07/04/2019 - 07/07/2019
In the north of Osaka city an island is formed by the wide Yodo River to the north and a much narrower river to the south whose name changes several times as it winds upward to join the Yodo. In Western countries this island would certainly have had a name, but if it does have one in Japan then it is very rarely used. Instead, Japanese refer to the three city wards that comprise the island: Kotohana on Osaka Bay, Fukushima in the center, and Kita on the western side. Kita has become the second urban hub of Osaka thanks to the enormous Umeda and Osaka train stations that are the main connection between the metro and the national railway system. The area around the stations is a dense conglomeration of department stores and business skyscrapers with an enormous variety of restaurants and entertainment. If one were to make a rough comparison to New York City, Kita would be Midtown and Minami downtown. If you're more familiar with Tokyo, Kita is somewhat like Shinjuku while Minami is more like Shibuya.
We didn't make it to Kita until our third full day in Osaka. Our first exploit didn't even require us to emerge from underground. We were able to walk to Hanshin department store via the enormous network of underground tunnels that connects the train stations with many of the surrounding buildings. The tunnels contain hundreds of restaurants and stores that comprise a virtual underground city. Hanshin's basement is the best-known department store food court in Osaka and we weren't disappointed with the selection. Some of the food was being prepared in booths with enormous picture windows to permit visual inspection of the technique.
Once we had stocked up on food court delicacies, we looked around for a place to sit and eat and were completely unable to find anything. Even the coffee shop upstairs only had tiny tables with barstools that looked pretty uncomfortable. Eventually we gave up searching and plopped down on a platform at the base of an escalator in the station. It was far from an ideal setting but we made the best of it. The worst part was that the first thing we came across after we finished was a huge common eating area on the way up to the surface.
The center of Kita is quite overwhelming. Crowds of people rush in every direction in underground tunnels, on the surface, and on elevated walkways that enter directly into the commercial buildings. It was difficult to navigate out of the complex even using GPS as we continuously found ourselves getting diverted away from our chosen direction.
Kids Plaza is a large, modern children's museum in Temma, about twenty minutes walk east of Umeda. The enormous building housing the museum juts out of the corner of a rather barren city park like a futuristic fortress.
Inside we found an enormous, colorful play structure full of towers, slides, and bridges. I couldn't understand why it seemed so familiar until I found a mention in the brochure that it was designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose Hundertwasser House we had admired in Vienna.
The games and exhibits were so good that we stayed for almost four hours, and the kids probably would have kept going the whole day if we hadn't dragged them out. Overall I would say that Kids Plaza was comparable to the excellent children's museums we'd visited in Copenhagen and Gothenburg, and nowhere near as crowded. Despite the amount of time we stayed the kids got to try barely half what was available. One of the coolest things for Cleo was a media display where she got to play the role of a news anchor and then watch her performance afterwards.
On the way back to Umeda I wanted to explore an area called Nakazakicho, a small old-fashioned neighborhood of narrow alleys and traditional buildings that has thus far escaped Kita's furious modernization. We walked north and overshot our left turn by a couple of blocks. Before we could retrace our steps a sudden rainshower descended and we took refuge in a covered arcade with some very appealing cafes and izakayas. Spenser had conked out on my back so Mei Ling took the two older kids inside a steamy little izakaya while I kept exploring the arcade. Eventually I crossed a street and found myself in a busy shopping street that was so long I gave up on reaching the end. I had accidentally discovered Tenjinbashi-suji shopping street, the longest shopping arcade in Japan. Unlike Shinsaibashi-suji in Minami, this street was completely devoid of tourists and the wares were very practical with no souvenirs in sight. By this time Spenser had woken up and I made my way back to the izakaya before he could demand to be taken to the bathroom. Then I had to schlep everyone back to Tenjinbashi-suji for more snacks.
By the time we arrived at Nakazakicho darkness had fallen and it was still raining. There were only a few stores open and no restaurants to speak of. We spent some time roaming around the narrow streets but the area was so small we were out of it in just a few minutes.
Back at Umeda we searched among the labyrinth of tunnels and elevated walkways for the Isetan food hall in the basement of the Lucua1100 shopping mall. The effort was more than worthwhile because it turned out to be one of the best food halls we've encountered anywhere in the world, with cuisine of far-flung ethnicities such as Italian and Mexican along with numerous types of Japanese cuisine. Almost all the restaurants were packed with locals, with many having a long line outside despite it being a weekday evening. The food hall was adjacent to a more conventional department store food court which had a huge chocolate fountain, much to the delight of the kids.
