A forest of concrete buildings, Osaka is hardly Japan’s prettiest city in the conventional sense. But this brazen city packs more color than most, with eye-catching signs and vivid shopfronts that can be found at nearly every corner. From the bustling streets of Minami to spectacular skyscrapers in Kita, Osaka is a city that definitely isn’t afraid to express itself.
Positioned at the mouth of Yodo River on Osaka Bay, Osaka (大阪) has long been an important port and a center of commerce in Japan. It started as a merchant city, with a large percentage of the population belonging to the respective class. Over the course of the Edo period, the city functioned as the center of rice trading. Thus, it has been known as the “nation’s kitchen”.
Following the Meiji Restoration, Osaka expanded greatly in size and underwent rapid industrialization. It evolved into an economic powerhouse on the island of Honshu, where multinational corporations are headquartered. Even Japan’s first brokerage firm, Nomura Securities, was also founded here in 1925. Today, Osaka is the de-facto capital of the Kansai region and home to the country’s second-largest stock exchange. It still houses electronic giants such as Panasonic and Sharp, though others have moved to Tokyo.
Aside from its role as a financial center, Osaka today is popular for its vibrant nightlife. It has a street food scene that is hearty and down-to-earth. Most notably is the area around Namba station and the retro-style Shinsekai. Further north, the city is known for its modern architecture. It’s Osaka of the 21st century where sky-crappers, high-end boutiques, and trendy restaurants dominate.
Clustered around the gigantic Namba Station, Minami (南, “South”), also known as Namba, is one of Osaka’s two major city centers. It is a collection of bustling streets where hundreds of shops, restaurants, and tasty food vendors are located. With endless dining and shopping options, this place is a true heaven for shopaholics and food lovers.
Among these streets, the Dotonbori – which runs parallel to a canal with the same name – is highly popular among visitors. It’s characterized by vibrant color and eye-catching shopfronts. When the night falls, the area is even more fascinating. Countless dazzling neons and mechanized signs are illuminated, leaving everyone in awe.
Located next to Tennoji Zoo in the southern part of the city, Shinsekai (新世界) was Osaka’s “new world”. Despite its bad reputation as the city’s most dangerous area, Shinsekai boasts a unique identity. Many of its low-cost restaurants, shogi, and mahjong clubs, as well as pachinko parlors, are open 24 hours. But they truly come alive when the lights come on at night.
Developed in 1912 with New York as a model for its southern half and Paris for its northern half, the district showcased a modern image of Osaka. However, the district was largely abandoned after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Consequently, the once beautiful neighborhood turned into one of Japan’s poorest areas.
Until now, it is still a hotbed for criminal activities, such as smuggling, prostitution, and gang violence. Homeless men, from all over Japan, also head to Shinsekai to escape the stigma of hometown societal shame. Being said that, the area is not off-limits to civilians. Locals and tourists can still wander the streets freely without feeling threatened.
At the district’s center stands the 103-meter high Tsutenkaku Tower (通天閣, “Tower Reaching Heaven”), the nostalgia-evoking symbol of Shinsekai. The current tower is the second to occupy this site. It was rebuilt in 1956 after the original tower which imitates Paris’ Eiffel Tower was destroyed in WWII. Aside from the main observatory at a height of 91 meters, a new open-air deck on top of the main observatory was opened in late 2015.
Modern and sophisticated, Kita district (北, “North”), often referred to as Umeda, is the 21st-century version of Osaka. As a major commercial and business district, Kita is widely known for its high density of tall buildings and skyscrapers. Among them, the shining 173-meter-high Umeda Sky Building seems to be the most spectacular. Additionally, this district offers an abundant selection of shopping, fine dining, entertainment, and nightlife venues.
Similar to Minami, Kita is concentrated around a transportation hub that comprises Umeda and Osaka Station. Over the past years, this area has been undergoing a major rejuvenation. From a large former freight railyard, it has been redeveloped into a new, modern city district. The Osaka Station – once Japan’s gloomiest and most uncomfortable station – also went through a major facelift. Today, it’s one of the country’s most pleasant stations with lavish design and a glass roof high above the trains.
Tips for visiting Osaka
- As a transportation hub, Osaka is well connected to major cities in Japan and across Asia. Its main gateway – the Kansai International Airport – is located 50 kilometres from the city and accessible by JR trains.
- Despite its sheer size, the city of Osaka is covered by a superb public transport system. In fact, you can reach all the above-mentioned area by the Midosuji subway (red line).
- For a short stay, OSAKA Day Pass might be a good choice because it grants unlimited rides on both metro and city buses within one or two days.
- Due to its central location, Osaka is an ideal base to explore destinations within the Kansai region, such as Kyoto, Nara, Himeji and Kōyasan.