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
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
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
For more info on volunteer English guides
Axum, Ethiopian restaurant
Higashi-Shinsaibashi 1-17-15, Marusei Bldg. 5F
Hermanos, Mexican restaurant
2-3-23 Dotonbori, Chuo-ku
General tourist information: