It was once the capital of Japan.
But more than 400 years on from that brush with greatness, Osaka remains overshadowed by the current national capital and tourism mecca Tokyo.
Yet the city on Japan’s central eastern coast, a sprawling megalopolis encompassing satellite cities Kyoto and Kobe inhabited by up to 17 million people, has everything foreign visitors flock to Japan to see.
Imperial castles and grand temples set amid perfectly manicured parks are juxtaposed against the hyper-modernity, unusual food and quirky street culture for which Japan is famous.
In fact, all of these drawcards were on display on my first foray on foot from the hotel into the surrounding Tennoji district.
Wandering past the subway and train lines that link Tennoji with the rest of the city, the aroma wafting from food stalls and streetside cafes was hard to ignore.
I paused to inspect menus that are filled with wonderfully exotic foods containing ingredients of which I have never heard. Takoyaki sounds appetising. Less appealing is its translation – octopus balls. Best left for another day, I reckon striding off towards Tennoji Zoo.
There are more than 1000 creatures on display here amid lush gardens framed, rather incongruously, against the towering glass-and-steel structures of the city.
As I watch a pair of playful Japanese Macaques, also known as Snow Monkeys, an elderly Japanese man strikes up a conversation.
A retired doctor, he urges me not to waste too much time at the zoo – every country has them – and instead to absorb a more cerebral cultural experience.
He scribbles a rudimentary map on the back of my zoo ticket directing me to the nearby Shitennoji temple. It turns out to be as impressive as the kindly man claimed. The oldest temple in the country, it was built in the Chinese-influenced Buddhist architecture sometime between the late sixth and early seventh century.
If I had visited one month later, in January, I could have witnessed the strange delights of the Naked Man festival, better known as Doya Doya.
Despite the freezy winter temperatures, Doya Doya sees young men strip to Sumo-style underwear and jostle to grab paper charms from within the temple while they are doused with buckets of water.
This traditional ceremony sums up the intoxicating/beguiling mixture of ancient culture and quirkiness that is Japan’s trademark.
Leaving the temple, I again encounter a sight. A group of cartoon characters have mounted a statue of what appears to be a Japanese warrior.
The cheeky locals inside these gaudy costumes giggle as they jostle for centre stage in the photos being taken of them and the spectacle they have created.
This “Cosplay” as it is known in Japan started as a display of counter culture but is now very much a mainstream pastime. As such it has been embraced by commercial interests which is highlighted in Tennoji’s bizarre Shinsekai hamlet.
Here, youthful employees use their outrageous costumes to catch your eye in an effort to draw you into the restaurant or bar they’re employed by.
One of the major nightlife hubs in Osaka, Shinsekai offers affordable eateries and watering holes that all try to outdo one another with their evermore curious attractions.
Eventually I settle on a restaurant-bar with a neo-Wild West design. I settle for Okonomiyaki, a Japanese omelette with a seemingly never-ending amount of ingredients.
With my hunger satisfied, I make a beeline for the central icon of Shinsekai, Tsutenkaku Tower. This 130 metre high structure was apparently intended to resemble the Eiffel Tower. It is not without similarity. That said, at the base of the Parisian icon is a stately park, Champ De Mars, whereas here there’s a clutch of blindingly bright neon-lit Pachinko parlours.
Men of all ages hunch over these gaming machines hoping to collect enough balls to earn a prize.
I resist the urge to gamble and step into the elevator up to the top of the Tower. From the observation deck I can see a carpet of twinkling lights stretching to the horizon.
Scanning across the skyline I try, unsuccessfully, to spot the main reason I came to Osaka – the Osakajo Castle. While the Tennoji district alone had offered me a full spectrum of Japanese experiences, I was told this site was not to be missed.
The castle tower is surrounded by secondary citadels, gates, turrets, impressive stone walls and moats. The Nishinomaru Garden, encompassing the former "western citadel", is a lawn garden with 600 cherry trees, a tea house, the former Osaka Guest House and lovely views of the castle tower from below.
So all in all, Osaka may lack the cache of its big brother Tokyo, but it offers many of the same experiences at a cheaper price and minus the sometimes maddening tourist hordes.
- From late May through to early June, Osaka locals gather at various locations across the city to watch the vivid display created by Japanese fireflies. Expo Park and Sugawara-jinja Shrine are the most popular spots to witness this show of nature.
- Osaka has an international airport which can be reached from major SE Asian flight hubs like Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Alternatively, from Tokyo Shikansen bullet trains can transport you to Osaka in less than three hours.
- Osaka aquarium and Universal Studios Japan are located close together in the city’s Bay Area. The aquarium is one of Japan’s largest, boasting 15 tanks. Universal Studios has an array of rides based on popular movies and is the second most popular theme park in Japan after Tokyo Disney Resort.
Published under license from Well Travelled.