Having received a bad rap as a tourist destination for many years, ŌSAKA (大阪), Japan’s third-largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama, has used public money to try and “re-brand” itself. The city is hoping to successfully improve its image, mainly through urban revitalization and ambitious architectural projects, to become a more attractive destination. It may still lack the pockets of beauty and refinement found in nearby Kyoto, but Ōsaka is a vibrant metropolis, inhabited by famously easy-going citizens with a taste for the good things in life.
Ōsakans speak one of Japan’s more earthy dialects, Ōsaka-ben, and are as friendly as Kyoto folk can be frosty. They may greet each other saying “Mō kari-makka?” (“Are you making any money?”), but Ōsakans also know how to enjoy themselves once work has stopped. There are large entertainment districts in the north and south of the city, and the Ōsaka live music scene showcases eclectic local talent as well as international acts. In a city that cultivated high arts, such as bunraku puppetry, the locals also have a gift for bawdy comedy; Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, the internationally famous film director, started his career as a comedian here. The city continues to produce successful comedy duos who dominate national TV variety shows, and Ōsakans are very proud that their dialect has now become popular as the language of comedians. Ōsaka is also one of Japan’s great food cities, but Ōsakans are not snobby about their cuisine; a typical local dish is takoyaki, grilled octopus dumplings, usually sold as a street snack.
The city also feels a welcoming place for foreigners. It has Japan’s largest community of Koreans and a growing gaijin population. There’s also a willingness to face up to uncomfortable social issues, exemplified by the city’s admirable civil rights museum, Liberty Ōsaka, which among other things focuses on Japan’s untouchables, the Burakumin. Similarly, Ōsaka’s homelessness problem has not been ignored, at least by citizens, and the Big Issue Japan started here in 2003.
If you want to escape Ōsaka’s urban landscape for a day, take a trip out to Takarazuka, home of the eponymous musical drama troupe. As well as taking in one of the all-female troupe’s glitzy shows, you can check out the imaginative artwork at the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum, a showcase for local artist Tezuka, widely regarded as the god of manga.
Ōsaka’s best sights are scattered far and wide, but there are some areas worth exploring on foot. A fine place to start is the castle Ōsaka-jō and its immediate environs. Umeda (梅田), north of the centre, also has a few attractions, such as the rarefied Museum of Oriental Ceramics and the soaring skyscrapers near the clutch of train stations. The areas south of the Ogawa, including Shinsaibashi, Dōtombori, Amerika-mura and Namba, are almost exclusively shopping, eating and entertainment districts, which come to life at night (see Kita).
Another good area for strolling around is Tennōji, south of the centre, where you’ll find Shitennō-ji, the city’s most important temple, and an evocative old downtown area around Tennōji-kōen. Further south is Sumiyoshi Taisha, Ōsaka’s venerable shrine, an oasis of greenery amid the urban sprawl.
Heading west towards the port area, don’t miss out on the enlightening Liberty Ōsaka, a museum highlighting Japanese civil rights issues, or the ultra-cool Ōsaka Aquarium at Tempozan Harbour Village, which has the best collection of aquatic life on display in Japan. Nearby is the popular Universal Studios Japan, from where you can also easily visit the storybook-castle-like Maishima Incinerator Plant.
Ōsaka’s history stretches back to the fifth century AD, when it was known as Naniwa and its port served as a gateway to the more advanced cultures of Korea and China. For a short period, from the middle of the seventh century, the thriving city served as Japan’s capital, but in the turbulent centuries that followed it lost its status, changed its name to Ōsaka and developed as a temple town. It was on the site of the temple Ishiyama Hongan-ji that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to build his castle in 1583 and it became a key bastion in his campaign to unite the country.
With Toyotomi’s death in 1598, another period of political instability loomed in Ōsaka for his supporters, as rival Tokugawa Ieyasu shifted the capital to Edo. The shogun’s troops besieged the castle in 1614 and destroyed it a year later. With Japan firmly under their control, the Tokugawa shoguns were happy to allow the castle to be rebuilt and for Ōsaka to continue developing as an economic and commercial centre. The wealth of what became known as the “kitchen of Japan” led to patronage of the arts, such as kabuki and bunraku, and a deep appreciation of gourmet pursuits (the origin of the expression “kuidaore”, to eat oneself bankrupt) still exists today.
Despite having a gross domestic product comparable to that of Canada, and despite the city’s commercial activity, the local government has been in the red for over a decade. Governor Toru Hashimoto is a controversial figure; a former lawyer and TV celebrity who was elected in 2008, he has initiated severe cost-cutting measures affecting education and community programmes.