KANSAI REGION embraces Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and Osaka. Meaning "West of the Barrier," it is an area south of Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and the Japanese Alps that is both a booming industrial area and the cradle of ancient Japanese culture. The Kansai area is also known as Kinki, a more geographically precise term that encompasses the prefectures of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Mie, Shiga, Kobe, Hyogo and Wakayama.
More than 25 million people, or 20 percent of the Japanese population, lives in and around Kansai. It also accounts for nearly a fifth of the gross domestic product of Japan and has economic output of $600 billion (greater than all but a handful of nations in the world).
Kansai people are regarded as friendlier, less busy and more irreverent than people from Tokyo. The Kansai dialect is very different from the Tokyo dialect. With the opening if the Kansai International Airport in 1994 the region is now considered a gateway to Japan. Website: Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Kansai Connect kansaiconnect.com
OSAKA (about 330 miles southwest of Tokyo) is the second largest city in Japan and the 13th largest city in the world, with a population of about 10.5 million people. Situated on a sheltered bay, it is also the commercial, shipping and industrial center of western Japan, the second major gateway to Japan after Tokyo and the transportation and communication hub of the Kansai region, with a convenient connections to Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe, the Inland Sea area, and Shikoku, which are all nearby. Even though Osaka is flat as flat can be its name means “big hill.”
Foreign guide books usually do not have much nice to say about Osaka. One said its biggest claims to fame were the yakuza and pachinko. Another called the “Elephant Man” of Japan---ugly but wanting desperately to be loved.
Osaka made not be as well-known, rich and flashy as Tokyo but Osakans will tell you that it is a more real, honest, friendly and earthy place with a deeper history and a richer sense of humor and fun. Many say it is the heart of Japan. The people may be a little crude, inconsiderate and pushy at times, yes, but they are also more warm, open and generous. Many of Japan’s funniest comedians are from Osaka.
Osaka isn't a very attractive place. Sometimes it seems like an endless concrete jungle of crowded streets and sidewalks, train lines, factories, office buildings, pre-fab homes and apartments squeezed much too close together. There isn't all that much to see either. The main tourist sights include a concrete castle, an ultra-modern aquarium with a whale shark and the first Universal Studio to open up outside the United States.
Even so, if you have the choice of visiting Tokyo or Osaka, in many ways Osaka is a better. It is close to Kyoto, Nara and the heartland of Japan, and it offers fascinating glimpses of Japanese urban life: four-story office buildings under 12-lane expressways; multistory buildings with Ferris wheels and amusement parks on the roof; and subterranean shopping malls that pumped their sewage up and are so large you have occasionally go above ground to see where you are. The entertainment districts are full of bars and sex clubs. And we cann’t t forget the restaurants. Osaka has a reputation for having the best food in Japan.
Osaka can be is an expensive city. Some lists of the world’s most expensive cities put it right behind Tokyo. Osaka has a long association with business and economic activity. It's GNP is greater than that of Mexico and Canada and all but eight countries in the world.
History of Osaka
Osaka in the 19th century Osaka has traditionally been regarded as a city of merchants while Tokyo traditionally has had a reputation of being a city of bureaucrats and samurai. Osaka is also noted as the birthplace of traditional Japanese theatricals like Kabuki and Bunraku puppet dramas and as the site of some of Japan's most important battles.
For a long time Osaka was the major commercial center of Japan. Until the late 19th century, about 70 percent of the country’s wealth was concentrated in Osaka even though Tokyo was the capital. by the 1920s, Tokyo began to catch up. After World War II, it surpassed Osaka as big companies began transferring their headquarters to Tokyo.
As is true with Tokyo, the majority of Osaka’s historical monuments were destroyed during the firing bombing raids of World War II and the vast majority of the city has been rebuilt since the war. Osaka received worldwide attention in 1970 when it hosted a World Exposition. It wasn't damaged much by the 1995 Kobe earthquake even though Kobe is only 45 minutes away by train.
People from Osaka and Kansai are regarded as more outgoing, pragmatic, independent and irreverent than other Japanese particularly those from Tokyo. They are more likely to jaywalk, gamble, show their feelings, display rude or inconsiderate behavior, smoke in no smoking areas, and show disdain for bureaucracy and rules Osaka-ban, the Osaka dialect, is regarded as rough and crude by many other Japanese.
