Flying into Japan’s Kansai airport, it had been suggested to pass right through Osaka and continue forth to it’s more alluring cousin Kyoto, but with Kansai nestled next to Osaka port and a modest 30 minutes from the city centre, it seemed silly to not explore Japan’s third largest city. Admittedly, yes, Osaka does lack eye-catching tourist attractions to fill your daytime itinerary [especially if you had already visited the mind-bending Tokyo] but for the short-staying tourist, the city’s unique appeal was to be found once the sun set and the neon lights illuminated the Osaka’s various entertainment districts. For David and I, rolling our suitcases through the bustling, neon-infused Dotonbori was our first true Japanese experience, and one I remember fondly.
The people of Osaka hold a reputation of being, euphemistically, Japan’s wild-blooded sibling. I had read varying reports about the Osakan’s ranging from ‘hedonistic inclinations’ to the more mild critique of ‘more down to earth than their Tokyo counterparts’. Osaka was our first point of contact with the Japanese and we were instantly humbled by the archetypal Japanese nature of unrelenting affability and respect. Although the rest of Japan greeted us with identical warmth and hospitality, what Osaka did radiate more than it’s city siblings was a slight hue of ‘fun’-for want of a better word- that juxtaposed the well-known Japanese dogma of ‘work till you drop’.
This Osakan ideology I believe was best exemplified through their food. Osaka is often referenced as the food capital of Japan- and rightly so! Not only did it feature the most abundant street food out of the cities we travelled [although still a world apart from the dodgy street vendors of South-east Asia] also their regional specialities were the most decedent dishes we ate in Japan. In fact, my two favourite Japanese dishes [besides Ramen, of course] were hometown Osaka specialities: Tako-yaki, fried snack-sized balls of batter with an octopus filling, and Okonomiyaki, best described as pancake-like creation featuring a combination of pork, seafood and egg on a base of noodles and/or shredded cabbage [both with epic Japanese BBQ sauce and jap-mayo.] These two dishes, found in abundance walking the streets of Osaka were a rarity outside the Kansai region, not to mention far less tasty! In fact, numerous forums warned of disappointment if you dared to eat Osakan fare outside of its hometown.
For the Anthony Bourdain fan, you might recall the no-reservations episode where the culinary cynic went on a gluttonous escapade around Osaka, all in the name of ‘Kuidaore’, which he roughly translated to ‘ruin oneself by extravagance in food’. Well, if that doesn’t sum up Osaka and it’s inebriated–friendly food [it does] it surely sums up the Dotonbori strip. P.S. Highly recommend watching this episode before you fly over.
Dotonbori, located in the Minami/Namba area, is an entertainment strip that is named after the adjacent canal. Dotonbori is one of Osaka’s biggest attractions and is the archetypical bladderunner-esque landscape characterised by neon billboards, giant motorised crustaceans and a general sensory overload. Interestingly, tourists, locals and interstate travellers alike frequent Dotonbori, making it a exciting place to be any time of day. The strip used to be a red light district, and even today you find walkers ambling around quite liberally [easy to spot in winter, donning skimpy mini skirts and heels in 4 degrees Celsius] although tradition [or their pimps] forbids any interaction with westerners, so no need to worry about being approached.
Dotonbori is where you will uncover the best in Osakan street food. You’ll find a takoyaki stall every couple of metres, as well as gyoza shops and ramen stands. Where the rest of Japan frown upon eating on-the-go, in Dotonbori it’s part of the culture. All in all, there is a sense of western ‘looseness’ that is hard to find elsewhere amongst the general rigidity of Japanese society. Beyond the entertainment strip, each intersection stems off into a seemingly never-ending shopping arcades making it surprisingly easy to get lost. Dave and I followed a couple arcades and gave up before we found where they ended. It really highlighted the urban density of these cities where the bustling, entertainment quarter vibe can last for kilometres in all directions. Although a couple streets back each side of the canal, and in between these perpetual arcades the hustle and bustle momentarily dissipates and you can find your self a low-key restaurant or bar.
