The idiosyncratic mood of this metropolis is perhaps best reflected in its nationally-televised manzai teams: duos who put on bawdy performances in the manner of Abbot and Costello. The flip side is the city's reputation for aggression. Osaka is very safe compared to other world cities of the same size, but to think of it as little more than colorfully rough and ready is to do it a disservice. Rather, it is a source of bubbling cultural energy, beauty and historical richness.
The central business district is at the northern hub of Umeda, just three stops south on the Midosuji subway line from the Shin-Osaka bullet-train station. A conglomeration of businesses, deluxe hotels, retail high-rises and, at night, countless karaoke bars full of red-nosed "salary men," Umeda is as close as the city gets to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The numerous international hotels that have sprung up over the past few years make Umeda the natural choice for the business traveler or adventure-seeking tourist who wants to travel in comfort. The district is also served by several train and subway lines.
Inside Hankyu Station is the mammoth bookstore
Three stops south, the Midosuji subway line will bring you to Shinsaibashi, the center of Osaka's youth scene. Be sure to stop by Triangle Park in the center of
Go a little further west to Yotsubashi-suji Street and Naniwa-suji Street, two boulevards running parallel to Midosuji (all suji run north-south and all dori run east to west). On and between these thoroughfares and running north up to Minami Semba you will find an array of newly established boutiques, jewelery stores, health shops, ethnic shops and bars, cafes and restaurants that cater to a more chic and yuppie crowd.
The east side of the tree-lined main boulevard of Midosuji is dominated by
Namba is the next subway stop south, and by walking just a couple of minutes further down, you will get to Nankai Railway's Namba Station with its gigantic, brown, modern
If you walk southeast from Namba to Sakai-suji, or take the Sennichimae subway line one stop to Nipponbashi, you will arrive at Osaka's discount electronics mile, the place for cameras, computers, stereos and electrical appliances. At the end of Sakai-suji is Osaka's rather clumsy but nationally famous answer to the Eiffel Tower,
The next stop south is Osaka's southernmost hub, Tennoji, which is home to a large concentration of places to shop, eat and drink, both ancient and modern. These include
Nearby are Tennoji Park, the city's newly refurbished Zoological Gardens, and the
For some more ancient history, visit Osaka Castle, the seat of Japan's unifying lord, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Nearby is Kyobashi, home to Osaka Business Park. A walk around the river between Kyobashi and Tenma is worth it for the peaceful riverside paths and the elegant old buildings.
Finally, for a day of fun with a bit of sea air there is the newly developing harbor area of Nanko, where the main attraction is a very modern aquarium.
While not as packed to the walls with sights and sounds as Tokyo, there will be no shortage of things to do in Osaka. Historically a city dominated by Japan's merchant class, entertainment has a long history of thriving here. From large sports stadiums and theme parks to museums and theaters, Osaka has many choices to offer visitors looking to be entertained.
There is no bigger entertainment attraction in Osaka than Universal Studios Japan, which opened in the Spring of 2001, and is exceeded in size only by Tokyo Disneyland in terms of popularity and prestige. The expansive complex is made up of several miles of rides, entertainment shows, and demonstrations, with some of the most spectacular thrills and special effects you will find anywhere in the world. There are numerous opportunities for shopping, eating and relaxation here as well at the Universal Citywalk.
One of the more interesting theme parks is Freizeit Tenbencho, an indoor water park in Osaka's Minami-ku, which has swimming pools, giant slides and other attractions that provide fun for the whole family. Another option located only a few minutes from Osaka Station in the Hep Five shopping mall is the Umeda Joypolis, where you will find a number of small-scale thrill rides at reasonable prices. In the same building, positioned on the roof, there is the enormous Hep Five Ferris Wheel that rises some 340-feet above central Osaka. One other amusement complex in Osaka is Festivalgate, an eight-story structure that houses shops, restaurants, a movie theater and several rides, including a roller coaster that wraps around the building.
Another entertainment possibility with universal appeal, especially among Osaka residents, is the Osaka Dome, where the Kintetsu Buffaloes, demonstrate why they are among the nation's top contenders. Take a seat in the rowdy bleachers for an unforgettable experience. Japanese baseball fans are incredibly spirited, and Osaka's fans are notoriously noisy and rambunctious. Only 15 minutes west of Umeda Station, just over the Hyogo prefecture border, is the home stadium of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, Hanshin Koshien Stadium.
Sports in Osaka are hardly limited to baseball, however. Although their popularity does not quite surpass that of the local baseball teams, Cerezo Osaka and Gamba Osaka are two professional J-League soccer teams that command quite an energetic following. Each team has its own stadium, and loyalties in Osaka are fiercely divided between the two.
Besides baseball and soccer, there are also dozens of other sporting events you can catch throughout the year at the Osaka Dome and other venues. These include a yearly sumo tournament, professional kick boxing and pro wrestling matches, among others. Those wishing to participate in sports are best advised to pay a visit to Maishima Outdoor Activities Center where, besides camping grounds and picnic areas, there are numerous facilities for various amateur sports. As well, the Osaka Pool in Minami-ku has world-class facilities for competition swimming that are open to the public all year, and ice skating in the Winter.
Music and Theater
On a more cultural level, Osaka is well-known for its live entertainment, both music and theater. One of the more prestigious locations to catch live music is the Blue Note Osaka, where only the best jazz, R&B, blues and rock bands headline.
A few other popular live houses where you can catch some high-energy rock shows include Shinsaibashi Muse Hall, Club Quattro Shinsaibashi, Rockets, Umeda Heat Beat, and Bayside Jenny in the Tenpozan area. For easier listening, the Big Cat in the Big Step shopping center frequently hosts musicals and classical concerts, and for the best live comedy acts, the Namba Grand Hanam is legendary. Numerous comedians and drama acts that are now rooted deeply in Japanese popular culture made their debuts here.
Museums and Galleries
Looking for an educational day out? Look no further than Osaka. For Japanese, Chinese and Korean art, try the Municipal Museum of Fine Art. Another option is to spend an afternoon viewing the fascinating displays of world culture at the National Museum of Ethnology, or to gain some insight into ancient Japanese culture at the Osaka Prefectural Museum of Yayoi Culture. The National Museum of Art, with its contemporary displays, and the Suntory Museum Tempozan, with its 20th Century posters, also come highly recommended.
If you are looking for some simple, free entertainment in the form of people-watching, then the best place for you is the "American Village," or Ame-mura. This area, comprising several square blocks of the Shinsaibashi, is jammed with shopping centers and retail outlets, restaurants and bars, and people from all walks of life, more than you will find anywhere else in the city. It is here, among all the diversity, that you realize Osaka is indeed one of the world's largest cities and a delightfully entertaining one at that!
Around fifteen hundred years ago when it was known as Naniwa, Osaka was Japan's most significant gateway to China and Korea, the main cultural and political hubs of East Asia. Many of the arts that signify Japanese culture are normally more readily associated with aristocratic Kyoto rather than mercantile Osaka, but many have their roots in Osaka's role as a connection to Asia. Bunraku, a traditional form of puppetry, Kabuki, the Japanese counterpart to Western opera, and Noh, the profound and minimal stage art, are all examples of these traditional forms of entertainment.
Japan's oldest temple, the sprawling Shitenno-ji Temple in downtown Tennoji, was constructed in 539 by Prince Shotoku at the time of Buddhism's introduction to Japan. A walk around the temple with its air of grandeur and majesty still intact will reveal what significance the area was invested with even in such ancient times. Osaka today retains its cultural significance through the vibrant youth culture that the city produces, the fact that it is home to the National Bunraku (Puppet) Theatre, and that no less than five of Japan's eight Nobel laureates either hailed from or made their name in the area.
For a relatively brief time in the 7th and 8th Centuries, Osaka had its turn at being Japan's capital: a period that saw Osaka's first serious growth as an urban center. Wars in the 14th Century destroyed much of the city but in 1496, Ren-nyo, the leader of the militant True Pure Land sect of Buddhism, chose Osaka as the site for his temple. The city grew rapidly around this new nuclei. The temple itself, Ishiyama Honganji Temple, was completed in 1532.
The city became a temple town and around this time began to be known by the name Osaka. After a long siege, the temple was overcome and destroyed in 1580 by Oda Nobunaga. His successor, and the unifier of Japan's myriad domains, Toyotomi Hideyoshi chose in 1583 to build his fortress on the site of the temple. It survives to this day, although it was rebuilt in concrete after World War II as Osaka Castle. It is a must-see not only for the massive moat encircled stone walls it sits atop but also for the expansive park that surrounds it, reflecting the seasons in the middle of Osaka's somewhat industrial grayness. Hideyoshi brought the whole of Japan under his control from Osaka Castle, and it remained Japan's center of power until he died in 1598.
When in 1614-15 the next rival regime under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu laid siege to Osaka, the city suffered greatly; however, recognizing its importance as a center of commerce and culture, the shogun rebuilt and developed it extensively. In 1617 the building of canals was decreed, thus exploiting the many rivers that bisect the city. Osaka was unique in that, not being a political center anymore, it had no ruling samurai class and was completely in the hands of merchants, truly making its canal-filled thoroughfares the "Venice of the East." The country's feudal lords used it as the center of exchange for the rice taxes they levied and, with the concomitant growth of commerce and industry, monetization soon followed.
The population of Osaka in 1719 reached 375,000 (three-quarters of contemporary London's). The city's growing prosperity throughout the Genroku Era (late-17th to early-18th Centuries) enabled it to become a center of learning, art and culture dictated by the demands of the commoners that ran the city rather than the samurai; however, with the Tokugawas having established Tokyo as the capital, Osaka gradually lost its cultural predominance in the eighteenth century, though it remained an important center of learning, especially Western learning, at a time when Japan was, by government decree, prohibited from communicating with the outside world.
