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Osaka: The Pulse of Kansai

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The first thing you’ll notice are the people. Osaka has the highest concentration of pretty girls in any Japanese city I’ve ever been to, outdoing Nara, Himeji, Kyoto or even cosmopolitan Tokyo. Made up to the nines with long, thick eyelash extensions, creamy complexions and stilettos tall enough to give you airsickness, they move with unconscious grace and poise. Even the guys are prettied up in flashy fashion with hair that could only be possible with an electric cattle prod and a chisel.

Then they’ll show you their charm. A dad speeds by on a bicycle, daughter strapped on a safety seat – the child is gaily whirling a toy flower like a medieval knight with a mace and chain. A venerable but spry city bus guide in an indigo denim kimono (wow, that’s actually a thing) gives us directions with aplomb and a moon-faced smile. On the way out of the subway, I see a young couple kissing giddily (public displays of affection are considered undignified by this normally reserved people) and as they part ways, they wave at each other repeatedly as they approach their separate turnstiles. Eventually, I pass by a six-man construction crew in jumpsuits and hardhats escorting an elderly little Eastern European lady like an honor guard and it turns out that we’re all heading towards the same hotel.

City hunter

Hotel Granvia in Umeda is somehow hidden amidst the hustle and bustle of Osaka Station. The place seemed simple and elegant but it was the little things that made me appreciate the level of consideration and care they had for their guests. Eighteen square meters may not seem like much of a room, but what the Japanese can do with so little is astounding. All the room’s furniture fit together with a queen-sized bed. The walls had an elevated ledge where the phone and lamp were and a coffee table housed a LAN cable, plus a lower shelf where one could put a mouse while working on a laptop. The bathroom had those marvelous hi-tech toilets that have built-in bidets with water temperature and pressure control as well as seat warmers. Thankfully, the bathtub and shower area were large enough for a bubble bath after a long day’s pounding the pavement. Breakfasts were a choice between a tasty Western style buffet or a scrumptious traditional Japanese breakfast that seemed gargantuan, but was in fact high energy and low calorie.

My other temporary residence, Hotel Nikko Osaka right across, was no less compelling an address to have while in town. With sleek rooms, a puffy, plush bed to snuggle in, and room for a couch, it wasn’t hard to plop down and nod off to James Hetfield’s Never-Never Land. I found myself also armed with an even more space-age toilet (sans bathtub but comfy shower area) with even more bells and whistles and thankfully, more robust wifi in all areas of the suite. Waking up to a chef’s delight of a continental breakfast buffet of vegetables, freshly cooked omelets, breads and pastries, crispy bacon and a dizzying cornucopia of dishes was no less a pleasure. I give them high marks for thoughtfulness – my last day in the city required that I head to the airport at the crack of dawn and the front desk made sure I had a take-out breakfast to tide me over for my flight home.

Osaka City is closer to its cousin, Tokyo, in terms of its being a more urbane sprawl, as opposed to the old world aesthete that defines castle-and-temple dotted places like Kyoto and Nara. Its districts are riddled with malls, shopping centers and arcades interspersed with offices, bars and nightclubs. But Hiroshi Mizohata has big plans for all of that. As president of the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau, this bespectacled serene-faced man with a quick laugh and easy grin is ramping up interest in his city through a series of improvements, from ubiquitous wifi to sports development. “There are a lot of advantages of being in Osaka,” elaborated Mizohata. “You are close to Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Wakayama and Shiga. These are all places of great significance, with regards to the history and culture of Japan.” All these major cultural centers of the Kansai region are inextricably linked to Osaka. “In order to have a healthy Kansai, Osaka is the core. It’s the heart. That’s why I came back here – to make Japan and the rest of the world take notice of this region again.”

It isn’t hard to see where all the effort is going. Osaka tourism is pretty accessible for the average traveler, with signage in English, Chinese and Korean as well as bilingual voice-overs for trains and buses. However, where attractions are concerned, Osaka is a veritable plethora of diversions for the senses.

