Overview

Osaka, Japan, and the surrounding Kansai region are the country's spiritual heartland. The site of one of the earliest capitals of the country, Osaka remains a vital center for trade and entrepreneurial culture. Tokyo may have political and financial clout and Kyoto may be the repository of ancient tradition, but Osaka is the nation's honest heartbeat.

In the mid-1990s, Osaka city officials embarked upon a long-term commitment to overhaul the city's grimy and nondescript image. The skyline has since risen dramatically, and so has its profile. Stylish high-rise apartment and office buildings are no longer an oddity (particularly in Umeda, Osaka's north-central district). The architectural renaissance is bolstering Osaka's role as one of the world's most energetic cities. Indeed, it has a vibrancy that is seldom matched elsewhere in Japan.

The historic areas—the castle and the shrines—are modern reconstructions, but that cannot negate Osaka's long contribution to Japanese arts and culture. The tea ceremony, flower arrangement (ikebana) and the performing arts of Bunraku, Kabuki and Noh all have their roots in the city. Osaka is known for its writers, artists, musicians and comedians.

And so Osaka's true character lies in its people. In Japan, Osakans have a reputation for being straightforward and even brash. They're hardworking but just as intent on having fun, and it is among them that the true appeal of this fascinating city can be found.

Geography

Osaka (which translates as "big slope") is located on the western half of Japan's main island of Honshu. Despite its name, the city is flat, but low, rolling mountains surround the outer reaches and are visible from town. The Yodogawa River slices through the northern part of Osaka, splitting into smaller tributaries through the north central area of Yodoyabashi and near Osaka Castle. On the south side, the Yamatogawa River is a natural demarcation between Osaka and neighboring Sakai City.

Osaka has two principal commercial areas: Kita (literally "north"), otherwise known as Umeda, the area around Osaka JR Station; and Minami ("south"), comprising the heart of the city centered around Namba and including the Shinsaibashi shopping areas, America-Mura and Dotombori. Dotombori is the traditional nightlife center of the city, American-Mura is a mecca for Osakan youth and Namba features major private railroad terminals and department stores. Linking the two main areas along a north-south axis is Osaka's main traffic artery, Midosuji Boulevard. The entire length of the boulevard is lined with lovely gingko trees, with foliage that turns a brilliant gold in the fall. Underneath the boulevard is the Midosuji subway line. North of Umeda, this thoroughfare continues across the Yodogawa River and is known as Shin-Midosuji, extending past Shin-Osaka Station and up into the northern suburbs.

Much of the action in Osaka lies close to Midosuji Boulevard. From north to south, the main centers of interest include Umeda; Kitanoshima island with its comfortingly stolid, retro architecture; and Yodoyabashi, Kitahama and Hommachi, the city's financial and business center. Shinsaibashi and Minami Semba are the principal areas for shopping.

To the west of Midosuji, a younger crowd is attracted to the gentrifying areas of Kita- and Minami-Horie and around Utsubo-koen Park. On either side of the Dotombori canal, the nightlife is entertainingly seedy. The area has recently been enhanced by an attractive boardwalklike riverside promenade. At the far south of Midosuji is Namba, an area of department stores and old-style markets that has seen some development.

Other areas of interest in Osaka are Kyobashi and Osaka Castle, to the northeast of center; Tsuruhashi to the east; and Tempozan and the ATC port area on the waterfront to the west. Tennoji is south of Minami. Sumiyoshi Taisha and Nagai Park are close to the southern edge of the city.

In English, the Japanese suffix ku translates as "ward." The main wards that you are likely to hear mentioned, either as part of an address or simply as an area of town, are Kita-ku (including Umeda, Kita-Shinchi and the Ritz-Carlton hotel), Chuo-ku (includes Minami, Namba, Shinsaibashi, Dotombori and Osaka Castle), Tennoji-ku (includes Tennoji, Abeno Harukas, Abenobashi, the zoo and Tsutenkaku Tower), Sumiyoshi-ku (Sumiyoshi Taisha Jinja shrine) and Suminoe-ku (the port area, including the aquarium, Asian Trade Center, Cosmo Tower and the Nanko Natural Bird Sanctuary).

Note: As with most cities in Japan, many streets in Osaka don't have names. Major roads and expressways are named or numbered, however. The lack of street names is cause for much confusion for visitors, and the Japanese seem no less confounded, especially around Osaka station where there has been much redevelopment over the past decade. Street addresses are complicated, especially if you do not read Japanese, and translations may have different spellings.

