The drive from Osaka’s Kansai airport is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie set. Heavy industrial buildings, seemingly rusty and disused are not what is often associated with the cleanliness and mostly beautiful Japan. Major cities indeed have airports close to industrial areas but this was steel on steroids! The brutal mass of steel and pipes seem never ending, steel and iron works, chemical plants, gas and petrol refining plants, paper plants, and so on….
Maybe I am idealistic but geez it’s awful! The airport itself airport is a feat of engineering, built on an artificial island it is certainly impressive and insanely efficient. So this twisted steel nightmare is not the best introduction to Osaka, but don’t be put off. I actually traveled by rail from Kyoto which was a far more genteel way to approach the city. It was on the way out I saw all this and it made me think about it being one of the worst introduction to a city that I have ever seen!
Having set aside two days to explore Osaka seemed reasonable, but to be honest, unless there is something you have your mind on seeing I would rather have spent extra time in Kyoto. I fell in love with Kyoto… you can read my previous posts on the city and see why. So why did it seem that Osaka is a city of confusion? To qualify this, I have had the opportunity to travel to 18 different cities in Japan and found Osaka did not seem to have a distinct uniqueness, please comment on this if you have a different opinion and let me know where to go on a return visit. Of course, my opinion is totally subjective only based on a brief visit.
The major tourist attraction is Osaka Castle which is indeed an impressive sight and added more insight into my fascination with the Shogun era. After that, it seemed to me that the city lacked a bit of soul, or was maybe confused as to its identity. Osaka is a large city with a great canal through the middle, historic alleys, sites, and massive loud neon signs all seeming to co exist here.
Inside Osaka is a wonderful guide by the same guys who wrote Inside Kyoto. Both guides are highly recommended by the way! their suggestions and itineraries are awesome without being too rushed, especially if you are time poor.
WHERE DID I STAY
Airbnb has been fantastic for the last two destinations of Tokyo and Kyoto. The only issue is the check in/out times. Check out was 10 am in Kyoto and most check-ins aren’t until 3 pm… which would have left me wandering around with a case ( I’m not keen on leaving in train stations) so a hotel seemed like a good choice. Close to the main train station which is in Kita Ward (section) is an area called Umeda, or Kita- Umeda. It’s really central, close to shops and transportation. I had never really stayed in a salaryman hotel before so this was going to be interesting. Hotel Hokke Club was fantastic, and a full buffet breakfast ( Japanese) was included. They have a public hot bath ( separate men’s and ladies) and a stand full of nice goodies such as bath crystals and face masks in the lobby which was a nice extra. This was my first experience in a public bath and it was fun! My very first post was written to include this. It was inexpensive ( around $70 AUD) and very comfortable. Check in was not until 2 pm but at least I could leave my bags safely whilst I set out exploring.
Before arriving in a city, a google search for “hipster ” areas of the place I am to visit yields spots that are new, groovy and upcoming often with plenty of street art, musicians, alternative food and arty characters. Tokyo has Harajuku- which really is a tourist trap, fun and quirky but no longer totally original. Osaka’s curent hip spot is Nakazakicho. This was a short walk from the hotel and it didn’t disappoint. The area is a labyrinth of small back streets and alleys which deserve to be discovered in no particular order but rather wander, stop, look and soak in all the retro cafes, scenes, and stores.
The houses date back to the Showa Era of the 1920’s, surviving the air raids of WWII. Renovation started here only a few years ago, and to date, there are no big name bands anywhere near this area. Let’s hope this unique area stays like it is. Inside Osakas guide was an interesting read, although some places I would like to have visited didn’t seem to still be there.
Street art abounded and was clever and calm, unlike some of the more aggressive tags we see adorning city walls. A feature of many places was an abundance of items dating from the 1950- 1960s which may well have been introduced to Japan during the years of occupation directly after WWII.
OSAKA CASTLE AND MINAMI AREA
The walk approaching Osaka castle ( Osaka -jo) is just lovely and the surrounding park (Osaka Castle Park) is quiet and expansive. Osaka castle is an imposing and magnificent building which can be seen from many areas of the city.
The Castle has an authentic looking exterior but is a modern concrete building inside. There is even a lift to make access easier to the several floors of museum detailing the history. Originally built in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi it has been burnt down three times and most recently re built starting in 1931 and completed in 1955. My fascination with the first Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu meant that a visit to Osaka Castle was a must for me. The Tokugawa shogunate started in 1600 and in 1615 Ieyasu laid siege to Osaka Castle and wiped out the Toyotomi clan, whom he had seen as the last remaining threat to Tokugawa rule. Osaka Castle is an important historically significant site which bore witness to the period that began the unification of Japan.
Entrance to the castle is inexpensive, and if you have time there is also a boat cruise around the moat which looked like good value bought as a combo ticket, on this occasion the castle visit was all I did. The elevator takes you close to the top floor. You will need to walk up two flights only to soak in the full view from this eagles nest vantage point. Then each floor on the way down relives the history of the families and battles over the years. I soaked all of this up and came out feeling like another piece of my Shogun historical puzzle was in place.
From the castle, I walked to Minami area which was good exercise and an easy walk. It was a warm sunny day and the city is good for walking. In this area the main sights are:
Dotomburi – a loud bustling entertainment street with huge restaurants and touts outside, all screaming for business. There was a mechanical crab on one huge restaurant and on another, an octopus beckoning patrons inward. As I am vege these held no appeal but were entetaining. Rather I got out Happy Cow and found a very cute vegan organic cafe. Its somewhat frustrating being in Japan and wanting to try plant based food, however most of the places I have come acoss seem to all do western style food such as hummus and bagels. Lunch was lovely but not the Japanese food I was craving for.
Osaka has two main shopping, or urban areas: Kita/Umeda and Minami. The place to head in Minami is Shinsaibashi- suji Arcade- a fully covered arcade which runs parallel to Midosuji- a wide tree lined avenue and home to all the big names such as Chanel, Gucci and the like.
Of most interest to me ( as I wasn’t shopping) was Hozenji Yokocho. After being spoilt with all the atmosphere that was Kyoto, Osaka had, to date seemed somewhat rough and ready, until I found this small area consisting of two cobbled streets housing more traditional shops and restaurants. The area is named after the Buddhist temple of Hozenji – ji. This is which is where you will find the moss covered Buddhist statue called Mizu- Fudo ( mizu means water) . The entire area was razed by fire durring WWII but this deity remained intact. The ritual is to splash water onto the statue, hence it is covered in moss.
There is a tiny alley of small shop fronts recreating scenes reminiscent of the Edo era. I couldn’t find much information about this, so it was a nice little find, connecting this quaint area to the madness of Dotomburi.
This trip to Japan has now sadly come to an end. I traveled mostly solo which has advantages and disadvantages. In any country where communication may be somewhat difficult, our reliance on information often comes from what you can read up on and research whenever wifi is available. Or view it as an adventure into the unknown, often the best experiences may be those we do not anticipate.
My next travel is to Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur, a city I love. Thanks for reading.