Japan’s second city has the dynamism of Tokyo and the beauty of Kyoto but a character all its own. Where else can you find fabulous ramen joints, traditional shrines and a highway running through a high-rise?
The pedestrian area that lines the Dotonbori canal is the heart of Osakan culture; it’s where fans gather after the local baseball team wins and many a big night gets started. Enjoy the show as neon arrays compete for attention with animatronic signs of giant crabs. Be sure to try the piping-hot takoyaki (octopus balls) from an outdoor food stall. (Nearest station: Namba.)
A visit to The Silver Ball Planet is a step back in time. It boasts the largest collection of working pinball machines outside the United States. There’s everything from original 1970s models featuring Captain Fantastic and Evel Knievel to Star Wars and AC/DC.
Among the flashing lights and ramen joints of the Namba entertainment district you’ll find a Shinto shrine (2-9-19 Motomachi, Naniwa-ku) built inside a slightly gaudy giant lion’s head. Locals believe the lion swallows evil spirits and attracts good luck, making Namba Yasaka Shrine popular around exam time.
Highway to the future
The city’s urban landscape inspires sci-fi movies but one of the most bizarre sights is real. A highway runs through three floors of the Gate Tower Building (5-4-21 Fukushima, Fukushima-ku) – a compromise between the government that wanted to build the road and the landowners who refused to sell up. Snap great photos from below.
The imposing red-brick Osaka City Central Public Hall, inspired by New York’s Carnegie Hall, was built in the Taisho period by a wealthy stockbroker. You can tour the grand rooms and other spaces then try the elegant basement restaurant, a design collaboration with Brit Tom Dixon.
The National Museum of Art is underground, with a dramatic steel-and-glass entrance wing, designed by César Pelli, rising from the earth. Inside, you’ll find collections of contemporary Japanese and Western art and a restaurant that serves themed food based on the current exhibition.
Osaka’s urban sprawl blends seamlessly into the port city of Kobe, famous for its Wagyu beef. It’s an easy 30-minute train ride on the Limited Express Hankyu-Kobe Line or just 13 minutes by the Shinkansen bullet train. From Shin-Kobe Station, take the ropeway up to the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens for spectacular sea views.
The site of the Japan World Exposition 1970 is now a beautiful park in Suita, just north of Osaka. While the original pavilions are long gone, sculptor Taro Okamoto’s 65-metre Tower of the Sun presides over the space like a sci-fi movie relic. There’s also Nifrel, an interactive aquarium.
Kyoto, Japan’s former imperial capital, is quite close to Osaka. You can cover the 60-kilometre distance to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, with its thousands of vermilion torii gates and stoic fox statues, in under an hour.
An hour from Osaka, Arima Onsen, a charming hot-spring town in the hills above Kobe, makes a great daytrip or overnight stay. A small shopping area flanks the Arima River. Traditional tea houses and sweets shops offer snack stops before you brave one of the public hot springs nearby.
Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery is a 25-minute train ride from JR Osaka Station. Sample the rare blends and single malts. Then, if you’re not too tipsy, stroll through the forest to Shiio Shrine behind the distillery to see historic artefacts donated by Suntory in the hope of good production.
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