Kuromon Market is the place to go for fresh food, whether fresh from the sea, or off the grill. The area is divided into various orderly and clean, not-at-all-malodorous covered alleys that can be identified based on a giant representation of a specific seafood found there (so Lobster Alley has a larger-than-life lobster on the ceiling, Pufferfish Alley has a gargantuan blowfish, etc.) and many fresh and dry goods can be found there and can be eaten right in front of the shop or enjoyed at home. One springtime find at Kuromon are strawberries, from the regular local ones to kaiju-class varieties that are the size of a duck’s egg. I got to try white strawberries of two sorts: a highly prized variant that’s alabaster in color and as sweet as honeydew (and as expensive as caviar) and another that has a bit more red in its color, as well as some tartness. Nearby Doguyasuji or Kitchen Street has the gear you need to prepare your Kuromon goodies such as chopsticks of every color of the rainbow, traditional cooking ware and chef’s kimonos.

Not too far away is Dotonbori, a Las Vegas-esque melange of restaurants, pachinko parlors (Japanese pinball machines) and izakayas (traditional bars) where the locals and more than a few tourists go to wet their whistles after a long day. One particular izakaya row is a one-person wide indoor alley with almost ten izakayas back-to-back with each other. These tiny bars are usually packed to bursting with genial clientele and both bartenders and customers make it a point to make each other feel at home, especially if you’re from way out of town (however, language can be an issue so sometimes a quiet beer may be the only alternative). There are a few sports bars catering to foreigners such as the Hub Pub where one could get some raspberry beer, wicked cocktails and a hearty plate of fish and chips.

If you’re feeling adventurous, Ura Namba (Deep Namba) next door is the way to go. Hidden deep within the bowels of the Misono building, Ura Namba houses more artsy, offbeat and sometimes risqué clubs (one had old NES games, another had zebra hide couches, etc.) and you won’t find a more welcoming bar than The Little Clover. This watering hole is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, with creamy draft Guinness, solid rock n’ roll music and some of the wittiest authentically Irish bartenders who will make you feel at home in their little Old Blarney.

Umeda has some of the classier malls in the area, including the posh Daimaru, the utilitarian and ubiquitous Tokyu Hands, and the Hankyu department store where top French, Italian, American and local designers flaunt the latest seasonal heart-stoppers in haute couture. Umeda even boasts a branch of the Tokyo Disneyland store exclusively for the princess in your life, with stuff so irresistible, guys and gals will find themselves sobbing while reaching for their credit cards.

Considerably smaller than the otaku pilgrimage destination of Akihabara in Tokyo, Den-Den Town or Nippombashi is my personal Mecca for mecha and all things geeky, from One Piece to Final Fantasy, to My Neighbor Totoro and Super Mario, as well as other sorts of strange and bizarre things that never left the Land of the Rising Sun. Cosplayers will find a myriad selection of costumes of their favorite characters and toy collectors will find their wallets quickly emptying as they promise themselves to buy ‘just one last thing.’

Spirited away

Lest you think that Osaka is all shopping and bars, there is a more reticent and placid side to this vibrant city. The Tsurumiryokuchi Expo ’90 Commemorative Park is a respite from all the activity. Go to the Sakuya Konohana Kan Botanic Garden, an enormous and wondrous arboretum containing about 15,000 plants representing 2,600 species from various climatic zones from tropical to desert to arctic (yes, they practically refrigerate those plants). Many of these are some of the most intriguing. They even have rare species of plants from the Philippines that I wasn’t aware of, such as pitcher plants the size of tumblers, and orchids in an impossible shade of neon aqua. A stone’s throw away from the botanical garden is the International Garden, bearing figures from several countries, including a windmill from the Netherlands and an extremely detailed Theravada Buddhist temple from Thailand. Another park, Nakanoshima, rests in the middle of Yodo River, practically Osaka’s center. A haven of peace in a city of perpetual motion, one can find manicured hedgerows of gorgeous flowers and trees lining the waterway.

On the subject of water, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is one attraction you cannot skip out on. I’m not surprised that this place rated among the top five aquariums in the world. Kaiyukan prides itself on having the largest singular indoor aquarium tank in the world, measuring 9 meters (30 ft.) deep and holding 5,400 cubic meters (190,699 cu. ft.) of water. A pair of ginormous whale sharks, several rays and various schools of fish call this tank home, but the neighboring tanks are no less incredible, with rare sea turtles, lively seals and dolphins gracefully speeding along, all visible from a five-story pathway that offers strategic views of the tanks from all the best angles. This aquarium shares something in common with the Singapore Zoo’s famous Night Safari – Kaiyukan is fun during the nighttime, as well as in the daytime. The tanks are normally illuminated by natural light but come sunset, cunningly placed lights give the aquarium an unmatched otherworldly appeal.

Speaking of views, there are many ways to take in the whole length and breadth of Osaka, but the most awe-inspiring involve rarefied air. First among these is the venerable Tsutenkaku Tower in Shinsekai. You can’t miss it – just look for a structure that appears like a cross between an Olympic torch and a microphone with Hitachi written on it. This century old twentieth century building is Osaka’s answer to the Eiffel Tower and is the home of Billiken, the god of Things as They Ought to Be. The unflappably cheerful, broad-footed deity is oddly enough, the imported creation of an American art teacher and illustrator named Florence Pretz from Kansas City. She was said to have seen the mysterious figure in a dream and after having drawn it, made it into a charm doll. With Tsutenkaku having adopted Billiken as its mascot, the tower houses a museum displaying various Billiken dolls, including some dressed as Popeye and Elvis.

Next up on the list was the Tempozan Giant Ferris Wheel beside Kaiyukan, one of the tallest and largest Ferris Wheels in the country. With a height of 112.5 meters and a diameter of 100 meters, you are guaranteed a great view of the Yodo River, especially if you choose to ride one of the four compass point cars made entirely out of clear glass and acrylic. Now, for a 360-degree view from the center of the city, the Umeda Sky Building is worth checking out, especially at night. Shaped like a modern day Arc de Triomphe, the 19th tallest building in Osaka is formed by two forty-story towers joined together by an observatory and view deck that sports a breathtaking view of Osaka.

But the ultimate view belongs to the tallest business and shopping complex in all of Japan, the Harukas 300 Observatory atop the Abenobashi Terminal Building. With a vertigo-inducing 300-meter height accessible through an elevator tall and wide enough to house a Gundam Mobile Suit, the Harukas 300 Observatory has a primary view deck that has you veritably staring out into the vastness of the Osaka metroplex – from the safety of four huge glass walls. As the building is hollow, it is also possible to see through to the other side without having to actually walk over there. Going further up is possible for an additional fee, and that takes you up to the helipad at the very top.   Also, the Abenobashi has some really toothsome Spaghetti Bolognese and the pineapple ice cream with candy bits is a delight for all ages.

Culture need not take a backseat – you can relive the glorious rise and fall of the Toyotomi Shogunate in Osaka Castle. The castle complex begins with a sumptuous rambling park lined with cherry trees (all cotton candy pink and white in the spring) that eventually takes you past the moat and into the castle complex. Osaka Castle is now an eight-story museum with artifacts from Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s time such as suits of armor, enormous muskets and letters penned by the shogun himself. Virtual 3D dioramas reenact key scenes from Hideyoshi’s life and extremely detailed model miniatures recreate the castle in its original state as well as some of the battles associated with its past.

I also found myself drawn to the sublime beauty of Shitenno-ji Temple, a landmark institution for being the first Buddhist and oldest administered temple in all of Japan. Originally constructed by Korean carpenters at the behest of Prince Shotoku more than a millennium and a half ago, Shitenno-ji was created to honor four heavenly kings who watch over the four cardinal directions of the world. The temple complex has gates in each direction and a pond filled with turtles. Well, filled is an understatement – you will never see as many turtles in one place anywhere else. For a long moment, I marveled at the swarm of little turtles then headed to one of the shrines where I tossed a coin into an offering box and said a prayer to Buddha for a safe journey. Outside, monks sought donations for the recent earthquake. I dropped some coins into their offering box and they in turn, blessed me with fervent chants. Ah, the straightforwardness of Japanese religions – give an offering, get a blessing. It’s so refreshing and uncomplicated. My head felt clear as a bell as I headed towards the pier.

Getting around is child’s play as Osaka’s train network’s efficiency, reliability and ease of use put it among the best in the world. However, getting around by boat is far more picturesque. Japan seems to have this love affair with Age of Exploration-era galleons and it wasn’t hard for me to understand why when I got on board the Santa Maria Cruise Ship in Kaiyukan. A replica of Columbus’ lead ship for his adventures around the globe, the Santa Maria took me back and forth Osaka Harbor to watch the many factories, warehouses, offices, Ferris Wheels and the occasional geodesic dome sanguinely pass me by.

As I leaned on the railing gazing at the horizon, the sun at my back and the wind threatening to steal my hat, my thoughts turned to the teeming city beyond. Arigato gozaimasu, Osaka-sama. Sayonara. I’ll be back soon.

