If Tokyo is Japan’s capital, Ōsaka (大阪) might be called its anti-capital. Osaka is the main metropolis of the Kansai region, and its inhabitants exhibit a strong rivalry towards the Kanto region, from baseball, food, popular culture, even to which side they ride escalators (on the left in Tokyo, but on the right in Osaka).
Like Tokyo, Osaka is best thought of as a group of cities that have grown together.
Back in the days of the Tokugawa shogunate, Edo (now Tokyo) was the austere seat of military power and Kyoto was the home to the Imperial court and its effete courties, but Osaka was where the merchants made and lost their fortunes. To this day, while unappealing and gruff on the surface, Osaka remains Japan’s best place to eat, drink and party, and Osakans still greet each other with mōkarimakka?, “are you making money?”.
- By plane
The main international gateway to Osaka is Kansai International Airport, covered in a separate article. Domestic flights, however, mostly arrive at Osaka’s northern Itami Airport (ITM), connected to the city by the Osaka Monorail.
- By train
Shinkansen trains arrive at Shin-Osaka station to the north of the city center. Connect to the center with the Midosuji subway line.
Local trains from Kobe, Kyoto and Nara arrive mostly at the Umeda and Namba stations.
- By bus
Overnight highway buses from Tokyo and other areas can get you to Osaka for significantly less than a Shinkansen ticket.
The convenient Kansai Thru Card can be used on just about anything that moves in Osaka (as well as the rest of the Kansai region), with the notable exception of JR trains.
- By subway
Osaka has Japan’s second-most extensive subway network after Tokyo, which makes the underground the natural way to get around. The Midosuji Line is Osaka’s main artery, linking up the massive train stations and shopping complexes of Shin-Osaka, Umeda, Shinsaibashi, Namba and Tennoji.
- By train
True to its name, the JR Osaka Loop Line (環状線 Kanjō-sen) runs in a loop around Osaka. It’s not quite as convenient or heavily-used as Tokyo’s Yamanote line though.
Osaka Castle is Osaka’s best known sight, although it’s a concrete reconstruction that pales in comparison with, say, Himeji. Still, it’s pretty enough from the outside, especially in the cherry blossom season when Osakans flock to the castle park to picnic and make merry. Open 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily, adult admission ¥600. The park can be accessed on a number of lines, but the castle is closest to Osaka-jo Koen station on the JR Osaka Loop Line.
In a nation of obsessive gourmands Osaka is known as an excellent place to eat, exemplified by the Osakan maxim kuidaore, “eat until you burst”. The best place for this is Dōtonbori (道頓堀), a street that contains nearly nothing but one restaurant after another. Some of the more famous establishments here include:
- Kuidaore (食い倒れ), featuring a mechanical clown beating a drum, is one of the contenders for the title of the largest restaurant in the world. Each floor specializes in a type of food. Affordable, but more fun in a group.
- Kani Dōraku (かに道楽), easily identifiable by the giant mechanical crab waving its pincers about, specializes in crab. Good but moderately expensive.
The cheapest option is capsule hotels, found near the major train stations .
Capsule Inn Osaka. 9-5 Doyamamachi, Kita-ku (in the Higashi-Hankyu shopping arcade off Namba station). Tel. 06-6314-2100, Fax 06-6314-1281. Japan’s first capsule hotel (opened 1977) is still open for business, happy to accommodate foreigners with some semblance of a clue and a steal at ¥1600 for a night.
Typical Japanese business hotels are step up from a capsule and can be found everywhere. Examples include:
Hotel Nankai Namba, 17-11 Namba-naka 1-chome, Naniwa-ku (Exit 5 from the Midosuji subway line, walk south, and turn right at the McDonald’s), TEL 06-6649-1521 (firstname.lastname@example.org, FAX 06-6632-5061). This is a clean and well-run hotel convenient to transport: 20 minutes from Shin-Osaka, good access to Nara on the Kintetsu Line. Rooms have LAN access at no additional cost- some rooms with WiFi, so ask when making a reservation or checking in. 8,400 JPY-18,375 JPY (single-triple).
The base for Japan’s yakuza gangsters, Osaka has a dangerous reputation (by Japanese standards), but is still remarkably safe for a city of its size. Unless you’re dealing drugs you’re unlikely to get involved with the local mafia, but some districts, particularly Shinsekai, may be a little dodgy at night.
The temples and lush greenery of Mount Koya, 90 minutes away by train, are an entirely different world and the perfect getaway when all the concrete starts to get to you.