Japan’s merchant city charms with plenty of good food, gorgeous scenery and a culture unlike any other
If Osakans appear smug these days, it’s for good reason. Japan’s third most populous city has seen an increase in the arrival of overseas tourists longing for a bit of old-world charm along with the comforts and excitement of a modern metropolis. With beauty characterised by stone-paved, lantern-lit alleyways, stunning greenery, and the enduring moniker of kuidaore no machi, or ‘the city where you eat till you drop’, the hometown pride is perfectly understandable. Add to that Osaka’s reputation for its down-to-earth people, and it’s easy to see why the city is one of Japan’s must-visit destinations. Here are some of the not-to-be-missed attractions if you’re visiting Osaka for the first time.
What to see
To experience Japan’s breath-taking cherry blossom season or to take in its fall foliage, visit the Expo ‘70 Commemorative Park (expo70.or.jp/languages/English). The 260-hectare park is built on the site of the Japan World Exposition 1970 and features The Japanese Garden and the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, among others. The Japanese Garden, a testament to the art of gardening Japan is so famous for, has a stream running through it and is a quiet and restful place away from the madding crowd. Bring a packed lunch and enjoy the scenery at a leisurely pace.
The grounds of the Osaka Castle (osakacastle.net) are also worth visiting for its beautiful landscape, acres of cherry trees and a huge variety of flowers. The castle itself is a reproduction after it was destroyed in the Summer War of Osaka, rebuilt, only to be heavily damaged during World War II. Today, it is a museum housing Japanese historical documents, while an observation deck on the 8th floor offers panoramic views of the city. If you’re tired of walking, a great way to take in the sights of the city is on the Aqua Liner (suijo-bus.jp/language/english) from the Okawa River. The seasonal cruise passes many of Osaka’s famous sites, including under bridges.
If you’ve had enough of the views from the ground, get up to the ‘floating garden’ located at the top of the 173-metre high Umeda Sky Building (kuchu-teien.com/english). On the way up the twin skyscrapers connected at the top floors, see-through elevators and escalators are bound to make you weak in the knees. Once up, step out onto the Lumi Sky Walk, a 122-metre completely open circular corridor, for 360-degree panoramic views of the Osaka cityscape.
If you have time for just one visit to a museum, the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living is highly recommended. Be transported back in time to the Edo period through a life-sized reproduction of the town of Osaka in the 1830s. Stroll through lanes and peek into shops and living quarters to experience what life was like back then. The attention to detail is impeccable, from the lifelike cats playing on the roof to the raindrop imprints on the floor! To impress friends and family back home, dress up in a kimono for less than USD2 and pose for photos among the exhibits. It’s a steal!
What to do
Muggle fans of Harry Potter will not want to miss the magical Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Japan (usj.co.jp), an attraction designed in incredible detail to capture the true spirit of Hogwarts Castle, where the school of witchcraft and wizardry is housed, and Hogsmeade, the village where the wizards reside. The centrepiece of the castle is the award-winning, state-of-the-art Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction. The ride is unlike any other offered in theme parks around the world. Guests sit on an ‘enchanted bench’ and are launched at varying speeds in all directions while chasing dragons, flying over Hogwarts Castle, and playing quidditch, among others. The entire experience is conducted in Japanese, even when Dumbledore is speaking to you. But for fans, it’s easy to guess the storyline.
If you’re prone to motion sickness or have small children who don’t meet the requirement for the Forbidden Journey attraction, hop onto the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff coaster that spirals and dives around a pumpkin patch and swoops past Hagrid’s Hut. To cap off all the excitement, head to Hog’s Head for a mug of butterbeer, the sweet, non-alcoholic beverage that tastes a bit like butterscotch. Snap a photo of yourself with a foamy moustache to prove that you’ve tried it. Tip: Time your trip for a night-time view of Hogwarts Castle. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Non-Potter fans will find equally thrilling attractions at the theme park, such as the immersive Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride, or the boat tour of fear, where a gigantic man-eating shark attacks, inspired by the movie, Jaws, of course.
For a taste of traditional performing arts, catch Evenings of Traditional Osaka Performing Arts at the Yamamoto Nogakudo or Noh Theater (noh-theater.com) on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Be mesmerised by actors performing highlights from four traditional arts developed primarily in Osaka, including Noh plays, kyogen comic plays, bunraku puppet theatre, rakugo comic storytelling, and rokyoku narrative ballad, among others, in a single evening. For a deeper understanding of Noh, take part in organised lectures, tour the stage and dressing rooms, or try on costumes worn during plays. Noh plays reached their perfection about 650 years ago and are believed to be the oldest existing theatrical performance in Japan. It is also the country’s first Intangible Cultural Heritage listing designated by UNESCO.
Finally, what fun is travelling without a little shopping? The Shinsaibashi-suji shopping street is undoubtedly Osaka’s most famous and busiest. Running about 600 metres in length, the covered street hosts brand name shops like Longchamp, chain stores like Uniqlo and Zara, independent boutiques and a variety of restaurants and cafés. For more specialised shopping, Amerikamura has hundreds of small, inexpensive boutiques catering to youths, while the nearby Horie and Minami-senba districts cater to the slightly older, more sophisticated crowd with prices to match. Those craving a more holistic experience can head to the Osaka Station City complex in the Umeda district, where large Daimaru, Hankyu, Hanshin, and Mitsukoshi-Isetan stores are located.
What to eat
As tenka no daidokoro or the ‘nation’s kitchen’, Osaka is clearly all about food. The Dotonbori area is a street food haven known for the hundreds of neon lights and mechanised signs that line its street, including the famous Glico Running Man and the Kani Doraku crab signs. Okonomiyaki is arguably Osaka’s most famous food. A cross between an omelette and a pancake, okonomiyaki is filled with a choice of meat, seafood or noodles, and topped with bonito flakes, a special brown tangy sauce, mayonnaise, and scallions. The traditional Osaka-style okonomiyaki includes shredded cabbage, pork belly, and seafood. For the quintessential street snack, try the takoyaki or bite-sized balls of flour and egg batter filled with pieces of octopus, ginger and scallions.
For the adventurous gourmand, the poisonous fugu or pufferfish awaits. A speciality of Osaka and eaten mostly during winter, fugu is normally served as sashimi, though some restaurants serve it as ice cream! Fact: Did you know that conveyor belt sushi or kaiten-zushi originated from Osaka in the 1950s? The owner of a stand-up sushi bar in Osaka is said to have come up with the idea of using conveyor belts to serve his customers in order to increase the efficiency of his restaurant.
Visit osaka-info.jp/en for more information about the city.
Malaysia Airlines operates five weekly direct flights to Osaka (KIX)