Osaka is somewhat similar to Tokyo, yet different. It is also a major city (the third largest in Japan), but it has less of the modern skyscrapers and less of the sometimes-oppressing crowds. Instead, its pace is more moderate, its buildings more traditional and you actually feel like you have some space to yourself.
Speed through Japan on the Shinkansen
Osaka may not be the first choice of destination for tourists. Still, it is often bundled together with Tokyo and other major cities on Honshu Island, thanks to the convenience of the Shinkansen. Although many countries have their own version of it now, Japan’s bullet train is still the original prototype and sort of an attraction on its own. Not surprisingly, it is also more expensive than a regular train ticket. But the experience is worth it, not to mention the time saved. My trip from Tokyo to Osaka took just 2.5 hours.
All hail the universal sign language
My first mission upon arriving in Osaka was to buy Takoyaki (round little balls of batter with pieces of octopus inside) from a famous stall at the train station. I was a bit nervous about how I would place my order sans Japanese but, fortunately, sign language saved the day. The summary: brandishing the index finger to indicate “one serving please”, staring blankly when spoken to in Japanese to indicate “I don’t understand” and then a nod or shake of the head when shown and asked what condiments I’d like. My Takoyaki successfully acquired, I retreated back to my hotel with a smile on my face.
Old & New: A tried and tested recipe that works
The next day, I headed to Osaka Castle, an Osaka landmark. Although it is a reconstruction of the original 16th-century castle, its splendour is not diminished in any way. Further restored in 1997, it now houses a museum displaying castle-related artefacts.
The imposing and gorgeous facade of the Osaka Castle.
The best time to visit the castle is definitely during the cherry blossom season when the whole place transforms into a scenic painting. We didn’t plan our Japan trip to coincide with the cherry blossom season, but there were enough of them still in bloom when we arrived in end-March to cover the castle grounds.
Traditional buildings, a garden and cherry blossoms – a very Japanese experience.
Another Osaka landmark I visited was the Umeda Sky Building, a pair of 40-storey towers connected at the top. While largely an office building, there’s a floating garden observatory on the rooftop where you can get panoramic views of the city and an underground retro restaurant street dishing out Japanese favourites. It also has a nice landscape garden complete with waterfalls and fountains where I sat to admire and rest my tired feet.
Built in 1993, the Umeda Sky Building’s futuristic design is a refreshing sight in traditional Osaka.
The retro underground restaurant street, designed after 20th century Osaka.
Ahh… Nothing like the sound of water to soothe frazzled nerves.
Big brands and small thriving side by side
Umeda may be a business district, but there are lots of shopping options as well. My first stop: crowd favourite Muji. If you try to skip Muji thinking it is available in your home country, you don’t know what you are missing out on. Muji may have exported its wares overseas, but the variety of goods on offer is never as complete as the ones in Japan. The same goes for other Japanese brands like Tokyu Hands, so be sure to pen them into your itinerary.
For something a bit less predictable, I headed to the main shopping area in Osaka – Shinsaibashi-suji. It’s a covered shopping street about 600 m long with major brands mixed with small shops, so it’s like an outdoor shopping mall crossed with a flea market. That’s definitely a refreshing change from the huge shopping malls or department stores that I usually frequent.
The entrance to Shinsaibashi-suji, the main shopping district.
A louder side of Osaka
After exercising my legs (and wallet), it was time to recharge with food. And that would be at Dōtonbori, a restaurant street conveniently close to Shinsaibashi. An Osaka landmark as well, it doubles as a sightseeing attraction with its larger-than-life restaurant signage like moving crabs, fish lanterns and demon statues.
The famous moving crab of Dōtonbori, all 6.5 m of it.
A fugu, or blowfish, vying for attention.
This one sure brightens up a gloomy day.
Once our tummies were filled, we resurfaced from the restaurant to find that the sun had set and the whole place was lit up and transformed into a nightlife and entertainment area. Awesome!
The famous Glico running man appears when the lights come on in Dōtonbori.
The land of convenience – bentos and vending machines
While finding a good Japanese restaurant outside of Japan can be a hit or miss, in Japan, you can be assured any eatery you step into is a good restaurant. That is the consistency of the quality that the Japanese are known for. Sometimes, you don’t even have to step into a restaurant. You can find good-quality fare at Japanese convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and Lawson.
There is a middle ground if you don’t want to splurge at a restaurant or settle for pre-packed convenience food. You can buy a freshly-made takeaway bento from full-service restaurants. Ordering is easy with the imitation food samples on display and using the universal sign language of pointing.
Apart from bentos, Japan is also known for its staggering number of vending machines. These metal boxes are ubiquitous on the streets and sell anything from drinks and snacks to non-food stuff items. One small can of coffee/milk/soda starts from as low as 100 yen (roughly US$1).
I was more than thrilled to find an entire street of vending machines en route from the train station to my hotel. Just the variety of wares on sale was an eye-opener. I didn’t know vending machine shopping could be so much fun.
That was how I settled my dinner on most days. A bento in hand, a small treat from the vending machine, then back to my cosy hotel room to enjoy my spoils and watch Japanese TV. Life was good.