Osakans have been called the “Latins of Japan.” They produce many of Japan’s funniest comedians and are known for enjoying good food, wearing bright clothes, and hating Tokyo and Tokyoites. Their appetite for life is summed up by the local word kuidaore (literally “to eat yourself to bankruptcy”). There is also a more unsavory side to this. Osaka is No. 1 in purse snatching, train molesting and illegally parked cars.
When you ask a Tokyoite for directions they point in the direction. When you ask a Kansai person for directions they take you there. It has been said that Osakan friendliness has it roots in the absence of samurai and the presence of a large number of merchants. One Osakan told the Japan Times, "Merchants consider everyone a potential customer. They don't want to run the risk of losing you as a customer so they go out of their way to be friendly." The merchant class of Osaka stays alive in other ways. A common Osakan greeting is "Are you making any money?"
Osakans are very stubborn about keeping their dialects even after living years in Tokyo. The Osakan dialect is almost like the Japanese equivalent of cockney English. It is full of colorful expressions and is the source of amusement in many comedy routines. The preferred insult in the Tokyo area is “baka.” It roughly translates to “idiot.” In Osaka the preferred word is “ahoya,” which roughly means “foolish,” as in making mistakes that all people make at one time or another. See People; Personality, Regional Differences
Osaka Tourist Information
Tenjimbashi shopping area The Osaka Tourist Association has offices at four main train stations: Shin Osaka, Osaka (Umeda), Namba and Tennoji. The main one is located at Osaka (Umeda) train station at 3-1-1 Umeda, Kita-ku, Osaka, ☎ (06)-345-2189. There are information offices at Kansai and Osaka international airports. You can also try the Osaka Visitor Information Center, ☎ (06)-774-3077.
At the tourist offices it is worth getting copies of Your Guide to Osaka , Osaka Sightseeing Map , Meet Osaka (with a list of festivals and events) and maps of both the Osaka subway and the Kansai area train systems.
Orientation: Osaka is broken up into districts and shopping and entertainment quarters like Umeda, Namba, Abiko and Tennoji, most of which can be reached by subway stations with same name. The heart of Osaka is divided into Kita (the northern end) and Minami (the southern end). Midosuju is regarded as Osaka’s main street. It connects Umeda district in the north with Namba in the south, Umeda and Namba are Osaka’s main entertainment, shopping and eating areas.
Like Tokyo, Osaka is very confusing. The map for the Osaka subway and train system looks like a wiring diagram for a super computer, most small streets have no name, buildings are numbered according to age, addresses refer to a series of concentric areas and taxi drivers respond to landmarks not street numbers. Before setting out anywhere it is a good idea to have detailed directions and a good map in English and Japanese. Most stores and restaurants can fax or e-mail a good map to your hotel if you call them in advance.
Maps : Japanese Lifestyle japaneselifestyle.com.au ; Maps of the World mapsofworld.com ;Joho Mapss Joho Maps ; Osaka Map japan-hotel-reservations.ne ; Areas of Osaka Maps : Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Osaka Castle Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Namba Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Tennoji Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO TakarazukaMap: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO
For Other Kinds of Information such as lists of specific hotels and restaurants, tourist agencies, currency exchanges houses, post offices, telephone offices, shops, bookstores, night clubs, sports places, theaters, swimming pools, embassies, churches, and airline agents, maps, hospitals, pharmacies, car rentals and bike and moped rentals, consult the Lonely Planet Guides and other travel guides.
Entertainment in Osaka
Shinsaibashi The best source of entertainment information was Kansai Time Out but it ceased publication in September 2009. Other entertainment guides and calendar of events may be obtained from the tourist offices, hotels with foreign customers and newsstands. You can also check out local Thursday or Friday weekend entertainment supplements in the English newspapers (Japan Times, Mainchi Daily News, Daily Yomiuri and the Asahi Evening News), the Lonely Planet books, other guidebooks, and posters put up around town.
