Osaka, the second city of Japan after Tokyo, is said to be the country’s best place to eat, drink and be merry! It was earlier called Naniwa and has also had the honor of being the capital of Japan at one point. But even after the capital shifted, Osaka has continued to be an important hub for land, sea and river transportation. It has also served as the ‘nation’s kitchen’, being the collection and distribution point for rice, the most important measure of wealth in olden times. Now that’s a title few cities can boast of having!
The older generation in Osaka would probably remember the city as a maze of waterways that was the principal mode of transportation for the booming merchant trade in the city. Almost all the canals and the traditional wooden buildings were destroyed during the World War II. Now the city has a more modern and futuristic feel to it with buildings such as the inverted U-shaped Umeda Sky Building, Imperial Hotel, and the Ferris wheel on top of the HEP Five Complex. The city is also trying to establish green areas in the city in an attempt to regain some of its lost beauty.
Many districts in the city derive their names from the bridges built here in the Tokugawa era, when it was a major transport hub for the country. In fact it was given the adage of ‘the 808 bridges of Naniwa’, an expression of awe and wonder (Naniwa was the city’s name, and 808 symbolises the concept of uncountable).
The city is still very much a commercial and merchant city as it has always been, with many streets still devoted to wholesale commerce – Dosho-machi for medical supplies, Matcha-machi-suji for fireworks, and Namba for department stores.
During the time that the city was expanding as a trading center by the end of the 16th century, the merchant class was considered at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even though they were among the richest people around. Denied access to aristocratic activities, the merchants sought pleasure in theatre and dining. In fact, it is often remarked that many a successful businessman in Osaka has gone bankrupt by spending too much on food! The tradition to enjoy life still continues. The city’s night life is well-known. The Dotombori-dori area has more nightclubs and bars per square foot than any other part of town!
At the mouth of the Yodo River on Osaka bay is the city of Osaka, the third largest city of Japan. It lies in the Kansai region of the Honshu Island. Apart from the west side which is open to the bay, the city is surrounded by ten smaller cities.
Osaka had been, since the beginning, the knowledge and cultural hub of Japan, filtering it from mainland Asia. In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Osaka-Nara region was the center of development in the country. In the next two centuries that followed, many emperors maintained an imperial court in Osaka. In 645, emperor Kotoku built his palace here, Naniwanomiya Palace, the city’s oldest palace, named after what Osaka was called then - Naniwa. Then in 655, the capital was moved to Asuka, but in 744, Naniwa was once again declared capital by emperor Shomu. But the city lost its political importance when Nara was set up as a capital in 694. Naniwa, however, was already on its way to becoming a hub port connecting the region to the western part of Japan and to Korea.
In 1496, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect set up their base here in the heavily fortified Ishiyama Hongan-ji on the ruins of the old Naniwa imperial palace. Almost a hundred years later, a warlord named Oda Nobunaga started a siege of the temple that lasted for ten years. Once the monks surrendered, the temple was demolished and later on his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi built his castle in its stead, the Osaka Castle, which still stands.
Till now, the city was just another backwater port on the Seto Inland Sea, but Hideyoshi encouraged merchants from all over the country to set up their businesses here, and Naniwa soon flourished. In the years that followed Hideyoshi’s death, many clans reigned over the now prosperous city. During this time, many of Japan’s business dynasties were founded, many of which like Sumitomo, Sanwa and Daiwa, still exist today.
After 1601, the political capital was moved to Edo, present day Tokyo. Osaka’s economic affluence gave rise to culture and arts. The city was also instrumental in developing the education system of the country. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, social and economic reforms contributed to a decline in Osaka’s prosperity. The city transformed from a trade base to a commercial center, and the smoke emitting from the factories made people name it the ‘smoky city’. It was also compared to Manchester in the United Kingdom.
Osaka was officially incorporated as a city in 1889 with a mere 15 sq km to start with. After three major expansions, the city grew to its current area of 222 sq km. By 1925, Osaka was the sixth largest city in the world.
Continuous air raids during World War II destroyed most of the city but after the war was over its citizens gradually restored the city’s economic and commercial prowess, and helped make Osaka the economic heart of Japan.
Summers in Osaka are hot and humid, and winters, though it rarely snows here, it does get quite cold. The best time to visit the city, however, is April-May when the cherry blossoms blossom, and during October-November, autumn when the leaves change color. These periods offer mild temperatures, not much rains and pleasant weather.
Getting there and around
Osaka is connected with the rest of the world by the Kansai International Airport, and Osaka International Airport, also called the Itami Airport, which mainly serves domestic connections.
Osaka is also accessible by bus and trains if you are arriving from other parts of the country. There are also ferries to and from Bussan in South Korea and Shanghai in China, from the Osaka International Ferry Terminal.
