplay scene: the Nipponbashi district, which hosts an annual cosplay festival. Visitors can walk Ota Road to find “maid cafes” and department stores dedicated to all things anime and cosplay. Nipponbashi is also known locally as “electric town” thanks to its electronics stores.
This second city is quietly becoming a cultural hub, too. On the sandbank island of Nakanoshima in the business district is the subterranean National Museum of Art, with rotating exhibitions and a cluster of contemporary Japanese art pieces, visible by its twisted metal antennae outside. Nearby are the twin buildings of Festival City, the tallest twin structures in Japan, inside which are the Kosetsu Museum of Art, with a thatched-roof Japanese tearoom, and a remodelled concert hall. Festival Tower West also houses one of the city’s highest hotels: the art-and sculpture-filled luxury Conrad Osaka, which opened its doors in 2017.
Many visitors will be well-acquainted with Osaka’s transit hubs, and the best place to catch the sunset over this megacity is right on top of one. On the 14th floor of the North Tower of JR Station City there’s a hidden city farm with killer views over western Osaka, with the blocky Umeda Sky Building glinting in the foreground, which has its own “floating garden” observatory on the 39th floor.
But it’s after dark that Osaka comes alive. Dotombori, which stretches along the canal, is one of the most energetic (and colourfully gaudy) parts of the city. Thousands of Osaka’s iconic neon signs flash above street-food vendors selling local delicacies, izakayas (informal pubs) and shops. Visitors should keep an eye out for the 20-metre-tall Glico Running Man sign, best seen during one of the regular 20-minute cruises up and down the canal.
Out for a good time
Osaka has long been considered Japan’s tastiest city, and there’s even a motto to prove it: kuidadore, loosely translated as “eat until you burst”. Some must-try regional specialities include okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake typically filled with pork, octopus and shrimp and slathered with a type of Worcestershire sauce, known fondly as “Japanese pizza”. Another common street-food snack is takoyaki balls – a chewy, pan-fried doughball filled with slices of fresh octopus – that are widely available, although Dotombori’s street vendors are a good place to start.
Osakans’ love of partying is legendary in Japan. The best nightlife is found in the Ura Namba district (particularly in the micro bars hidden in the Misono Building) and along izakaya-studded alleyway Hozenji Yokocho just off Dotombori.
Osaka’s plum location makes it the ideal launching pad to explore central Japan. The typical day and night trip is to Unesco World Heritage Site-filled Kyoto, Japan’s former imperial capital and home to familiar sights including the orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha and the bamboo groves of Arashiyama. Bullet trains run regularly from Osaka and take just 15 minutes.
Forty-five minutes around the bay is Kobe, known for its signature marbled beef; and just over an hour away is Nara, where wild deer roam (and bow to visitors) in Nara Park. ABTAmag.com
Cathy Adams is head of travel for The Independent and the Evening Standard