It was in Dotonbori that Dave and I started ticking off our to-do food list. Besides the Osakan classics Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki, we also tried Yakiniku, better known as ‘cook-your-own-meat’. Rooted in the same principle as Korean BBQ, you buy prepped meat and cook it on a grill at your table. What the Japanese do difference is that they utilise every part of the cow, pig and chicken. This means you can choose to cook and eat a number of different cuts as well as the more exotic tongue [which Dave and I are both a big fan of and highly recommend], heart, liver, intestines and for the audacious, cow phallus.We also ticked off Kushiage, or fried skewers, with the same selection of meats served with cabbage and super tasty dipping sauce [no double dipping!]
In fact, a meat warning. Japan is a pig nation- that is- they love their pork. I’d estimate more than two thirds of the meat we consumed was pork, by no choice of our own. It’s the staple meat in ramen, gyoza, even Okonomiyaki. Seafood came in a respectable second followed by beef, which was more of a carnivorous delicacy, found mostly in towns that raised top grade cows such as Kobe Beef found in Kobe [eaten in Tokyo] and Hiida Beef that we ate in Takayama. Tied with beef would have to be chicken. Unlike Australia where I’d go out on a limb to could call it our staple meat [as much as we’d like to think it’s steak] chicken in Japan is done only one of two ways: Karage, that is, deep fried, or yakitori, on a skewer.
We stayed three days/four nights at the Dotonbori Hotel, located on the quieter side of the bustling and neon-infused Dotonbori street- Osaka’s best-known entertainment strip. Dotonbori Hotel is only a stone-throw away from the Namba subway lines and JR Namba station- one of Osaka’s two main stations. We couldn’t of asked for better-situated accommodation, although it was the priciest place we stayed even after snagging a heavy online discount. But, the place had been highly recommended by friends and the location and extensive list of complimentary services including bicycle rental, international calls and free tap beer in the lobby most nights[!] were well worth the extra schmackos.
Dotonbori Hotel was also our first encounter with the ‘Japanese sized’ hotel room. For those looking for accommodation on sites such as tripadvisor and booking.com, an incessant complaint from reviewers were the ‘modest’ room sizes. Basically, urbanization hit Japan harder and faster than most and so over the years it has become acceptable to build and live in apartment blocks/hotel rooms the size of large western bathrooms. In saying that, Dave and I never found the size a real hindrance, and thought the reviewers were being overly dramatic. You may have to hop over a suitcase to get to the bathroom but no real biggie. A word of advice we were given from a young couple were for couples to consider a twin room instead of a double as the double rooms were in fact smaller and more cramped.
What was a little perplexing were the hotel bathrooms, that were in fact build-in units installed into each room. This meant that the floor was elevated and the ceiling lower than the already modest-hanging hotel ceiling, all in the spatial equivalent of a western-style cubicle. I’m not a big boy, but my head was only an inch or two from the ceiling, so a word of warning to all the spatially gifted out there- stray away from Japanese hotels. Even still they found room to fit in a shower/bath [that could be used if you huddled into you best ball] a sink and a toilet with all the usual Japanese trimming including a seat warmer and bidet- just don’t try and get changed in the bathroom… To be frank, the appeal of Dotonbori wore thin by the last night. My recommendation would be to say for a night exploring the culinary scene and move on.
Besides basically everything Osakan cuisine had to offer, one place I’d highly recommend trying is Okonomiyaki restaurant Mizuno, just off Dotonbori. Although this place is no secret [there is a line every night after 7pm] it was highly recommended by the hotel staff and we thought it was overall the best meal we had Osaka. Not only was the Okonomiyaki close to mind blowing but the place had a sort of zen ambiance. This stems from the dogmatic work ethic that is expected of the Japanese. Not only is work their life, but it is something they take the greatest pride in, whether it be a managing director or a cleaner. Chefs are possibly the best example of this. Like the great sushi masters you may have read about who consider their work an art form and create sushi with an effortless mastery, the guys at Mizuno take their okonomiyaki damn seriously.
