Osaka has been called “Japan’s Kitchen,” a nickname it's earned for its produce and culinary delights alike.
I kept stumbling upon stories of a long-standing rivalry between Tokyo and Osaka. The cities sound like different beasts, but comparisons kept popping up. Tokyo is Japan’s most populous city at nine million, while Osaka is the third largest at less than three. Tokyo is the most Michelin-starred city in the world, while Osaka is Japan’s street food capital. Then there’s the baseball teams, which is a story for another day. But as travelers, we were in two camps: we either loved one city or the other.
This all sounded fine until I fell in love with Tokyo. I couldn’t get enough of the high-rises, the high-end hangouts, the staggering splendor of the city. With a week left in Osaka, was I doomed to spend the rest of my days longing for my first love? That’s not how I wanted to finish my trip in Japan. So, I set out to prove the rivalry wrong: I would learn to love them both.
My husband and I hopped out at Kansai Inter- national Airport and headed to our hotel in Namba. Namba is a buzzing hub of excitement, with neon-signed streets, and covered shopping strips. We dropped o our bags and set out to learn the city. As this is Osaka, that means going out to eat the food.
Osaka has been called “Japan’s Kitchen,” a nick- name it’s earned by producing produce and culinary delights alike. Osaka brought the country okonomiyaki, perfected barbecue, and invented the world’s most iconic ramen, “cup noodles.” After spending lots of yen on omakase sushi in Tokyo, these sounded like accessible pursuits.
But first, shall we take a moment to acknowledge that Osaka isn’t entirely, exclusively about food? Thanks to its strategic location on the Osaka Bay, Osaka has long been a port city. China and Korea brought goods for trade, and with them came Buddhism, new technologies, and the tools to build an empire. As political power was concentrated in Tokyo (then called Edo), Osaka grew into a major economic center with plenty of freedom. By the end of the 19th century, about 70 percent of the country’s wealth was in Osaka. This wealth and production prowess made the city a target in World War II; one-third of the city was destroyed in air raids in 1945. The city rebuilt and became a major commerce center again, but it hasn’t reached its former glory. In the economic sense, the rivalry with Tokyo is a bit one-sided.
But this is for sure: Osaka’s popularity with foreign tourists is growing. In addition to the city’s culinary and cultural draws, Osaka offers easy access to Kansai’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Nara, Kyoto, Koyasan, Himeji Castle, and Universal Studios Osaka -not quite a UNESCO Site, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.
We launched into Osaka the very best way, with a walk through Dotombori, the lively area that surrounds the 400-year-old Dotombori-gawa canal.
There are wild, colorful signs that jockey for your attention with ashing lights, animatronics, and neon lights that color the canal below. Dotombori, like much of Osaka, feels futuristic but retro, as if urban planners took a guess at what 2030 would look like in 1980. It’s tacky and ashy in a way that’s both charm- ing and very Japanese. We walked taking photos until we got distracted by a dance group advertising a sale from a shining department store window.
Oh, but we were en route to dinner. Too energized to stop now, we decided to grab a snack at the sight of the first crowd. Soon enough, we saw a long line below a red plastic squid with a long nose (or was it a mouth?) poking out from its face. We ordered what everyone else was having, which turned out to be takoyaki. Takoyaki is a fried ball of batter filled with bites of squid and topped with mayonnaise, sweet sauce, and shavings of bonito that disappear like ash from a fire. The batter was gooey, the squid chewy, and the shell browned and crunchy. Was it delicious? Was it awful? It was tough to tell, but we were sure our Osaka food tour had begun.
Our next cue came from a crowd standing out- side a smoky spot selling okonomiyaki, Osaka’s most iconic dish. It’s essentially a fried pancake of batter, cabbage, eggs, green onions, vegetables, and a protein of your choice, all cooked on a stovetop at your table so your coat smells like dinner for the rest of the week. But it’s all worth it for a crunchy bite topped with a drizzle of mayonnaise and a sweet sauce like Worcestershire.
In need of a jolt, we went in search of a kissaten, the classic tea and coffee shops that are uniquely Japanese. While on the hunt, we passed American, a café so kitschy we couldn’t pass it up. First opened in 1946, this café looks like it was trapped in a time machine. There are American diner-style menus, a sweeping carpeted staircase, pink-tiled bathrooms, and an impressive collection of chandeliers. We laughed at the faded grandeur as we sipped our black coffees.
But the night wasn’t over yet. As we walked towards the hotel, we passed another crowd stand- ing outside a karaoke bar. The crowds hadn’t led us astray yet, so we followed them in for a couple songs. There was a surprisingly affordable pack- age that included an hour of karaoke in a private room with unlimited soft drinks and -we were delighted to find- unlimited soft serve ice cream. We closed out the night with vanilla ice cream and Vanilla Ice. The next day, we set out to explore the city’s historic side (only slightly later than intended). We started at Osakajo, Osaka’s castle on a hill. The castle was originally built in the late 16th century, destroyed in subsequent fires and wars, and rebuilt in 1997. The tapering, five story tower offers a beautiful view of the surrounding park and the city skyline. Not quite the Tokyo skyline, perhaps, but dazzling nonetheless.
The park offers more than just a view, particularly during cherry blossom season. For a couple of weeks each April, the park bursts to life with hanami parties. During hanami, friends and family come armed with picnics and tarps to enjoy the blooms and spend time with one another. Parties play music and encourage others to come and dance. In the end, that’s what I loved about Osaka. Tokyo may be cool and aspirational, but it will never be my city. Osaka, on the other hand, called out and invited me in.