The Odd World of Osaka

There’s no telling what comes next in one of Japan’s liveliest cities

By: Arin Greenwood

Day one in Osaka: shopping for hours. My friend Dianne and I go through miles of covered arcades and wile the time eating fresh sweet bean desserts, traversing luxury department stores whose basements contain foods that can be sampled (pickles, sweets, coffees and more), playing the Japanese gambling game Pachinko and looking at antique books and shoes with beaded skulls on them and other wonderful things.

Later, in the teeming Dotonbori area, we pass the crab and pufferfish restaurants, demarcated with their enormous animatronic crab and pufferfish models. We also bypass tako-yaki (fried octopus balls) stalls, restaurants serving okonomiyaki (pancakes with meat, vegetables, kimchee and anything else you might want in a pancake), udon, sushi and other foods Osaka is famous for, all the while making our way to a tall, generic-looking building in yet another shopping district

On the fifth floor of this building is Axum, a tiny reggae-inspired restaurant that serves delicious Ethiopian stews cooked by the former chef of Japan’s Ethiopian embassy.

Walking back to our hotel in the fun, loud Dotonbori neighborhood, another shop: This one sells kimonos. The shop has squirrels and rabbits in a Plexiglas zoo, and a Shetland pony on a stage.

Needless to say, we love the odd world of Osaka.

Osaka is Japan’s third largest city with a population of around 2.6 million people, and is the capital of the Kansai region. Osaka is about an hour from Kyoto and makes an excellent base for exploring the Kansai region. It is also a great place to experience some of Japan’s best citylife food, nightspots and culture.

A couple of days later, an elegant man named Hiro comes to our hotel to squire us. Hiro is a volunteer English guide he belongs to a volunteer club in Osaka whose members will take visitors around town. (This free guide service is available all over Japan and is just as wonderful as it sounds.)

Hiro has tried to arrange a visit to the Maishima Incineration Plant, a waste-processing plant with a carnival-like outside designed by artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Hiro says the plant only accepts 300 visitors a day, and all the slots were filled.

So we get on the subway and venture to Toyonako City, just outside Osaka. It is fall, and the leaves on the trees are changing. We walk through the tree-filled Hattori Ryokuchi Park where the elderly do tai chi, and kids on school trips hold hands.

Hiro takes us to the Open Air Museum of Old Japanese Farm Houses in the park it has 11 original farmhouses from throughout Japan that have been moved and reconstructed here. We pick persimmons off the trees and eat them in front of a reconstructed kabuki theater from Kagawa. In the afternoon, we visit another excellent museum. The Osaka International Peace Center, dedicated to war and human rights, is in the same park as the Osaka castle, one of Japan’s most famous castles.

Next comes more eating Mexican food at Hermanos, made by a Japanese man who studied at the University of Iowa then drinks at a busy absinthe bar in a funky part of town. By the time we’re done, we are reluctantly too tired for Spa World, the 24-hour spa complex featuring baths from all over the world.

On the day that we have to leave Osaka, Dianne and I go to Umeda, the business district, home to one of Osaka’s compelling rooftop Ferris wheels this one atop the Hep 5 shopping complex.

The Ferris wheel is closed, and so we go to the Umeda Sky Building, a quirky tall building with a viewing platform from which you can see all of Osaka.

We go up and look out over the big sprawling exciting city. We have by now been to a museum devoted to the invention of instant ramen noodles, soaked in traditional Japanese baths and walked for hours and hours without feeling tired or bored. In short, we have thoroughly enjoyed Osaka.

But there are countless other things that will have to wait for our next trip: Osaka’s Universal Studios, the whale sharks at the Osaka Aquarium, the Suntory Whiskey Distillery, the famous Bunraku puppet theater, the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum, the indoor amusement park called Festival Gate&.Osaka is simply the sort of place where you start planning your return visit before you even leave.

Dianne, apparently thinking the same thing, turns to me and asks, “You got Hiro’s e-mail, right?”


The Nikko chain has four hotels in Osaka

The Dotonbori Hotel is a funky hotel in a fun part of town

Fushio-kaku is a traditional onsen (hot-springs) resort just outside Osaka

For more info on volunteer English guides

Axum, Ethiopian restaurant
Higashi-Shinsaibashi 1-17-15, Marusei Bldg. 5F
Tel: 06-6241-5838

Hermanos, Mexican restaurant
2-3-23 Dotonbori, Chuo-ku
Tel: 06-6213-9612

General tourist information: