Things to Do in Osaka: Inspired Ideas for Your Japan Trip
Eat till' you pop; drink till you die. Experience Osaka the best way possible, with Cosplay tourism, maid bars, giant whale sharks, gigantic Ferris Wheels and, finally, Spidey and a T-Rex.
Well, folks, hungry-hungry hippo fans, NFL fans and the rest, I'm off to Japan, the land of the Rising Sun and all that nonsense. With that said, a fair warning most be implemented, I'm the sort of American that would make Homer Simpson proud, the sort of American, that when Dick Cheney went all Rambo on his duck hunt, simply smiled and said:
"Now that's a new tactic... Bet his P.R., team did some rather interesting market research for that outcome. Talk about brainstorming outside the box." And boy, was I right. His approval rating actually spiked up!
In other words, I'm a true blue, red and white, flag underpants wearing, apple-pie, beer is the only real soft-drink "Gringo". So, the thought of going to Japan has sort of freaked me out. First things first, snatch up my checklist and pack up all my junk.
- Japanese to English phrase book... Check.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Costume... Check.
- A picture of what a watermelon should look like... Check.
- Godzilla repellant... Check.
- Kaiju fallout shelter map... Check.
- Big hunkin', I hope they're not prickly in customs, samurai sword, Hatori Hanzo edition... Check.
- Itunes library of cultural importance (Lost In Translation, Evangelion, Die Hard - you never know when a hostage situation might present itself -, Seven Samurais, etc)... Check.
- Ghostbuster's phone number ( I saw The Grudge and the Ring, not getting caught with my pants down)... Check.
- Reason for going on a madcap trip (money and a strange fixation with Sailor Moon)... Check.
Seems reasonable, nothing out of the ordinary. Now, can someone tell me what the hell is a Kilo and why should my luggage only weight 23?
A little background on my very first stop. Into the mainframe of fiberoptic, satellite induced, wifi highway that is the net. Take a sharp right turn, bump my virtual chassis against the curve of a well meaning and rather indepth blog, dashing past the stop labled TripAdvisor and allowing the Japanese embassy's official website catch the pixeleted updraft of my BIT infused exhuast pipe. I cut the wheel and enter the only safe harbor for factual information... Twitter and Wikipedia. Remember kids, this is how 21st centuary primates really learn. Teachers, you say? Ehh, what has your parental unit been passing off as wisdom? Those are sketchy subjects. Teachers? Bahh, that's what I say. Give me an easily accesed information hotspot, with cero amount of control, opened to anybody with a keybpoard and a rather openmindiness to what it considers "real sources of info" and I'm a happy camper.
Osaka For Insiders: Etymologically speaking, Osaka means "Large Hill" or "Large Slope". It has changed its name many times. In 645, Emperor Kotoku built his Palace in this region, making it the then capital of Japan. He christened the city Naniwa.
Let's get one thing out of the way first, Osaka is big. And I'm not being facetious here, nor I am I exaggerating a point, I truly mean she is literary one gigantic puppy. The sort of place where you take a wrong bus and suddenly find yourself scratching your temple and wondering why there are two suns up in the sky. Central Osaka is divided into two sections, roughly split down the middle. Kita (north/downtown) and Minami (South/uptown). From those two districts, the whole of this crazy fandango stretches out, west, east and to every other star system.
Osaka For Insiders: If you are going anywhere inside the city, there will always be a rail station that will leave you just a few blocks away from your intended target. Learn to love the tube while you are traveling in Osaka.
Now, into the history of this place. The reality of the situation is, that for a foreigner or Gaijin (Black Rain reference there), you would first need a couple of things to truly grasp the exotic and, at often times, baffling nature of the Orient. Basically, for a westerner, you would at the very least require a flowchart, a basic understanding of cultural difference, a PHD in art and quite possibly a lobotomy. Since, we are on the clock here, I'm just going to lay down a few specks on the chronology of Osaka, which I'll sprinkle throughout the article.
Now, let's get down to the good stuf.
Osaka For Insiders: a merchant city, Osaka is at often times referred to as the "nation's kitchen." This is in part due to the fact that during the Edo period it served as the epicenter of the rice trade and, in contemporary times, It also has one of the busiest ports in Japan.
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Children up to 3 enter free, from there on, each adult pays 2300 yens; about 20 bucks.
Finished in 1990, Osaka Aquarium is considered one of the largest aquariums in the world. A nice little, comfortable, stroll from the Osakako tube Station.
