A modern city that goes strong 24/7, where people play as hard as they work–that’s Osaka.
I’m in Japan’s ‘second city’, in a forest of skyscrapers, you might say. Osaka, largest city of the Kansai Prefecture, whose residents never sit still for a minute, who play as hard as they work. A city teeming with highrise buildings of every size and shape. Some are tall towers reaching for the sky; others form a ‘U’ or a horseshoe shape. Some are not only tall but as thin as playing cards. The architecture of this city, so close to earthquake-prone Kobe, takes me aback at first while simultaneously leaving awestruck.
A BUZZING COMMERCIAL CAPITAL
With 2.7 million people, Osaka, Japan’s third largest city after Yokohama and Tokyo, has always been a vital commercial center, the main reasons for this being its proximity to Japan’s ancient capitals, Kyoto and Nara, and its uninterrupted development. Thanks to its ideal location, Osaka has held its own as Japan’s commercial capital for 1500 years. But Osaka, which has been on the historical scene for centuries and was even briefly the capital of Japan, acquired its real importance with the construction here of the country’s most imposing fortress by one of its great generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, in the 16th century. In the Edo period, Osaka became a major center for the distribution of rice and many other commercial goods.
Enriched by trade, Osaka also developed its art and cuisine. You will find venues here today where you can watch both classical ‘kabuki’ and ‘bunraku’ puppet theater, the traditional theater arts of the Japanese people. The Bunraku Puppet Theater, which dates to the Heian period (794-1192), actually originated in Osaka. Operating three puppets in plain view, the puppet master is so skilled as to be able to move not only the arms and legs of these sizable, two-thirds lifesize, puppets but also their eyes and lips, thereby giving expression to emotions such as joy, sadness and fear.
RUN DON’T WALK!
Osaka, which hosted the World Expo in 1970 and the World Cup in 2002, is a fun city on the run. It residents are said to walk faster than in any other city on earth. Indeed, the natives quip that the difference between them and their friendly rivals in Tokyo is that in the capital people use the right side on escalators whereas in Osaka they use the left! This fast city boasts a lively nightlife as well. Don’t miss, for example, the Dotonbori with its bustling shops, theaters and restaurants. Another feature here are the colorful billboards and advertising panels. You can watch the dance of the neon lights from dusk to dawn. As Osakans are fond of saying, in Kyoto it’s kimonos you see until they’re coming out of your ears, whereas in Osaka it’s food! Indeed, the chefs of Osaka have developed special varieties of fast food just for their ‘always on the go’ compatriots. One of them is ‘takoyaki’, a kind of ravioli stuffed with chunks of octopus, which I highly recommend.
SHOPPING AND ENTERTAINMENT
Among places to see in Osaka, Osaka Castle heads the list. A hundred thousand workers toiled night and day to build this fortress, which was commissioned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1586. The terrace at the top of the main building, which has five storeys on the outside and eight on the inside, affords a bird’s-eye view of the entire city. There is also one of the giant aquarium parks that are to be seen in almost every big city today. But the one in Osaka is different, let me tell you. Known as Kaiyukan, this aquarium park is one of the world’s largest. Home to upwards of 35 thousand species from penguins to whale sharks in its 14 water tanks, one of which is the biggest in the world, the aquarium displays feature the Ring of Fire and Ring of Life areas of the Pacific Ocean. The only Universal Studios outside the U.S. is also located in Osaka. At this giant theme park, a near-exact replica of the one in Orlando, you can tour the Hollywood studios, enjoy an exciting river ride at Jurassic Park, even stroll through 1930’s New York. If it’s shopping you’re after, then by all means head for the Umeda and Namba districts. At Umeda in particular you will find a lively scene, not just on the ground but underground as well. These modern subterranean shopping malls have been known to seduce passionate shoppers.
The entrance to the city is not to be missed either. As the principal gateway not just for visitors to Osaka but for travelers coming to Japan from abroad as well, Kansai International Airport is a modern legend due to its construction on an artificial island in the Gulf of Osaka. A total of 1.6 km in length from end to end, the terminal has the distinction of being the longest building in the world. And Nara, Kobe and Kyoto are just a hop, skip and jump away.
KOBE AND NARA
One of the major port cities of the Kansai Prefecture along with Osaka, Kobe is a rapidly growing city. Fifty thousand foreigners from more than a hundred countries live in Kobe, one of the first Japanese cities to have taken up trade with the West in 1868. Kobe, built on a series of hills, is only half an hour by train from Osaka.
Nara, meanwhile, one of Japan’s oldest cities, is also the cradle of Japanese art, handicrafts, literature, culture and industry. Nara Park is among the city’s biggest tourist attractions. According to legend, when the first king, Jimnu, descended from heaven, he rode into Nara on a gazelle. In the belief that they are its descendants, the gazelles in the park today are therefore regarded as sacred. The city’s most famous building is the Todaiji Temple with its enormous statue of the Nara Buddha. The temple is also claimed to be the world’s largest structure made of wood.
KYOTO: HOME OF JAPANESE CULTURE
If you want to experience Japanese traditional culture and see priceless treasures and age-old temples, then Kyoto, just an hour and a half from Kansai Airport, is the place for you. Despite the relocation of the capital to Tokyo (formerly Edo) in 1868, Kyoto remains the country’s cultural capital and definitely one of its most beautiful cities. With its 1600 magnificent Buddhist temples, over 400 sumptuous Shinto shrines, castles, Japanese gardens–each one a work of art, and traditional wooden houses, Kyoto is more than deserving of these epithets. As you stroll here in the narrow, canal-lined streets, it is not uncommon to see an elegant kimono-clad woman tending her bonsai garden, or a geisha preparing for a rendezvous in a house from which traditional Japanese melodies emanate. And when you do, you will suddenly be transported back in time...
The epitome of simplicity, Kyoto Imperial Palace stands in the center of Kyoto, representing the pinnacle of Japanese architecture. And the Gion, near Shijo-Kawaramachi, remains a corner renowned for its geishas despite a decline in their numbers over the last century. Not only can you view Japanese art and watch Japanese theater here, you can also survey the entire city from the Kiyomizu Temple, built on 139 columns, each one 15 meters high. Meanwhile, Kinkakuji Temple, known as the ‘Golden House’; the celebrated Ryoanji Temple, famous for its rock garden which consists, in stark simplicity, of nothing but stones and white sand; and Katsura Imperial Villa, one of the finest examples of traditional Japanese architecture and gardens, are just a few of the spots I can recommend in Kyoto.
I hope I have succeeded in giving you a taste of at least a tiny cross-section of this fabulous country, steeped in the past, yet living every minute to the hilt and investing continuously in the future.