Within the city, the subway is a convenient way to travel. It has the second most extensive subway network after Tokyo. However, the Osaka subway turns out to be more expensive, especially for commuting over shorter distances.
Trains are also a good way to commute and the JR Osaka Loop Line runs in a loop around the city, making it convenient.
What to see and do
If you happen to be in the city around March and April, you will witness the cherry blossoms burst into bloom, one of the prettiest sights you can imagine. It heralds the arrival of spring and the best places to see a multitude of these blossoms are in places like the Nishinomaru Japanese Garden, Osaka Castle Park, the Osaka Mint with the a line of trees along the Okawa river, Nagai Park and at the Yodogawa Riverside Park. Stroll among the trees and sit down for a nice picnic and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings.
The Osaka Castle is the city’s best known monument. Inside the castle is a museum that documents Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s life and the history of the castle. It is closed at the end and beginning of the year, so keep that in mind while planning your trip. You can also go for a stroll in the Naniwa Palace Site Park near the castle park. For a great view of the Osaka Castle, visit the Osaka museum of History where you can also learn about the city’s history. Visit the Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, one of the oldest in the country, surrounded by a park and having a tranquil pond in its enclosure.
For the kids, the Osaka Science Museum is another great educational experience with activity centers on several floors, a planetarium and cinema halls screening science movies. Next stop could be the Imax theatre at the Suntory Museum, which is the largest in the world. Then visit one of the largest aquariums in the world, Kaiyukan, with over 11,000 tons of water and plenty of creatures of the deep. The largest tank with 5,400 tons of water represents the Pacific Ocean and is nothing short of overwhelming! On weekends, musicians and street performers offer additional entertainment to visitors. And don’t forget to take the kids to the Universal Studios, the second largest theme park in the country.
Another city landmark is the Umeda Sky Building which is a rather interesting piece of work. Take the escalator to the rooftop observatory for a great view of the city. The japan Mint is headquartered in Osaka, and is most visited during the cherry blossom season when over a million people can be found here strolling under the tunnel of trees.
Tsutenkaku tower, original built in the early 20th century is a symbol of reconstruction of the City of Osaka post WWII, and the rebuilt structure was designed by Professor Naito who also has Tokyo Tower to his credit.
If you need to relax after a hard day, visit Spa World and get an Asian or European themed spa and sauna. There are also pools with slides — fun for the whole family.
To get a taste of the city’s cultural heritage, visit the National Bunraku Theater, one of the last places in the world where the bunraku puppet show can be seen. The plays are accompanied by music and narration. Transcripts and synopsis in English are available. Other theaters include the Osaka Siki Musical theater; the Festival hall and the Symphony hall for modern and classical recitals; Umeda Koma and Shin-Kabukiza for Enka (form of Japanese music) performances; and the Banana Hall for more independent music.
To take back a tangible part of the city with you, try the numerous shopping districts in the city. Shinsaibashi is one of the more famous ones with huge department stores and independent boutiques. Within this area is the Amerika-mura or the American Village, more popular among the youth for the latest fashion trends. Horie street offers mainly Japanese brands. Places like Hep Five and Hep Navio buildings have more luxurious brands and shops, and cater to the elite. The Nippombashi area is known for its electronic goods, but there are other places like the enormous Yodobashi Camera where you can get spoilt for choice. Tenjinbashi-suji shopping street is among the longest straight and covered shopping arcade, roughly 2.6 km in length. It has been around since the Edo period and is a window to Osaka’s daily life.
What to eat
The people of Osaka are passionate about food and prefer the freshest ingredients available. Their cuisine is flavored with soy sauce which is milder and more salty than the one used in Tokyo. Some of the local delicacies include okonomiyaki (grilled pancakes with various stuffing), Osaka-zushi (Osaka style sushi with a distinctive square shape), unagi (eel) prepared in different styles, fugu (blowfish) is less expensive here than other Japanese cities, and takoyaki (octopus dumplings). In Osaka, you can forget about sake and try shochu instead. It is also a distilled alcoholic beverage and there are many varieties available all over the country.
The city is culturally awakened and there are many activities for you to do to enhance your cultural experience. Osaka is home to the puppet drama form called Bunraku. These puppets are two thirds the size of an average human. The puppeteers are completely visible to the audience. They not only move the puppets’ limbs but also skillfully manipulate their eyes and lips. Although language may become a barrier in understanding the full depth of the plays, the music and actions will give you a general idea of what’s going on.
If you have never seen a live sumo wrestling match then be in the city around mid March, after the plum blossoms have fallen. This is when the annual Osaka Tournament takes place. Colorful banners of the wrestlers are displayed at the venue (Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium) and the oversized wrestlers can be seen walking the city streets.
Tenjin Matsuri is one of Osaka’s largest festivals on July 25th and 25th. Processions of colorful barges on the city’s rivers, lively performances and brilliant firework displays attract thousands from all over the country.