History

From the mid-seventh century, Naniwa, as Osaka was then known, served as the nation's capital. Its port welcomed visitors from China, Korea and other areas of Asia. The historical ruins of Naniwa-no-Miya Palace are testimony to its rich and honorable place in history. Because of its busy port, the city continued to flourish even after the capital shifted to Nara in 710 and then to Kyoto in 794. In 1583, Osaka Castle was constructed, and Hideyoshi Toyotomi ruled the nation from this base. A town grew around the castle as merchants moved from nearby Sakai and Fushimi, developing a vibrant commercial district. Osaka soon transformed into both an economic and political center.

After a period of decline following Toyotomi's death, the city boomed again during the Edo Period (1603-1867) as a thriving economic hub and distribution center for rice. It was during this time that Osaka's performing arts were expanded and refined. Tekijuku, a school for the study of advanced Western medicine, bolstered Osaka's reputation in the intellectual arena.

In 1886, the Prefecture of Osaka was established, and three years later the city of Osaka became official. When Tokyo was designated as the nation's administrative and economic center around this time, only a budding textile industry saved Osaka from economic collapse. World War I brought a switch from textiles to chemicals and heavy-machinery manufacturing. Attacks in World War II left most of the city in ruins, and nearly all industrial production ceased. Renewal and rapid growth followed the war, and soon the city regained its economic footing.

The 1960s spawned major urban planning and development: Road and railway networks were constructed and other parts of the infrastructure were improved, all of which helped secure Osaka's status as a major Japanese city. In 1970, Osaka hosted the World Expo, and it has since regularly been the site of international happenings, from economic forums to sporting events. Museums, hotels, sporting arenas and service facilities have been constructed at an amazing rate, and the opening of the futuristic Kansai International Airport provided a veritable bridge to the world.

The rise of numerous skyscraping office and condominium towers (particularly in the Umeda and Tennoji areas) since the mid-1990s has redrawn the city's skyline. One notable skyline feature is Osaka Station City, Osaka's principal railway station, which features various shops and a number of plazas and gardens throughout the bright, modern complex (http://osakastationcity.com). In 2014, Abeno Harukas in Tennoji opened as Japan's tallest skyscraper, with an observation deck on the 58th to 60th floors. Visitors see and feel Osaka's power and enjoy exploring a city that proudly celebrates its rich cultural past while developing a sophisticated, high-tech future.

Sightseeing

Osaka is a relatively compact city, with the majority of attractions located within the central areas. For the best views of the city—and to get your bearings before heading out—visit the Floating Garden at the Umeda Sky Building, less than a 10-minute walk northwest from Osaka Station and popular at night for Japanese couples on dates, though its fame has waned since the 60-story Abeno Harukas opened as Japan's tallest skyscraper in 2014. Owned by Kintetsu, a department store and railway company, Abeno Harukas is located above Osaka-Abenobashi Station and contains an observatory on its top three floors, a hotel, an art gallery and Kintetsu Department Store on 16 floors. It's hoped that the redevelopment of the Abeno and Tennoji districts will serve as Osaka's new face.

You'll want to visit the castle, or at least the surrounding park, because this is one of the city's biggest draws. But be forewarned—the castle is a 20th-century reconstruction, though it does give visitors a good idea of how powerful its warlord was and contains a very good museum. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are well-represented in Osaka. The Shitennoji Temple is the oldest state temple in the country (though the main pagoda is also a modern reconstruction) and has a nice garden. In addition to admiring the structure itself, take some time to stroll around its lovely grounds. And at the Sumiyoshi Taisha Jinja Shrine, you can cross one of Japan's most famous arched bridges.

If you're interested in Asian art, plan to visit the Fujita Museum of Art. Its collection includes priceless pieces from Japan and other parts of Asia. The Museum of Oriental Ceramics on Nakanoshima Island is another favorite.

The preferred method for seeing Osaka is to stroll around, popping into shops and shopping areas, cafes, museums and galleries. Although you'll be impressed with the architecture, it's Osaka's inhabitants that distinguish it from other Japanese cities. Hanging out and people-watching is the best way to get a sense of the city's pulse. Recommended areas for this activity include Umeda, Shinsaibashi (including Dotombori and America Mura), Kita-Horie and Tsuruhashi.

Note: Most buildings allow entry up to 30 minutes before their closing time. Also, when a national holiday falls on Monday, some museums close the following day instead.