The aquarium has built all its exhibits around one particular concept. A hypothesis developed by Dr. James Lovelock, a British scientist that has even worked with NASA on projects aimed to detect life on Mars; The Gaia Hypothesis. In layman's terms, it states that the world is one huge organism. Each creature and ecosystem interacting with one another and creating the rich environment we call Earth. Volcanos and the Pacific Ocean being fundamental to this concept. As such, Kaiyukan, tries to mix in what it has defined as "Ring of Fire" (not the Johnny Cash song, but an oval depiction of active volcanos in the pacific), as well as "Ring of Life" (Why couldn't they call it the "Circle of life"?... Which is basically the diorama of biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean), into each and every one of their displays.
The aquarium tour not only exhibits fish, but also a wide variety of marine life. More than 30 thousand species can be appreciated inside the Kaiyukan. Each a pivotal part of the diverse and often times changing environment of the Pacific Rim.
Osaka For Insiders: The largest tank holds over 5400 cubic feet of water and inside, that H20 rich climate, we'll find manta rays and a whale shark.
Tempozan Ferris Wheel
552-0021 Osaka Prefecture, Osaka.
This little beauty, which stands just outside the aquarium's doors, opened its doors to the public on 1997. It is by no means the largest Ferris wheel in the world, nor the longest, it is, nonetheless one of the best ways to get a quick panorama picture of Osaka Bay.
From up in its peak, you will be able to appreciate views of Mount Ikoma to the east, Akashi Kaikyō Bridge to the west, Kansai International Airport to the south, and Rokko Mountains to the north. A breathtaking experience of Osaka Bay, that last only 17 minutes.
Osaka For Insiders: one of the technological features of this carnival ride is a distinct quality few Ferris Wheels can lay claim to... It also serves as a meteorological station. Each day, as the orb turns, instruments detect different weather patterns and, I have no doubt, some fancy algorithm makes sense of all the statistics and displays a forecast for the next day to the whole of Osaka. How does it show the populace whether or not they'll need an umbrella tomorrow? By switching on a series of colored lights. Orange: sunny day. Green: cloudy. Blue: rainy. Red: watch-out for Mothra, so far, this last one hasn't been displayed, yet.
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (entrance until 16:30). Extended hours during various holidays and special exhibitions.
Price: Castle Tower: 600 yens/ Gardens 200 yens.
One of Japan's most famous landmarks, Osaka Castle has withheld the brunt of invading armies, feudal wars, Ronin assassins, World War Two and, if my digital collection of documentaries are to be believed, the radioactive fury of Godzilla in that historic piece of archival footage known as Godzilla Raids Again.
In 1538, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a warrior, general, samurai, politician and Japanese big-shot of the Sengoko Period started preparations for Osaka Castle. The concept, behind this architectural marvel, was simple.
Toyotomi: "I said bigger!"
Unnamed lackey: "You said, and I quote: 'exactly like Azuchi Castle'..."
Whack, the slice of a fine katana cuts subordination at the neck.
Toyotomi: "Get me another minion, someone who will understand the fundamentals of my desire."
Cowering new unnamed lackey, who might as well have a Star Trek red shirt: "And that ideal is?"
Toyotomi: "Simple, bigger than Azuchi Castle, but exactly alike", under his breath, "that'll teach Oda Nobunaga."
Back to the slightly backing out of the door, eyes fixated on gleaming sword, lackey: "You just want to thumb your nose at the region's warlord? That's your motivation?"
Toyotomi simply winked.
Since that period, Osaka Castle has been remodeled dozens of times. Each period that there is a commotion in Japan, this building gets a smackdown. WWII: decimated by allied bombing raids. 1614: Seige Of Osaka. 1615: in outrage, because the castle was being repaired, a warring feudal lord went and slaughtered the clan who owned it.
And, because sometimes lightning does strike twice, in the span of 5 years (1660-1665) two different bolts from Zeus blew parts of the ramparts into smithereens as they ignited gunpowder.
Osaka For Insiders: the Castle is easily accessible to visitors and, on more than one date, it is the highlight of Osaka, as festivals spring like weeds around its courtyards. One of those festivities, that draws in a rather large crowd, plus an army of street vendors, is the Cherry Blossom's bloom.
Dress (in kimonos) till you drop in Kyoto, eat till you drop in Osaka"
One of the primary destinations for any willing tourist in Osaka, especially, if you consider yourself a foodie. This is the place where you'll hang high your badge of culinary excellence and seek out new avenues of cuisine adventures. A place to shine your bragging right, and show your neighbors just how much of a cosmopolitan you truly are, before you return to Burger King.
Running alongside the Dotonbori canal, this area's predominant feature is nothing short than comestible free-for-all. Everything is up for grabs and your palate will never be the same afterwards. The region really began to hold fast to its destiny when the Tokugawa Shogunate started experimenting with the idea of urban planning, back in 1621.
The new lord of Osaka Castle decided to designate this particular area as the ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT of the city. From that very moment, this unique piece of land started birthing Kabuki theaters, Bunraku theaters and mechanical puppet theaters at the speed of light. And the sneaky and opportunistic entrepreneur instantly saw a niche; "Where would everybody eat after the show? Uhmmm."
Hence, a hamlet that quite frankly might have defined the Japanese expression Kuidaore*.
This internationally renowned smorgasbord of menu variety does not shy away from absolutely anything. A few of the local delicacies, the foreign traveler should digest are: Ramen (a type of noodle soup consisting of fish broth, miso, dried seaweed, kamaboko and green onions); Kimchi (a fermented Korean side dish made from hundreds of different ingredients); Takoyaki (ball-shaped Japanese snack, filled with octopus); Fugu (just like the classic Simpsons episode, this is poisonous pufferfish, prepared in such a way, that the high amounts of tetrodotoxin in its blood stream are rendered digestible. The trick is to leave enough of the fatal toxin in order for the client's taste buds to feel a tiny bit of it); oshizushi (an exceptional pressed sushi treat); and, finally, battera (a pressed mackerel sushi).
Due to Osaka's location and many ports of entry, high-quality items are a steadfast fixture in even the lowliest of restaurants.
Points of interests, aside from the restaurants, are as follow: Ebisubashi bridge, under the Glico Man's billboard; Glico Man, an iconic advertisement created by the Glico candy factory in honor of Osaka's baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers; Kani Dōraku crab, a 6 and a half meter long mechanized crustacean.
Osaka For Insiders: Author Michael Booth, has noted on numerous occasions that Osaka is the food capital of the world. An army of internationally celebrated food critics back up his claim. Osaka is internationally recognized as one of the best places for its sake; the alcohol heavy Japanese drink is made from a wellspring of fresh spring water that constantly flows from the mountains.
*Kuidaore (食い倒れ?) is a Japanese word meaning roughly “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.”
Nipponbashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture
Do you like manga? Do you enjoy anime? When you were a boy, or a girl, did you simply quake at the prospect of a new Dragonball movie? Are you, like me, completely infatuated with the possibility of getting an Iron Man statue with a huge head and saucer-like eyes?
If your answer to all these philosophically charged questions is a resounding, yes, plus the obligatory "Just take my money and shut up!" Then this headline is your cup of tea.
Nipponbashi, as it is normally called - by the squares - is a shopping district inside Naniwa-ku, in Osaka. It's where you'll go if you want anything with an electrical pulse. Not only does it house the major appliance stores, but, on account of some Japanese magic (that's the term I've developed when I have no clue as to the fundamental logic behind something), this little fiefdom offers negotiable prices (haggling) and duty-free shopping.
But, and here's the real seductive spot for the lot of you who are having Comic-Con withdrawal, Nipponbashi has rapidly become, drum roll please.... Otaku* central!
Here you will find all sorts of collectibles, memorabilia and, gasp, even a two-story Gundam outlet.
Osaka For Insiders: Den-Den Town offers a wide variety of Maid Cafes. A subcategory of Cosplay bars, where the staff dresses up like maids and treats each client as a master. Some are rather fun, many are innocuous while others can be rather raunchy... So, be careful which one you pick for a family outing.
*Otaku (おたく/オタク?) is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, commonly the anime and manga fandom.
"Hankyu Entertainment Park", or, since that is a gigantic mouthful, HEP for short. Is the top shopping mall and commercial facility in Osaka. This tiny, minuscule, over 6 level, a hundred different stores, shopping plaza, rinses out the red carpet as soon as you enter its doors. A hostess greets the very second you make your triumphant entrance and, just because it's Osaka and Japan is weird that way, two huge whales hang overhead the main entry point, dangling on top of your head like some fatty Damocles' Sword.