The place has the traditional Okonomiyaki restaurant setup where a hot plate runs along the length of the bar. At Mizuno they have two chefs on one side and a modest eight guests. The dishes are prepared on the hot plate in front of you and the chef will simply give you a spatula to scoff it down when it’s ready to be eaten. Everyone is there for the same reason: the food, and so all eyes lay on the chefs as they prepare the dish only cms in front of you; once the food is ready for devouring conversation is even more scant. It nearly felt like the eight of us at the bench were privy to a special culinary ceremony unfolding right in front of our eyes. The whole experience was a crude juxtaposition to the billowing arcade halls and flickering neons that impede you once you step back outside. To save yourself waiting in line for an hour, head over before 6:30pm.
Our favourite watering hole in Osaka was an inconspicuous institution called ‘Space station Bar’ [check them out here] located around the Namba area. If you are into retro gaming then this is a no-brainer. They have at least four generations of playable nintendo consoles ranging from Super Nintendo to the new Wii U, but for those that know me would have already guessed that I spent the majority of our time slaying Dave on the likes of Super Smash and Golden eye on my dream machine, Nintendo 64. There are regulars there that are a cool hang too.
As I mentioned early, there isn’t a whole lot to see by day in Osaka. Umeda Sky Building, Osaka Castle and Universal Studios were the main tourist attractions we visited. Other attractions we decided against were the Aquarium and Spaworld, although I’ve been told Spaworld is an unique experience…
A tip for U.S.J: Before visiting Universal we had read on forums that it was ridiculously busy all year round and there could be hefty weights if you made the rookie error of not purchasing an express pass. We hedged our bets and grabbed a four-ticket express pass [you can also get the seven-ticket] but the lines were super reasonable so ultimately I don’t think it’s necessary if you plan to visit on a weekday in mid-January/off season- weekend or peak-season, I wouldn’t think twice about snagging an express pass.
Shopping is also a quality option is Osaka. Dave and I lost hours wandering the never-ending outdoor shopping arcades that featured an eclectic mix of international luxury brands to more local shops. Outside of the main cities e.g. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto etc. shopping wasn’t as particularly abundant as we thought so don’t wait to grab that cool graphic at the next city!
Our first day trip was to the mesmerisingly beautiful Koya-san, located about two hours south of Osaka. Although, It’s not the easiest place to get to. From Osaka you take a private line train that terminates at a ropeway that you then take to the top of a hill and then catch a bus into the small town.
Even though public transport isn’t particularly exy in Japan, it certainly adds up with that many connections. I’d recommend a Koyasan Heritage Pass. It covers all the days travel to, fro and around the town which we purchased from the Nankai station ticket office. At 30-35auds, it ends up only marginally cheaper than buying individual tickets at each leg of the journey, if not equal in fact, but the convenience of not having to line up and worry about a ticket makes it worth it.
We had a bit of trouble knowing where to get off the bus there is no central stop and passengers seemed to trickle off bit by bit. We decided to off hop around the far east side of town and checked out the surrounding temples, having an extended walk around the beautiful Kongobuchi temple where at then end of the walking route, a lady waited to greet you with complimentary tea inside one of the traditional halls.
Back outside, we walked from Daimon Gate, over Okunion bridge and through the path all the way up to Mausoleum, effectively traversing the entire town- totally achievable in half a day. If you don’t trust your legs, there are buses circulating the town every 10-15 minutes, but the place is so placid and serene that half the fun is moseying around. Beware, if you are travelling in winter, don’t forget to rug up! and also a quality pair of gloves are priceless [I doubled gloved most of the trip].
You can do Koya san as a day trip, but I think to truly experience it you have to stay the night in one of their Buddhist temple lodgings. Unfortunately we had already reach our quota of lodgings with our arranged onsenkaku and ryokan stay but I’ve been told from a friend that it was an amazing experience, where you are able to observe, and partake if you wish, in the daily rituals of a Buddhist monk. We will definitely be doing that when we return!
Tenkawa- a beautiful regional area south of Osaka that is unfortunately snowed out most of winter but was considered the most beautiful place and a must visit in Japan by a teacher of mine. I was in contact with one of the council officials of Tenkawa and we were planning on hiking the mountain but unfortunately it could not be done in a day trip. Speaking of over-night stays, don’t make the same mistake we did and stay a night in a temple lodging at Koya-san.
Next stop: Hiroshima…
Note: Cover photo and all un-date stamped photos courtesy of David Ross