The friendly, food-loving Japanese city that will soon be easier to reach

Colourful, food-loving, lively, humorous, nocturnal: these are all words that can be used to describe Osaka - ferrantraite
Colourful, food-loving, lively, humorous, nocturnal: these are all words that can be used to describe Osaka - ferrantraite

For some Japanese, the essential difference between Tokyo and Osaka can be summed up in a single fact: residents in the capital stand on the left hand side while travelling on escalators - but Osakans prefer the right.

Escalator etiquette may sound like an unlikely (and slightly surreal) cultural indicator, yet it is one example among many that reflects how Osaka is a city that relishes its distinct identity and refuses to be overshadowed by Tokyo.

Colourful, food-loving, lively, humorous, nocturnal: these are all words that can be used to describe Osaka, Japan’s third largest city and capital of the western Kansai region (as well as perhaps its residents).

Osaka’s location has long been a perfect springboard for exploring other areas in Kansai, in particular the temples and gardens of Kyoto which are just 15 minutes away by bullet train (Nara and Kobe are also well connected).

But the city itself is sometimes overlooked by transiting tourists en route to other destinations who become intimately acquainted with the interior of its train stations but opt not to explore Osaka itself.

The city combines modern skyscrapers with venerable wonders - Credit: getty
The city combines modern skyscrapers with venerable wonders Credit: getty

This situation, however, is likely to be remedied shortly: not only are Rugby World Cup fixtures being held in Osaka next year, which will firmly place it on the global sporting map, British Airways has also just announced that it will fly direct to Osaka Kansai International Airport from March 31. 

In a nutshell, Osaka is perhaps not for the fainthearted. The urban sprawl - home to more than 2.6 million residents - has both high-tech skyscrapers and one of Japan’s most historic castles.

The city is also a longtime historical rival to Tokyo and so travellers should brace themselves for pretty much everything, from food to accents (as well as escalator rules), to be different from the capital.

But visitors often find it doesn’t take long for Osaka’s lively charm to work its magic. The city has a string of historical sites that are worth a visit, from Shitenno-ji, one of Japan’s oldest temples, dating back to the 6th century, to the even older tomato-red and white shrine Sumiyoshi Taisha, with its picture perfect bridge and pond.

Not to forget The Castle. Okay, so like many castles in Japan, wartime attacks and natural disasters mean that its current incarnation is mainly a reconstruction. But there are few more striking sights than the castle’s iconic tiered roof, moat, turrets and gardens, surrounded by the otherwise contemporary urban tableau of Osaka’s skyscrapers.

The Umeda Sky Building - Credit: GETTY
The Umeda Sky Building Credit: GETTY

It’s a city excels at the contemporary too, with a string of ultra-modern towers reflecting its status as a regional economic powerhouse - from the high-tech Nakanoshima Festival Tower (home to restaurants, shops and a concert hall) to the futuristic twin-tower Umeda Sky Building (complete with a Floating Garden Observatory on its 39th floor).

The city’s hotel scene has also stepped up a luxury notch in recent years: a highlight is the Conrad Osaka, a sleek, contemporary hotel at the top of a skyscraper, with a dazzling modern art-filled lobby, clean-lined luxury guestrooms and epic city views.

Inside the Conrad Osaka
Inside the Conrad Osaka

But it’s not all about the modern for visitors. In contrast, a colourful timewarp atmosphere prevails in the Shinsekai district, famed for its narrow lanes, old school bars and retro atmosphere (the vintage-style Tsutenkaku Tower, with its steel structure and neon lights, takes centre stage).

Tsutenkaku Tower - Credit: getty
Tsutenkaku Tower Credit: getty

Whatever the reason for visiting Osaka, food is likely to emerge as an unadulterated highlight. Long dubbed tenka no daidokoro - “the nation’s kitchen” - it is home to a string of unique culinary creations that generally embrace a stronger, punchier palette compared to the lighter subtleties of its Tokyo sister.

And so prepare to indulge in epic feasts of okonomiyaki - hearty pancake-like dishes cooked on hotplates built into the table - and takoyaki octopus balls (which are far tastier than they sound).

Takoyaki octopus balls - Credit: GETTY
Takoyaki octopus balls Credit: GETTY

Even the sushi is different: look out for Osaka’s sushi specialty battera, a tangy stack of super-thin vinegar-pickled mackerel and kelp on top of rice, ideally washed down with a local sake (the region produces top quality versions, thanks to the fresh water sources in the surrounding mountains).

While its street food and local restaurants are likely to be a big draw, there are also a growing number of high-end culinary establishments – one particularly memorable highlight being the serene Michelin-starred Kashiwaya restaurant, where an exquisite medley of seasonal creations are served in a traditional tearoom-style setting.

But perhaps the biggest draw to Osaka? The people who live there. Osakans take great pleasure in embracing a national reputation for being outgoing, humorous, loud and friendly (as opposed to their more reserved and quietly spoken Tokyo cousins - according to stereotypes at least).

And while it’s possible to spend days in Tokyo without talking to any locals, in Osaka, it’s pretty tricky not to become embroiled in conversation - with high chances that you’ll make a few friends before moving on (if you manage to decode the local Kansai-ben dialect, that is). Just don’t forget to stand on the right when using the escalators. 

Tell us about your experience of Osaka

Have you been to Osaka? Is there something that we might have missed? Tell us about your favourite things to do in the city in the comment section below.

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