What’s Osaka like? I didn’t really know myself until I got there a couple of months ago. Heavily overshadowed by its younger yet bigger relation, Tokyo, Osaka is tiny in comparison with a population of 2.6 million people. Tokyo has 13.23 million.
What did I think of the Western Japanese city? While not as buzzing and energetic/dynamic/crazy as Tokyo, Osaka feels friendlier, warmer, and more laid back (if you can call such a modern city laid-back. You know what I mean – relative to Tokyo and Hong Kong).
People are so nice that when we went to have a midnight snack somewhere – it was raining out – an elderly man having a beer offered his food and drink to share with us! (The food was a Japanese style omelette, the drink a very subtle yet strong sake, of course). And then as we were leaving, the bar staff offered an umbrella as a “presento”. Such a huge leap from Hong Kong it makes me want to cry.
If you’re traveling to sightsee, I would probably say give Osaka 3-4 days (unless you’re partying or doing stuff like Universal Studios, which I decided to bypass in favour of more cultural sites), and then head out to explore the rest of the Kansai region, which is incredibly rich in cultural heritage. As for Kyoto, I would say at least a week. An obvious reason for this would be that Osaka was heavily bombed by the US during World War II while Kyoto was spared, thanks to then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson. Therefore Osaka is mostly rebuilt and modernized while Kyoto retains its older charm.
This area of Japan (Kansai region) was actually the center of the country for longer than Tokyo, further northeast. Kyoto, an hour north of Osaka, was the country’s capital for over 1,000 years, while Nara, just east of Osaka, was the capital before that.
And finally, after all that waffling, here is my Osaka Top 5:
1. Osaka Castle
A must. Excellent exhibition inside of the castle’s violent history. Utterly fascinating and dramatic, I felt projected back into Japan’s feudal past.
Of course, the whole structure is merely a reconstruction and the interiors are no longer what they used to be, but nevertheless a must-go.
2. Shitennoji Temple
The site of another great battle, in the middle of southern Osaka. We stumbled into a random cemetery gate from a small street, and it opened into the extensive temple grounds
- completed in 1993 – obviously this used to be the height of innovation, but now it’s over 20 years old! Similar to any other rooftop exhibit you will find (eg. N Seoul Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Taipei 101, etc.)
- two 40-story towers that connect at their two uppermost stories, with bridges and an escalator crossing the wide atrium-like space in the center
- Explore Umeda around the station! Very cool area.
4. Dotonbori, Shinsaibashi, Namba
The Shibuya or Myeongdong of Osaka. Nightlife is a bit shady from what I saw, though. Maybe we didn’t go to the right places but there seemed to be a lot of seediness going around. Shinsaibashi is the fashion area. Dōtonbori is the best place to go for a bite to eat.
By the way (the mention of Myeongdong triggered my memory), very interesting to see how Japan and Korea have come into contact and influenced each other throughout the centuries. More of Korean culture going into Japan (Japanese language is said to have come from Korea) and then Japan trying to invade Korea during the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
5. National Bunraku Theater
One of the last places in the world to see this. Unfortunately, we didn’t, but I regret that! Also want to go to Koya-san (Mt. Koya) and stay at a ryokan (traditional inn) next time, with the monks.
Next up from my Japan trip from late April to early May: Kyoto, Himeji, Nara