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.
At night, Dōtombori–dori is ablaze with the neon lights of large billboards and TV screens, all flashing modern commercial messages. However, the one sign that has lasted the longest, for over 70 years, is the 33m Glico Man sign at the Ebusu-bashi bridge. It’s a simple graphic showing an athlete in a victory pose, but it looks somewhat out of place amongst the slick contemporary advertising that surrounds it. Glico Man still has enduring popularity amongst the locals, who congregate here to celebrate sporting victories. The company behind the ad, Ezaki Glico, are a confectionery manufacturer based in the city, best known for their caramel candy and Pocky pretzel snacks. Coincidentally, they were the original sponsor of the anime series Tetsujin 28, a giant robot which is a new landmark in Kōbe.
Despite being largely a concrete reconstruction, Ōsaka-jō can be counted a great survivor, a tangible link with the city’s illustrious past as Japan’s one-time seat of power. The castle’s roots go back to the early sixteenth century, when an influential Buddhist sect built its fortified temple headquarters Ishiyama Hongan-ji beside the confluence of the Ōgawa and Neya-gawa rivers. For a decade the monks held out against warlord Oda Nobunaga, before handing their fortress over in 1580. Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, decided to build the grandest castle in Japan on the temple site. For three years from 1583, tens of thousands of men laboured on the enormous castle, and craftsmen were drafted in from around Japan to give the eight-storey central donjon the finest gold-leaf decoration.
Toyotomi died in 1598, and his son and heir Hideyori was immediately under threat from rival Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1614, the would-be shogun laid siege to the castle, even though his favourite granddaughter Senhime, wife of Hideyori, was inside. A year later he breached the castle and reduced it to ruins. Hideyori and his mother committed suicide rather than surrender, but Senhime survived and went on to become mistress of Himeji-jō. When Ieyasu allowed the castle to be rebuilt in the 1620s, he made sure it was not on the same scale as his own residence in Edo. In 1665, the donjon was again burnt to the ground after being struck by lightning. It was not rebuilt until the 1840s and then only lasted another thirty years before the Tokugawa troops set fire to the castle during the civil war that briefly raged before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Ōsaka’s citizens, however, had grown fond of their castle, so the donjon was rebuilt once more in 1931 – this time from concrete – and it has remained standing despite the heavy bombing of the city during World War II.
To reach the Ōsaka Bay area, take the JR Loop line to Bentenchō Station (弁天町); on the way you’ll pass the UFO-like Ōsaka Dome, home of the Kintetsu Buffaloes baseball team. From Bentenchō Station, take the Chūō line subway to Ōsaka-kō Station (大阪港駅) – the subway will bring you all the way from other parts of the city – and walk north towards the huge Ferris wheel beside Tempozan Harbour Village (天保山ハーバービレッジ). Inside an exotic butterfly-shaped building, decorated with a giant fish-tank mosaic, is the fabulous Ōsaka Aquarium (大阪海遊館). The aquarium is constructed so that you wind down between fourteen elongated tanks, each representing a different aquatic environment, from Antarctica to the Aleutian Islands. The beauty of the design means you can, for example, watch seals basking on the rocks at the top of the tank and see them swimming, torpedo-like, through the lower depths later. The huge central tank represents the Pacific Ocean and is home to a couple of whale sharks and several manta rays, among many other fish. The giant spider crabs, looking like alien invaders from War of the Worlds, provide a fitting climax to what is undoubtedly Japan’s best aquarium.
While at Tempozan, check out what’s showing at the Suntory Museum (サントリーミュージアム), housed in a striking inverted glass-and-concrete cone, designed by star local architect Andō Tadao. The museum specializes in twentieth-century graphic art and has a collection of over ten thousand posters. There’s also an IMAX movie theatre showing films on a 20m-high screen.
Covering some 140 acres on Ōsaka’s western waterfront, Universal Studios Japan (ユニバーサル・スタジオ・ジャパン) is one of the nation’s leading theme parks.
A more unusual sightseeing destination in the bay area is the Maishima Incineration Plant (舞洲工場), which was commissioned after Ōsaka’s bid for the 2008 Olympics failed. With bulbous ceramic columns, gold-plated turret roofs and tiered gardens, this extraordinary building was designed by the Austrian conservation architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and completed in 2001. It looks more like a storybook castle than a hi-tech garbage combustor, and is often mistaken for an extension of the nearby Universal Studios Japan. Inside, 450 tonnes of waste are processed daily. Free tours of the plant are given on weekdays at 10am, 1pm or 3pm, and while there are some interesting displays detailing Hundertwasser’s “technology, ecology and art” concept, the tour mainly focuses on the incineration process. However, it is worth gaining access to the building for a closer inspection of the architectural detail of the upper levels. The tour is in Japanese but there are plenty of English explanations on the displays, as well as an informative pamphlet. Bookings must be made at least a week in advance with the Ōsaka Environmental Management Bureau (90min). To get there, take a train to JR Sakurajima Station (桜島駅), one stop after Universal City, and catch the #56 bus to Konohana-Ohashi Nishizume (此花大橋西詰), or the Hokko Bus to Kankyo-kyoku Mae (環境局前); both stop in front of the incinerator.