Nightlife

Osaka is more awake at night than by day. When the sun goes down, the neon lights turn on, and the rigid social niceties and ranks dissipate with the downing of a couple of drinks. Every night seems like the weekend in Osaka's busiest drinking haunts. The city has an energizing spirit.

Osaka's main nightspots are concentrated in and around the Namba/Shinsaibashi area in the heart of town, especially along Dotombori beside the Dotombori Canal. This is where you're most likely to see other travelers (including Japanese) and foreign residents. It has something for everyone, including a sleazy side with a very yakuza (Japanese mafia) feel. But don't worry: It's harmless. On both sides of Midosuji Boulevard are numerous nightclubs that attract more spirited, better-dressed and more sophisticated crowds.

Umeda/Kita-Shinchi is Osaka's high-class district, where you'll find lots of expensive bars and clubs. (Some are overpriced.) Somewhat more tame by comparison are Kyobashi, which attracts a mixed crowd; Tennoji, which draws the young people; and Nanko, around the port, which is for those in need of some tranquility.

Bars usually stay open until about 2 am. Clubs, such as those in the America Mura area, remain open even longer, until 6-8 am.

Dining

Compared with the hearty cooking style in Tokyo and the northeast of Japan, dishes in Osaka and the surrounding area tend to be lighter in color and taste (the term used is usukuchi). Although Japanese food uses far fewer spices than the cuisines in many neighboring Asian countries, that does not mean it is bland.

Some of Osaka's tastiest treats are its local street foods. These delicacies include udon, white wheat noodles, often served with a thick curry sauce (or more traditionally with a hot savory soup); okonomiyaki, a thick, double-sided pancake cooked on a griddle, featuring pork or seafood with chopped cabbage, bean sprouts or noodles and often topped with an egg (it's far tastier than it sounds); and takoyaki, balls of batter containing small chunks of octopus, cooked crisp on the outside but still molten-soft inside.

It would be remiss not to mention two symbols of Osaka cuisine, the giant crab of Dotombori and the giant blowfish in Shinsekai (synonymous with the Kani Doraku and Zuboraya restaurant chains). In the heart of Dotombori, check out Hozenji-Yokocho Street, a minidistrict of Namba oozing all the quaintness of an older Japan. Stroll the flagstones along the narrow main pedestrian lane and dine at one of numerous atmospheric restaurants.

Lunchtime is the best time to explore Osaka's numerous restaurants, as most offer set meals at reasonable rates. At Japanese restaurants, a useful term to know is teishoku, or "set plate." Although the contents of the meal will vary, usually it will comprise a small appetizer, a main dish served with rice and miso soup, and unlimited amounts of green tea to wash it down. Some places allow second helpings of rice, salad and soup.

There is no shortage of foreign cuisines in Osaka, and in recent years standards have risen. Many restaurants, most notably Italian and Indian, are owned and operated by people from the respective countries, ensuring the cuisine is authentic. Although budget operations serving American, French or Italian food are likely to be tailored to local tastes and expectations, there is a growing sophistication and appreciation for authentic flavors.

A convenient way to find a suitable restaurant is to head to a shopping mall or department store. These dining floors are not like American-style food courts but are individual restaurants with table waitstaff. In Tennoji, Kintetsu Abeno Harukas has a whole section devoted to branches of famous Osaka restaurants. In Namba, try Namba Parks, and in Umeda, head to Hankyu or Grand Front Osaka.

The Japanese used to drink mainly tea but are now big coffee drinkers. Since the arrival of Starbucks in 1995, the coffee experience has improved dramatically in Japan. Not only have cafes become warm and friendly places to meet friends, refresh and get some work done, but the coffee has improved. Besides Starbucks, there are Japanese chains like Tully's, Excelsior Caffe, Doutour and Pronto.

Breakfast is usually eaten between 7 and 10 am, with best options at hotel restaurants or in coffee shops. Lunch starts from 11:30 am or noon and is likely to run until 2 or 2:30 pm. Most restaurants open for dinner at 6 pm, although they usually don't fill up until around 7 pm. Note that last order is usually 30 minutes before closing, sometimes even earlier. In trendier parts of town, young people tend to dine out fairly late, especially on the weekends, and a growing number of places stay open until the wee hours. Tipping is neither expected nor practiced in Japan; instead, service charge is added to bills at the finer restaurants.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks or tax: $ = less than ¥2,000; $$ = ¥2,000-¥5,000; $$$ = ¥5,000-¥12,000; $$$$ = more than ¥12,000.

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