What really thrusts HEP Five into this list, aside from the primordial need for the average tourist to dash into the nearest shopping pavilion and spend his hard earned cash on souvenirs, is the entertainment value of the revenue.
HEP has two of Osaka's best theme rides.
One: Joypolis. Not necessary a ride per say, more along the lines of a tiny Disney World. Operated by the Sega corporation - those fine lads that brought you Sonic the Hedgehog and his crew - Joypolis offers a variety of virtual adventures. A kickback to the age of the boardwalk arcade, with a few adjustments for the new millennium. Holographic shooting adventures - based on classic quarter arcade games (House of The dead; Sonic; Transformers; Dark Chapel). Simulators of all types. Virtual paradises, and a couple of, I won't spoil it for you, surprises.
Two: The Red Ferris Wheel, which, I should clarify is not its official name... It's just painted bright red. With a diameter of 75 meters, this protruding monstrosity sits on top of HEP Five's roof. For a standard fee of 500 yens, you can get one of the best shots of the city as you ride this classic Osakan carnival ride for a total of 15 minutes per revolutions.
558-0045 Osaka Prefecture, Osaka.
Price: Hurray! It's free!
Hours: 6:00 to 17:00 (from 6:30 from October through March).
The oldest Shinto* shrine in the region, Sumayoshi is the main temple of Japan.
The Shrine was founded by Tamomi no Sukune in the 9th year of Emperor Chūai's reign (in Gregorian calendar that's the equivalent of 211). It was a commission commanded by Empress Jingū, when she returned from her invasion of Korea. The motivation behind her demands lay at the doorstep of an Oracle/priestess that had advised her to enshrine Sumiyoshi. On her death, the Empress was entombed in Sumayoshi, as per her final wishes. Since the Empress was a direct descendant of Hachimanshin - the God Of War - the reliquary is a pivotal spot for communion with the Gods.
Over time, the Shrine has not only become a beacon of religious importance but it has also been transformed into a harbor for international intrigue. One of the latter details a gambit by Emperor Nintoku, that ultimately that paid off. He managed to open the Silk Road (an ancient network of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent) just a few paces from the shrine's entrance, bypassing many other options put forth by foreign governments.
Oska For Insiders: Hatsumōde is a tradition that starts on the first day of Japanese New Year. Thousands of worshipers flock to Shinto Shrines or Buddist Temples in order to start the new calendar with the right foot. Among the many superstitious practices, the buying of amulets (Omamori) is considered a critical step towards acquiring good luck for the days to come.
*Shinto (神道 Shintō?), also kami-no-michi, is the ethnic religion of the people of Japan.
Umeda Sky Building
531-6023 Osaka Prefecture, Osaka.
Hours: 10:00 to 22:30 (entrance until 22:00).
Price: 800 yen.
Conceived in 1988, as a large-scale project known as "City In Air," Umeda is one of the most recognizable sights in Osaka. The aforementioned project dealt with the idea of having 4 huge towering buildings joining each by a series of interconnecting air bridges.
Due to a series of bureaucratic red-tape fiascos, plus the sort of budget that could end up bankrupting a government, the Xanadu-like dream was quickly grounded towards a more practical certainty. The family of four, rapidly became twin towers, each with 40 stories of office space. Still, despite the speed bump, most of the initial designs for the building managed to become a manageable and tangible reality.
Umeda offers an underground market that tries to recreate the atmosphere of a turn of the 20th century Osaka; a majestic ground level garden with walking trails, fountains and various other water displays; and, Umeda's crowning achievement, The Floating Garden Observatory, right at the peak, joining tower A with B.
Osaka For Insiders: due to its geographical position, Osaka has a greater yield of international connections and ports. Far more than Japan's capital and main city, Tokyo. The savvy travel can exploit this loophole in order to plan his or her's trip.
Universal Studios Japan
2 Chome-1-33 Sakurajima, Konohana Ward, Osaka.
Operating hours: They sort of change on a daily basis. Best bet is to check out their official timesheet at https://www.usj.co.jp/e/parkguide/calendar.html.
Price of admission: 7,200 yen with tax for adults, 4,980 yen with tax for kids and 6,470 yen with tax for seniors. There are also two day passes (12,110 yen adults/8,420 yen kids)
Feeling a bit homesick? Well, here's the sort of fix you are desperately looking for. That's right, the headline might have spoiled the surprise, there's a Universal Studios Theme Park in Osaka. Opening its Jurrasic Gates on March 31, 2001, Universal Studios instantly needed shovels just to clear out the yens it was racking up. Tourist from all over the world flocked to the area.