Ristorante Paradiso

Food is an inseparable part of Osaka’s allure and there are lots of things to look out for

Depachika – All the big name department stores in Japan have a food court at the basement where one can pick out the best ready-to-eat-ables around, from meals to desserts to specific items such as fish and meat. Hankyu Department Store in Umeda shines above the rest with only-available-in-house luxury foods that practically get mobbed when they’re initially released. One such delectable is Kameda Tanebits, a kakinotane (rice grain-shaped cracker bits) in exquisite flavors such as sakura (cherry blossom) smoke, Kogashi soy sauce and Tamari double-strength soy sauce. Another notable omiyage (gift) is Baton d’or, a high-end version of the Pocky Stick dipped pretzel with Uji Macha (green tea from Uji), coffee, strawberry and milk varieties.

Sit Down Dining – There’s nothing that screams Osaka like kushikatsu or deep-fried skewers of meat, seafood, vegetables and even cheese. Served in bowls and troughs of dipping sauce (which no one should ever double-dip into), these crispy-chewy treats are a must-have with beer, sake or soju. True Japanophiles will be aware of okonomiyaki, a savory seafood pancake with different regional variants, but Osaka’s own take on it is tonpeiyaki, a fluffy melts-like-butter-on-the-tongue egg roll in the vaguest sense, all smothered with dried bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise and okonomi sauce. For a more authentic and highbrow experience, one has to come to Harijyu in the Dotonbori for an unforgettable sukiyaki experience in a traditional setting. This ninety-seven-year-old restaurant serves paper-thin sheets of richly marbled Wagyu steak for its star attraction – sukiyaki cooked right in front of you.

Street Treats – Most people familiar with Japanese street food know takoyaki (supposedly an Osaka invention) or octopus balls cooked in batter and sprinkled with tempura scraps or tenkasu, bonito flakes and green onion. However, do try takosen, a more recent creation – a bunch of takoyaki balls sandwiched between two senbei (rice crackers), around the size of small saucers. My favorite variants have fried egg and cheese but some even put corn bits. Keep your eye out for little manju cakes in the shape of local cartoon characters and notable comedians sold in sets of eight and ten.

From blowtorch-seared scallops on half shells to dinky baby octopi stuffed with quail eggs, seafood can be quite an adventure in Osaka, particularly the street food. Keep your eye out for whale meat – it’s usually served in sushi and sashimi form, looks and tastes a bit like beef carpaccio and can be very fatty and fairly stringy.

Ice Cream – You cannot leave Japan without eating ice cream – theirs is one of the best in the world. However, for a paradigm-shifting experience, you must try the ice cream flavors of Medi Life Balance Recipe in Osaka Station City and Pombashi Rice Dog in Den Den Town. The former has treats such as Purple Sweet Potato, Mustard, Spinach and Pineapple and Five Grains Rice while the latter offers Tomato Sherbet, Mozuku Seaweed, Hokkaido Corn Potage Soup, Whitebait (small fish) and my personal pick, Jellyfish. Also, there’s a Turkish place called Karakus right across Rice Dog that serves gooey taffy-like ice cream in chocolate and vanilla.

 

Tenku no Universal One of the penultimate theme park franchises in the world, Universal Studio’s Osaka branch has attractions that can’t be found anywhere else

Universal Osaka hosts the Cool Japan experience with 3D movies of hot topic Japanese games and anime such as Resident Evil, Evangelion and Attack on Titan. Older shows such as Terminator 3D (the one based on Terminator 2: Judgment Day) are still crowd-pleasers with moments when terminator robots literally come to life right beside you. For adrenaline junkies, Jurassic Park’s Flying Dinosaur ride is a can’t-miss hair-raising experience with riders hoisted practically parallel to the ground as the track swirls, loops and twists like a bendy marshmallow while they blitz through like a pterodactyl on a sugar rush.

If you’ve a hankering for butterbeer, a magic wand or some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, look no further than The Wizarding World of Harry Potter that recreates J.K. Rowling’s beloved world in fantastic and painstaking detail. Everything you’ve ever seen from the movies is recreated for your pleasure: the owls in the post office turn, blink and even have faux droppings on their perches, the quill store has a ghostly pen scribbling away furiously on a venerable tome and even Mr. Weasley’s enchanted car threatens to come to life if you venture too close. The main event however is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a 4K3D ride that combines jaw-dropping special effects with three-dimensional cinema that has you zipping through various locations in the movies such as the castle, Hogsmeade and through the Quidditch Trillenium Stadium while being pursued by hungry dementors and fanatical Death Eaters.

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