07/01/2019 - 07/08/2019
Hard as it is for me to believe now, I had almost no awareness of Osaka prior to this trip. As far as I knew, Tokyo was the only world class city in Japan and Kyoto was the place to go for temples and other historic sights. I was under the impression that Osaka was just a relatively colorless second city that was focused on business. In fact, I originally had no intention of going to Osaka at all until I learned that the only convenient way to get to Kyoto from Beijing was to fly to the Kansai Airport in Osaka. That forced me to do little more research and I soon realized that Kyoto is just one hub of a huge metropolitan conglomeration that includes the larger cities of Osaka and Kobe as well as many smaller towns that surround Osaka Bay. This conglomeration comprises the bulk of the population of the Kansai region of central Japan. Naturally we weren't about to land in Osaka and bypass it completely to go to Kyoto. When I began to investigate Osaka seriously for the first time I realized that we were going to need to extend the Japanese leg of our trip substantially. Osaka looked awesome.
Osaka is a huge city but not overwhelming for two reasons: most of the places of interest to tourists are fairly central, and the metro system is as close to perfect as anyone could hope for. There are two major commercial centers, Kita in the north and Minami in the center. Our Airbnb was close to the busiest part of Minami, a few blocks east of Namba Station and a few blocks south of Dotonbori Canal. Our host had sent us instructions to navigate our way from Namba Station, since locating buildings by street address is an intimidating prospect for Westerners. In Japan buildings are grouped by block rather than by street and the numbering system for both blocks and buildings may be anywhere from orderly to random. Even Google Maps is hopeless for locating destinations by address in Japan. We had been provided with a series of photos of the neighborhood and instructions on how to proceed from one photo to another once we recognized the landmarks. Mei Ling was the first to recognize a building from a photo and after that we were able to follow the sequence fairly easily. Our apartment had only about half the space we had in Kyoto and lacked the redeeming traditional character of the machiya. Four of us slept in two full size beds that occupied 90% of the single bedroom while Spenser slept on the love seat in the tiny living room. The owner's claim that the apartment slept five adults was ludicrous.
We had passed through Kuromon Ichiba Market on the way to our Airbnb, so the first thing we did after dropping off our bags was double back for lunch. Like Nishiki Market in Kyoto, this was a single arcade extending for several blocks. We instantly liked it better than Nishiki because there were more locals mixed with the tourists and there was a heavier emphasis on food over souvenirs. The first stop was a tiny sashimi stall where we enjoyed some unusual offerings including puffer fish and mantis shrimp.
We worked our way north through the market, sampling whatever looked most appetizing along the way. In Japan it's considered rude to eat while walking but the market was clearly an exception to the rule due to the preponderance of tourists. A lot of the food was being cooked on small robata grills with a blowtorch being used to accelerate the process.
We continued north towards Dotonbori Canal, another nerve center in Namba. We soon found ourselves in an extremely crowded network of arcades called Sennichimae that was full of restaurants and shops.
Just before Dotonbori we found Hozenji Yokocho, a narrow alley that leads from Sennichimae to the Hozenji Buddhist temple. The flagstone-paved alley is hundreds of years old and has become famous for the high quality izakayas that line both sides. The temple is particularly beautiful, an island of lamplit serenity within the madness of Namba.
Just when we thought we'd acclimated to the intensity of Namba we found ourselves at Dotonbori. The pedestrian street that runs parallel to the canal was crammed with people of every possible ethnicity who were browsing the seemingly endless selection of multistory restaurants and street food kiosks. Most of the horde was comprised of locals and tourists from various Asian countries, but there were plenty of Western Europeans, Russians, Americans, South Asians and Middle Easterners. It was one of the most diverse crowds I've experienced outside of New York City and London. The gathering dusk was rendered irrelevant by the omnipresent illuminated signage and old-fashioned street lamps. The smell of food and pictures of food were everywhere, and as if to drive home the point several restaurants were decorated with enormous avatars of their specialty cuisine such as bulls or crabs. Dotonbori Canal is best appreciated from one of the many short footbridges that connect the pedestrian streets on either side. I've been to most of the world's major metropolises and I can't recall experiencing anything as overwhelming to the senses as Dotonbori. Imagine Times Square, if you've been there, with all the dazzling crowds and displays and electronic billboards and multiply its size by ten. Then add a sparkling canal running right through the middle of it with boardwalks on either side lined with busy outdoor restaurants. Throw in the tens of thousands of people hanging out or moving through Dotonbori at any time of the day or night and the energy level is indescribable. I was completely flabbergasted that somehow I'd been traveling the world my entire life, reading all kinds of travel literature, talking to people from all over the globe and still had absolutely no clue that this incredible place even existed. It was a humbling idea that perhaps there are many more such locations around the world that still haven't crossed my radar. We strolled Dotonbori for an hour, drinking in the electricity that suffused the streets around the canal, until we found the perfect izakaya which had an opening at the counter that seemed made just for us.
Given our location, we often began and ended our days in Namba and Dotonbori and we had many of our best Osaka experiences there. Namba was a maze of streets and alleys filled with izakayas, colorful architecture, and all sorts of strange entertainment. If we hadn't had our GPS we would have been hopelessly lost every night, but it's hard to imagine a more fascinating place to be lost in.
On our second to last night in Osaka we finally made it to a beautiful izakaya in Namba that we had been eyeing all week. Once we were inside we realized we'd stumbled on a true food hall with seven or eight tiny restaurants and a large communal eating area in the center. Most of the offerings were Japanese of very good quality, but there was also Korean and even Italian food. The squid ink pasta with oysters and flying fish roe might have been the best thing we tasted on this trip to Japan.
Dotonbori also has much more to offer than sensory overload. Across the main pedestrian bridge from Namba is Shinsaibashi-suji, one of the largest and best known shopping streets in Osaka. The entrance to the arcade from Dotonbori is the mouth of a river of humanity that only resolves into individuals once it spills into the open air.
A Dotonbori canal cruise is de rigueur when you're keeping three kids entertained in Osaka. We had a quick snack on the boardwalk before jumping onto the boat. There wasn't much on the ride we couldn't have seen from the bridges but I was happy to get a look at Dotonbori from every possible perspective. We topped off our evening with the enormous, schoolbus-yellow Ferris Wheel attached to the gigantic Don Quijote variety store. The ride didn't seem like it was that high from the ground but I was amazed by the extensive views of Namba at the apex.
Horie is a hipster enclave just north of Dotonbori Canal and east of the elevated highway that marks the end of the Dotonbori nightlife area. It's a quiet neighborhood best known for fashion boutiques and trendy coffee shops, and it receives little of the tourist traffic that clogs nearby Dotonbori. The busiest commercial street is Orange Street, where we found a cozy cafe on the ground floor of a trendy furniture store.
Minami is an area that demands exploration. Each time we visited we tried to find a new street that we hadn't investigated and we were always rewarded with something whimsical, attention-grabbing, and unique. Of course there's much more to Osaka than Namba and Dotonbori but this was the area that meshed perfectly with our desire to submerge ourselves in the most intense urban experiences when we travel. Thanks to Minami, our relationship with Osaka was one of love at first sight.