Each year the park gets bigger and bigger. Incorporating rides and new areas. Trying to outpsych its puny brothers in Orlando and Hollywood. Universal Japan mixes and matches, like a Lego box-set, all the best features of our parks in the states. Concentrating, in a fine elixir of fun emotions, the best-of-the-best its American forefathers have produced.
Universal Japan is split up into a variable cornucopia of U.S.A., trinkets. Small, snowglobe facsimiles of iconic cities from Captain America's namesake and fantasy regions plucked straight out of the fevered mind of Tinseltown. New York, where you will find Spider-Man and Terminator; Hollywood, home of E.T., Universal Monsters, Shrek 4D, just to name a few; San Francisco, with Marty McFly and his Delorean; Jurrasic Park, otherwise known as "oh dear, oh dear, who let the raptors out of their cages?"; Old West; Snoopy Studios; Hello Kitty's Fashion Avenue; Sesame Street Fun Zone; Amity Village, "we are going to need a bigger boat"; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
And, since a good corporate executive wants nothing more than to fleece every red cent from your body, just outside the turnstiles there's a giant 3 story shopping mall known as Universal CityWalk Osaka. There is no getting around it, in order to enter Universal Studio, you will need to pass through it. Sort of like how every joyride inevitably ends in the gift shop, well, Universal CityWalk is the theme park's mega gift shop. It even has, God only knows why, a takoyaki* museum.
Osaka For Insiders: in 2011, Universal Japan's Christmas Tree was recognized by Guinness World Record on account of being the most lit up piece of shrubbery in the world. How many lights you ask? 260,498.
*Takoyaki (たこ焼き or 蛸焼?) is a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special takoyaki pan. It is typically filled with minced or diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger, and green onion
1-11-18 Shitennoji, Tennoji Ward, Osaka.
Open from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M.
The oldest Buddist temple in Japan. Prince Shōtoku, a constant practitioner of Buddism - way before Lisa Simpsons and Richard Gere made it cool - invited a series of carpenters to built the central structure at the very end of the 6th century.
Based around the concept of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddist faith (four Gods that watch over each of the cardinal directions), this temple is composed around four institutions. Each institution design to obtain a higher level of being.
Shitennō-ji has, among its various attributes, a five-story pagoda and a series of gates surrounding the primary complex.
It's brimming with all sorts of images and icons that call-back to its religious roots.
Osaka For Insiders: most tour guides will try to sell you the story that the temple is centuries old, unfortunately, the truth is rather mundane. There is very little of the original pantheon left, as rot, decay and the passage of time is rather unfriendly towards wood. The shrine, you will no doubt visit, was completely rebuild in 1963... Sorry to burst your bubble.
Dang it, that about cracks all the hot spots. Well, not all of them but, at least, the most visited and those that, if you miss, will have people gawking back at you and asking:
"What the hell did you do in Osaka? What a waste of an airplane ticket. You didn't go to...?"
Osaka is one of Japan's major metropolitan areas, there are thousands of sights to see, hundreds of temples, pagodas, shopping centers and zoos to visit. There is always something new and interesting gestating inside that wild beast that is Osaka. An avant-garde attraction, or an age-old archaic throwback to feudal Japan, Osaka will always have the busy tourist guessing.
Osaka For Insiders: the Tenjin Matsuri, is held on July 24 and 25. It is one of Osaka's most famous festival. It is a summer celebration that takes place at Tenmangu Shrine, dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903). One of the highlights of the festival is the boat procession; over 3000 people board a hundred boats, all decorated completely different, and sail upstream in a joyous mood of gaiety.
Just in case, you still have a couple of days left on your trip, here are a few last minute places to get a quick peek at:
- Tamatsukuri Inari Shrine.
- Ōsaka Tenmangū Shrine.
- Higashi-Dori: more bars and a healthy nightlife.
- Doyama: the go-to place for the LGBT community.
- Tobita: The naughty part of town. The Red Light District.
- Tennōji Zoo: zoo, means zoo in almost any language.
Osaka's beauty lies in the harmony it has achieved between the old and the new. Between what is sacred and what is sparkly. It is a strange cyborg; half fiberoptic/half suit of armor.
Next stop Kioto. Maybe I'll finally get lucky and see some cool Kaiju action... Episode 5: The Emperor Strikes Back.
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