It occurred to me that we hadn't had an authentic Japanese shabu-shabu thus far and it seemed like the perfect place to find it. I employed TripAdvisor which found a highly-rated shabu-shabu practically under our noses but after walking around the food hall three times we still couldn't find it. Eventually a security guard directed us to the top floor, which is generally where the more high end restaurants are located in Japanese malls. As soon as we walked in I knew we were going to take a blow to the wallet, but casual shabu-shabu doesn't seem to be a thing in Japan. It was a very different experience than our other meals in Japan, mainly for the extraordinary attention we received from the waitress as we consumed our shabu-shabu. I think I spent as much energy nodding and assuring the waitress we were OK as I did eating. As I expected, it was by far the most expensive meal of the entire trip that we paid for ourselves. I hate to say it, but I enjoyed the last shabu-shabu we had in Los Angeles more. On the other hand, the ambiance in Osaka was much more authentic.
A few days later we returned to the Isetan food hall during lunchtime. It was just as crowded as it had been on our prior visit, but this time we were determined to try one of the restaurants and eventually found ourselves wedged into a corner table at an Italian seafood place. The food was decent but they had the decor nailed. Italian products and themes were displayed with Japanese over-the-top exuberance.
Outside of Osaka Station is a large plaza with shallow pools that seemed made for small kids to wade around in. Ours jumped in before I even had time to process the scene. A gigantic fluorescent green teddy bear was relaxing in the middle of one pool, squirting a constant stream of water from his mouth. The water from the pool flowed down a staircase to a lower level, creating a sense of a malfunction and impending flood. It was another typically whimsical Japanese scene.
We could see Umeda Sky Building from the plaza, although it proved to be a longer walk than it first appeared. Although it's far from the tallest building in Osaka, the Sky Building is probably the most unique and iconic. It looks like a Lego construction at the hands of a particularly imaginative eight year old. Two gleaming forty-story towers are connected at the top by an observation platform which is accessed via escalators that are suspended vertiginously in thin air. The reflections of the clouds in the pristine glass walls of the towers makes the building seem almost transparent. The tableau is an absolute delight for anyone with even a casual appreciation of architecture.
The views from the lower level of the observation platform were good enough that we decided not to pay the exorbitant price for the Floating Garden roofdeck. The kids would have been happy to spend the entire afternoon in the gift shop. Pressed for time and full of stomach, we also skipped the Takimi-koji food hall in the basement of the building.
The Umeda Sky Building might be only the second most unusual building in Kita. Top honors should probably be awarded to the Gate Tower Building, This otherwise undistinguished 16 story office tower is neatly penetrated through its middle floors by a highway offramp that never actually contacts the building. The unusual fusion of familiar urban structures came about thanks to the refusal of the property owner to alter his development plans to accommodate the simultaneous highway expansion. One might imagine an ideal situation of parking immediately adjacent to one's work cubicle, but in reality all cars that enter one side of the building have no choice but to emerge on the opposite side.
Within the river that flows south of Kita is a skinny little island named Nakanoshima. Despite its small surface area, Nakanoshima is home to an impressive number of Osaka's most important municipal buildings including City Hall, a major library, and several museums. The only one of these that we visited was the Osaka Science Museum, a surprisingly inexpensive institution that easily outclassed all of the science museums we've visited in the United States. Although the exhibits are aimed mainly at children and teenagers, I was captivated by their excellent design and how effectively they demonstrated basic concepts of physics and chemistry. I probably could have spent the entire day in the museum on my own. As it was, the two hours we had wasn't nearly enough for the kids who didn't even make it through one floor of the three floor museum before it closed.
Outside the museum a street performer was putting on an energetic and very funny juggling show for a large audience. Soon the kids forgot their disappointment at the museum closing before they were done. Osaka never failed to bring all of us enjoyment from morning until night. It's like a city where boredom was never invented. Adjacent to the Science Museum is the subterranean National Museum of Art, which is marked by a large sculpture of metal tubes by César Pelli that is intended to evoke reeds or stalks of bamboo. Despite this intention, most visitors seem to agree that the sculpture resembles nothing so much as a giant pair of rabbit ears.
Nakanoshima is also a great place from which to observe the beautiful interaction between architecture and water that is emblematic of Osaka. The O River, a late branch of the Yodo, splits in two around the island and then reforms downstream as the Aji River before emptying into Osaka Bay a short distance further. Countless bridges cross the Dojima and Tosahori rivers on either side of the island and provide a great vantage point to see Nakanoshima's glass skyscrapers reflected in the water. The rose garden at the eastern end of Nakanoshima is reputed to be very beautiful but we didn't have time to visit. On our next visit to Osaka, a complete circumnavigation of Nakanoshima's riverside promenades will definitely be on the agenda.