Just 30 minutes from the traditional beauty of Kyoto is Japan’s second biggest city Osaka, a place famous across Japan for its fashion, food and carefree culture.
Pulling into Osaka station it is difficult not to compare this metropolis with Tokyo, the endless sea of people and the skyscrapers that dominate the skyline are almost identical at first glance. On closer inspection however, Osaka is nothing like Tokyo. This city is unpolished and raw it exudes a cool but subtle confidence that is so different to the loud and proud culture of the capital.
After dropping our stuff off at the hostel we headed straight into the centre of Osaka to the neon streets of Namba. Our first task was finding a way out of Namba subway station, which was much more difficult than we had anticipated. This station is the size of an airport terminal, has no clear exits and seems to be completely devoid of staff to get help from.
As we wondered aimlessly around the station we passed through an art gallery, about 12 shopping arcades and countless cafes causing us to question whether this was in fact the centre of the city. One shop in particular that drew us in was ‘Sirotan World’ which was essentially a shop filled with fluffy seals dressed in all manner of costume. As far as we could tell Sirotan was some kind of mascot, though for what we don’t know, all we do know is that Sirotan was adorable…so of course we bought one.
When we finally found our way out of the train station we found ourselves on a main road surrounded by office blocks and convenience stores, with absolutely no sign of where the bustling centre of Osaka might be. Luckily we guessed the right direction and after about 15 minutes of wandering around we found what we were looking for.
Flanking either side of the central canal in Namba are countless restaurants, bars and shopping complexes all of which are bathed in every colour of light imaginable. The southern bank of the canal is lined with every kind of food Japan has to offer, including the local speciality of Takoyaki which are indescribably good.
Central Osaka is overwhelming and after only a couple of hours wandering the streets we were in desperate need of a sit down and some food. Every sense is bombarded from all directions as soon as you reach the centre of Namba. Vendors shout from their stalls promising the best prices and freshest ingredients while the noise of gaming arcades and pachinko halls create a constant background drone. All of this noise is nothing compared to the smell, every shop that you pass offers something new and more delightful than the last.
It was in one of these insanely good smelling restaurants that we decided to stop for food. Yet again we were amazed with the quality of food that the Japanese produce. For less than £6 we had fresh tuna sashimi, sticky rice, udon soup, tamago and local pork and it tasted incredible.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering along the central shopping arcade making stupid purchases and exploring all of the weird and wonderful stores along the way. A particular favourite was a costume shop aimed at young Japanese women which was filled with every kind of anime inspired costume imaginable. From sexy Sailor Moon to French Maids and everything in between.
By the time we made it back to the canal it was dark and the whole place seemed like a different city. The canal was now full of barges and floating stages with live bands playing their hardest to outdo their rivals. On one part of the canal we even stumbled upon the Minami Jazz Festival, a free showcase of Osaka’s burgeoning jazz scene. Where once there had been families and canal-side cafes there now stood crowds of young locals and countless bars offering cheap drinks and fast eats.
We found ourselves a seat in one of these bars and sat for the rest of the evening watching the world go by and enjoying another night of Whiskey. Yet again we were dumbfounded by how friendly and polite the locals were, happily asking us about our trip and our backgrounds. Osaka at night has the feel of a huge city with its towering neon lights and countless bars and nightclubs but this is juxtaposed with the feel of a local pub. Everyone speaks to each other as if they are close friend, people smile and wave to complete strangers and everyone is just out to have a good time.
Our final stop for the night was a complete accident, as we were walking along the canal back towards the station we passed a small sign for a sake bar that pointed up a tiny staircase into what looked like someone’s house. Upon the entering the bar we found ourselves in what was clearly just someone’s kitchen with a breakfast bar and 6 seats. The look on the owners face when walked in was a combination of shock and glee, clearly not many (if any) foreigners came up here but he seemed delighted.
Soon we were two glasses of sake in and becoming fast friends with the lovely Kazunori and Kikuko, both locals from Osaka who were only too happy tell us about the city. They described Osaka as the real heart of Japan, the place where a new Japan was being built both physically and culturally. Tokyo and Kyoto are both amazing cities but they already have a very clearly defined identity, the beauty of Osaka is that it is clearly a city which is always changing. Kazunori explained that despite what the rest of Japan says the people of Osaka don’t care what others think of them, their main focus is happiness.
By the time we got back to the hostel we were a bit worse for ware and in dire need of water and sleep, however Osaka had proven to be the biggest surprise of the trip so far. It is a city that on the surface could be mistaken for any other in Japan, but delve a little deeper and you will find that Osaka is unlike anywhere else in this amazing country.
Sadly we only had one night in Osaka, but what a night. Our next stop was Himeji, home the world famous Himeji Castle and the White Heron Keep.
See you soon,