Every trip does not have to be about ticking off a sightseeing
list. Some of the best destinations are seen by getting under its skin to
experience it like a local -- and a visit to Osaka, Japanese’s third largest
city after Tokyo and Yokohama, is a prime example.
While it does have a national
art museum, a castle and an aquarium, really discovering this city is a
lesson in experiential travel. Chowing down on local dishes and enjoying a beer
with boisterous, good-humoured Osakans at the baseball will teach you more
about Japanese culture than any museum or temple.
People who live in Osaka tend to shed the conservatism
that is found elsewhere in Japan -- perhaps owing to its prosperity as an arts,
theatre and cultural hub at one time -- and the first place you will notice
this is on the subway. Elderly ladies laugh together sweetly, teenagers stand
in groups and poke fun at each other while businessman bark angrily on cell
phones in animated discussion. Bucking the Japanese train etiquette seen
elsewhere in the country, passengers do not speak in hushed tones while staring
at the ground and the no-cell phone sign is rarely adhered to. Osakans are full
of life and down-to-earth, so whether you are dining out, grabbing a beer or
just asking for directions, you will find that it is easy to strike up a
conversation with the city’s friendly and forward locals.
Eat and be merry
known as the food capital of Japan with fresh seafood from Osaka Bay and produce
from the surrounding mountains, and was referred to as “Japan's kitchen” during
the Edo Period (1601-1867) as essential goods were sent here from all over the
country to be shipped worldwide from its busy port.
passionate about feasting and even have their own expression to describe it, kuidaore: “to eat oneself bankrupt”. There are plenty of places to gorge yourself in
the city, and while Osaka does have an abundance of high-end international and
Japanese dining options, most will not have you filing for bankruptcy just yet.
The city is known for its traditional cheap eats and any trip to Osaka would
not be complete without sampling what’s on offer.
Takoyaki (dumplings filled with octopus) is a delicacy that originated in Osaka,
and you will find little takeaway shopfronts throughout the city, with the best
in the Dotombori district in minami (the
south of the city). Order yourself half-a-dozen takoyaki topped with mayonnaise and a thick sauce similar to Worcestershire,
stab one with your toothpick and shovel it into your mouth. Chomping into one
of these piping hot dumplings will inevitably have you scalding the roof of
your mouth, but it is all part of the experience.
Okonomiyaki, a savoury-style pancake that translates roughly to “as
you like it”, is another Osakan favourite. It can be made with a variety of
ingredients which, when done Osaka-style, are all scrambled together with batter
and cabbage before hitting the grill. Choose your own ingredients from tender squid,
plump prawns or juicy pork, topped off with bonito
(fish) flakes, a thick brown okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise. The best spots
to try okonomiyaki are the tiny “mom and pop” operations that are full of
history and authentic atmosphere, where you will feel as though you are dining
in someone’s home. Try popular Tengu (Toyosaki
3-15-19; 06-6372-7676) near Nakatsu station. Or jump off at Dobutsuen Mae station on the
Midosuji and Sakaisuji lines, head into the covered arcade and ask around for one
of the best okonomiyaki spots in the city -- Chitose (06-6631-6002).
Tokyo may be known for its neon and nightlife but
Osaka has its own slice of madness -- and it is called Dotombori. All the
action in this southern district concentrates around the Dotombori canal, Dotombori
street and on the Ebisubashi bridge. It is best explored on a weekend once the
sun goes down, when it takes on a B-grade horror movie atmosphere with giant
mechanical moving crabs, oversized hot dogs, puffer fish and cows hanging
overhead from buildings among flashing neon and coloured billboards. On ground
level, crowds wander the strip taking snaps of convincing plastic food models in
front of restaurants, hawkers squeal about meal deals and spiky bleached-blonde
Japanese men in suits attempt to woo young women to the “host” bars nearby
(male versions of the hostess bar). Come here to take it all in, grab a cheap ramen (noodle dish in broth) from the
open-air 24-hour Kinryu Ramen street stall (Dotombori 1-7-26; 06-6211-3999; you
can’t miss the giant dragons on the roof) and people-watch for hours.
Beer and baseball
close to many Osakans’ hearts, and essential pursuits for any stopover in this
town, are beer and baseball. The summer season from June to September sees beer
gardens popping up all over the city, typically located on rooftops of hotel buildings
like the Ramada and department
stores like Hanshin. Usually the offer is all you can drink (nomihodai) (beer and spirits, but most
opt for large frothy lagers) and eat
(tabehodai) for about 3,500 yen
– guaranteeing a rowdy night out.
spot for experiencing the city’s spirit is at a baseball game during the March
to October season where locals are at the height of their boisterousness. The
majority of Osakans are Hanshin Tiger fans and are known as the country’s most
dedicated and fanatical fans. Catch baseball fever at a game at Koshien stadium, a 20-minute train
ride from Osaka on the Kobe line, and hang out with fans amid of barrage of
chants, trumpets, Tigers flags waving in the air and thousands of balloons
being released at the seventh inning.
The article 'Japan’s spirited third city' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.