Osaka is a city that took me by surprise. I had come here for one reason; food. Known widely as ‘Tenka No Daidokoro’ – The Nation’s Kitchen – Osaka is thought to be home to the best traditional food in Japan. Also, as a city with an international airport, it was the perfect place to end my Japanese odyssey and fly back to the U.K. I had given little thought to what else was there, subconsciously expecting it to fade in comparison to Tokyo and Kyoto. I could not have been more wrong. Exiting the train station to the bright lights and neon signage of Dotonburi, the towering buildings of Umeda, the street food at Kuromon Ichiba and the melting pot of Amerikamura subcultures, I discovered that Osaka is a treasure trove of delights and one of the most vibrant Asian cities on the map. Furthermore, it turned out to be the city that most embodied my preconceived imaginings of Japan; the energy, the aesthetics and the spirit were everything that I had hoped to find there. Here are some of my favourite aspects of the city;
The floodlit Dotonburi canal is the vibrant, zesty, futuristic heart of Osaka. This is the Japan that I had always imagined; a surreal nightscape of colour and energy. Countless arcades packed with pachinko slot machines, karaoke bars, market stall and restaurants spin out from the central bridge, like spokes on a wheel. This is the area to experience ‘kuidaore’; the Japanese act of “eating yourself bankrupt”. Takoyaki stands selling marinated baby octopus stuffed with quails eggs and served on a stick line the street alongside torikara (fried chicken sliced and spiced), kushikatsu (deep fried meat and vegetables), okonomiyaki (stuffed, pancake/rosti hybrids) and countless others. The iconic Kani Doraku crab restaurant is one of the best in Dotonburi and utterly unmissable thanks to the all seeing, six foot mechanical crab that hovers above the crowd.
A ten minute walk from Dotonburi is the famous Kuromon Ichiba Market selling yet more intriguing and traditional food. Admittedly much of what was for sale appeared outlandish and, to be truthful, unappetising to my untrained eyes (takoyaki in particular took an embarrassing amount of mental preparation) but if there was ever a place to be adventurous with food, it has to be Osaka.
Orange Street (Tachibana)
Orange Street is Osaka’s Shoreditch, a hidden, artsy backstreet brimming with independent boutiques, artisan roasted coffee, vintage bicycle outlets and multipurpose spaces. The aesthetic and atmosphere are extremely similar to the backstreets of Harajuku in Tokyo in that they almost feel too casual and relaxed to belong in a frantic Japanese city. The street has an otherworldly quality, as if encased in it’s own bubble. Despite the laid back feel, the clothing on sale is both sharp and stylish. Meticulous store owners carefully curate an intriguing mix of established and emerging designers and several have seating areas and baristas installed on the shop floor making the process of browsing even more enjoyable. I was told by one sales assistant that pop-ups and ‘guest collections’ are a regular feature on this street, meaning that the stock is ever changing and current. Lifestyle stores such as Urban Research and Biotop are common in this area, incorporating coffee, food, fashion, flowers and everything in between. For anyone interested in experiencing the artistic heart of a city, Orange Street is a must.
Amerikamura (Ame Mura)
Amerikamura, or American Town, is a hipster haven with a Harajuku edge and one of the most extreme examples of cultural blending that I’ve ever seen. Replicated icons of classic Americana, such as the Statue of Liberty, King Kong and Uncle Sam, loom large above the anime graffitied streets. Dive bars that look as though they have been lifted straight from the mean streets of Mississippi are packed with Fairy Kei and Cosplayers. Thrift stores selling Rockabilly biker jackets and vintage Levi’s sit cheek by jowl with Lolita costume boutiques. The overall atmosphere is kitschy and eclectic with freakish funhouse edge and the area is one of the best venues for people watching that I’ve ever experienced. For American style food and cocktails, the options in this area are endless. The nearby Brooklyn Parlour is a basement bar, restaurant, bookshop and live gig space. For brunch, the wildly popular Hawaiian chain Eggs ‘n’ Things has an Amerikamura outlet and for a quick pitstop in the middle of the day, the famous Rozetta Cafe and music venue serves incredible coffee and colourful crushed ices.
One of the most interesting shops in this part of the city is the famous Alice On Wednesday, an Alice inspired lifestyle store just a short walk from Ame Mura.
Osaka is a sprawling city with so much to discover that I doubt I experienced more than a fraction. In such a large city it can be difficult to know where to stay. We chose to stay in Namba and found it to be the perfect base for us, however I truly feel that no matter where you stay in Osaka, you will leave wanting more.