Towards the end of the Tokugawa regime, and after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when Japan was opened to the world, Osaka suffered due to a campaign of sweeping reforms but it more than survived, and from the time of Japan's exposure to Western influence, the city followed a Western pattern of expansion, elaboration and improvement. It was established as a municipality in 1889. Harbor improvement, streetcars, water supply, drainage, electrification and city planning continued until the city's next setback, during the Second World War, when it was devastated by bombing. The next blow was the Chinese Revolution that deprived Osaka of lucrative trade from mainland Asia until the 1970s, while Tokyo became more and more the center of national life.
Expo '70, hosted by Osaka, got the city back onto the world stage, and since then Osaka has continued to keep a vibrant profile. The latest boost for the region has been the construction of Kansai International Airport, a mammoth construction project involving the creation of an artificial island that was completed in 1994. The harbor has also been extensively developed as a recreation area.
Osaka takes pride in being one of Japan's most unappologetically hardheaded and idiosyncratic cities with a tradition of contact with the outside world and a corresponding mercantile mentality. This makes for a stimulating and refreshing contrast with, most notably, the airs of high culture that Kyoto allows itself, and the cold, mind-your-own-business metropolis attitude of Tokyo. It has a relatively high proportion of foreigners compared to other Japanese cities ("foreigners" include not only expatriates but also, more commonly, ethnic Koreans born in Japan but unwilling to accept, or ineligible for, Japanese citizenship).
There are so many hotels in Osaka that you would need months to spend a night in each one of them, which is exactly what you would expect of West Japan's largest city. What may come as a surprise though, is how easy it is to choose a hotel. While the city seems to sprawl endlessly, the hotels tend to be concentrated in certain areas.
In the district immediately south of Osaka Station there are a number of well-recognized names, but none more so perhaps than the Hilton Osaka. The rooms are large and luxuriously furnished, and the hotel offers a host of business and entertainment facilities as well as four fine restaurants. Also on the south side, within easy walking distance of the station, you will find the Ritz-Carlton, Osaka. With 40 floors, the views are absolutely splendid. The hotel, like the Hilton, has everything you need: a pool, a sauna, business and fitness centers, and several fine restaurants.
An indigenous hotel chain with as much claim to quality as these two is the Osaka ANA Hotel. Although slightly farther from the main station, the ANA Hotel offers facilities and services that make its only slightly less convenient location irrelevant. From the pool and sauna to its expansive banquet rooms, your stay is guaranteed to be a pleasant one.
There are a number of other hotels in the "station-south" area that, while unable to match the above-mentioned hotels in facilities, are still considered superior accommodations. These include the Osaka Dai-ichi Hotel with its commanding views and the Hotel Granvia Osaka. Just a little farther south, across the Dojima River, is the quasi-island of Nakanoshima, where you will find the RIHGA Grand Hotel and the RIHGA Royal Hotel. The facilities of the latter place it in the same class as the Hilton and the Ritz Carlton, while both of these "island" hotels are popular for their location.
Visitors to Osaka hoping to stay away from these high-energy locations may want to look east. The Imperial Hotel Osaka could be described as breathtaking. Located along a lazy river that is often spotted with recreational craft, the hotel has superior facilities that include a pool, sauna, fitness center and conference/banquet rooms for any occasion, as well as six fine restaurants that overlook the river.
One of Osaka's most popular areas is Chuo-ku and its surrounding districts, including the bustling shopping and entertainment districts of Namba and Shianbashi, so you can be sure that there are some quality accommodations here. The top pick is arguably the Swissotel Nankai, Osaka. Only a minute from Namba Station, the hotel offers exquisite rooms and ample business and relaxation facilities. Only slightly less impressive—only because it does not have the same health facilities—is the Nikko Hotel Osaka. Rooms on the upper floors of this towering hotel give an unbridled view of the city.
On the less expensive end of the spectrum, the modern Kaneyoshi Ryokan has comfortable, Japanese ryokan accomodations in an incredibly convenient location, within walking distance of many of the city's most popular dining and entertainment options. Equally convenient and moderately priced is the Mitsui Garden Hotel Osaka, which offers Western-style accommodations along with both Western and Japanese cuisine.
Near Osaka Castle, there are a number of hotels that border this beautiful, historical and architectural draw, but none surpass the New Otani Osaka. The facilities contain everything you would expect from a superior-class establishment. There are 13 different restaurants to choose from!
Lastly, and somewhat separated from the rest, being located in Suminoe to the west, in what is known as the "Bay Area", is what is perhaps Osaka's finest hotel, the Hyatt Regency Osaka. The views of the bay are exemplary, and while the hotel gets top marks for form and function, it offers impeccable service as well. If you are looking for the ultimate in accommodations, this may be the place for you.