Historically the commercial capital of Japan, Osaka’s 2.6 million-strong population increases by 40% on weekdays as commuters flood into the city. The city was the nation’s economic heart; as long ago as the 17th century Osaka was called the ‘Nation’s Kitchen’ due to its status as the country’s rice trading centre, an important measure of wealth.
Located on Japan’s main island, Honshū, Osaka was razed to the ground during World War II, leaving little evidence of its glorious past. Even the striking 16th century Osaka Castle is a concrete replica, but pockets of traditional Japanese culture do still remain. However, many of Osaka’s tourists are attracted by its reputation as Japan’s party capital, and the city is known as the best place to eat, drink and make merry. Osaka also serves as a major gateway to the rest of Japan and many travellers base themselves in the city, taking day trips to other cities such as Kyoto and Kobe.
Osaka’s best known sight is Osaka Castle, a concrete reconstruction of the 16th century fortress which was destroyed during World War II. It’s pretty from the outside but it still pays to think of it as a castle-shaped museum. It comes to life during cherry blossom season as Osakans head to the grounds to picnic amongst the trees.
Another symbol of Osaka’s post-war construction is Tsūtenkaku, a tower in the middle of Shinsekai at its most impressive at night. The tower’s claim to fame is that it was designed by the same architect who created the Tokyo Tower. Other must-see sights include the Umeda Sky Building in Kita, an oddly-shaped 40-storey building with a ‘floating garden’ rooftop observatory which offers an open air view of Osaka.
For an amusing diversion, visit the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Ikeda. A building devoted to the staple diet of students worldwide, the museum offers a ‘Chicken Ramen Workshop’ where you can create your own instant noodles from scratch. Another workshop, the ‘My Cup Noodle Factory’ allows to you select your own noodle flavour which is then manufactured in your own hand-drawn cup design.
Finally, head to Osaka Bay and its well-developed waterfront. In addition to shopping malls and other attractions, it is home to Universal Studios Japan, the country’s second-largest theme park.
Osakans are renowned for their love of food and the local saying – “dress till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka" – supports this. The best places to "eat yourself into ruin" (kuidaore) are Dōtonbori and neighbouring Hōzenji-yokochō or Soemon-cho, where the streets are filled with one restaurant after another.
Typically Osakan foods include: Oshizushi (pressed sushi); Battera (pressed sushi with mackerel); Takoyaki (octopus dumplings); Kushikatsu (deep-fried dough-covered meat, vegetable or cheese skewers); and Okonomiyaki (fried batter cakes). Many of these can be found at inexpensive ‘hole-in-the-wall’ restaurants, street vendors, or entertaining ‘do it yourself’ restaurants where the table features a built-in hot plate for you to cook your own food.
The heart of Osaka’s nightlife radiates from a narrow pedestrian lane called Dōtonbori along the south bank of the Dōtonbori Canal. Lined with welcoming restaurants and flashing neon-clad bars, it’s perfect for a lively evening stroll or a big night out.
Osaka’s location makes it a perfect base for day trips to nearby cities such as Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and Himeji (20, 30, 40 and 60 minutes by train, respectively).
For a complete escape from Osaka’s concrete jungle, head to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mount Koya, a 90-minute train journey from Osaka. In addition to hiking the lush green trails of the mountain’s eight peaks, visitors can enjoy the Kukai Mausoleum which is lit by thousands of lanterns, said to have been alight for more than a millennia. The area also features numerous temples and stone gardens.