The main shopping and entertainment districts are Umeda (in Kita), Namba (in Minami), Dotonbori (part of Namba) and to a lesser extent Tennoji. These areas also have a lot of nightclubs, bars, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theaters. Soemoncho and Hozenjiyokoncho are areas within Namba that have a lot of restaurants and bars. Shinsaibashi, across the Dotombori River, is an extension of the Namba entertainment area.
Bunraku puppet theater can be seen at the National Bunraku Theater of Japan in Minami. Tickets are generally around $35 to $50. A few years English interpreation was provided through earphones. Kabuki is performed at the Shin Kabukiza Theater. Noh and kyogen are performed at the Osaka No Kaikan. Sochiku-za Theater sometimes host kabuki performances. You can also go to Kyoto for kabuki and noh.
Symphony Hall and Izumi Hall are the two main concrete halls in Osaka. Classical music, pop music events and traditional forms of Japanese music and dance are also hosted at various venues in Osaka. The America Mura and Yorappa Mura districts in Osaka are places where young Japanese come to be seen and check out the latest fashions and trends.
The famous all-women Takarazuka revues are staged in Takarazuka, an Osaka suburb, in the 3,000-seat Takarazuka Grand Theater. The shows are musical adaptions of Japanese and foreign stories and operas. The audience is almost entirely made up of women.
Apollo (near Sakuragawa Station in the Sennichimae subway line) is one of Japan most famous show pubs. It is a six-story establishment with a different theme on each floor in Osaka. That charges customers ¥9,000 for a visit to a single floor or ¥25,000 for tour of all six. The prices includes free drinks and snack. On the second floor, in the Pink Daiya, the women are topless. In the Pink Poodle on the top floor, they are naked except for sheet lingerie. On the first floor al the girls have died brown hair or wear platinum blonde wigs.
Customers spend most of their time chatting with the hostesses as they would in a hostess bar. On the second floor custimers can play the rock-scissors-paper game with topless waitresses. Winners get too touch the tits. For a tip sometimes the waitresses will put their tits in a customer’s face. Many girls say they like working at the Apollo because there are strict rule as to when customers are allowed to touch and when they aren't.
Kyocera Dome Street musicians play on the pedestrian bridge in front of Hankyu Railway's Umeda Station and the adjoining JR Osaka Station. Acts that have appeared here have included a jazz quartet, a three piece rock band, a homeless female dancer, a violin-guitar duo, and a pair of young girls that play ukeleles and sing Hawaiian songs. The Hankyu Fortune-Telling Center, below the elevated raillines of Hankyu Umeda Station, is a center of Osaka fortunetelling.
Tobita (15 minute walk south of Kintensu Abeno station) is Japan's last traditional brothel district. Covering an area of nearly 12 blocks, it is discreet places with rows of Kyoto-style teahouses that offer a variety of services in their back rooms.You won't find flashy soaplands or image rooms here. Maps generally don't even have Tobita on them.
Nobody is sur exactly when Tobita was established. In the Meiji period, it provided jobs for impoverished farm girls who came to Osaka in search of work and wives fleeing abusing husbands. After World War II, several thousands women worked in the district and U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt even toured the area to check on the women's heath.
There are currently about 100 brothels here. Prostitutes charge about $120 for 30 minutes. The younger ones are on the west side of the district and with the prostitutes generally getting older as you move east. Foreigners are generally not welcome.
Tobita customers are asked to abide by certain rules and follow a certain etiquette. They are, for example, supposed to ask for "company" not "sex" and not inquire about what they get for their money until the bedroom door is closed. Those that ask for "sex" or ask what is available are refused admission. Websites: 21 or Over,com 21orover.com ; Japan Times article Japan Times
Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Kitashinchi is Osaka’s premier entertainment district, a three-centuries-old playground where the night is filled with neon signs and hostesses in tight dresses, where just taking a seat at a top club can cost $500. But in the past 15 years, the number of fashionable clubs and lounges has shrunk to 480 from 1,200, replaced by discount bars and chain restaurants. Bartenders say the clientele these days is too cost-conscious to show the studied disregard for money that was long considered the height of refinement.” “A special culture might be vanishing,” said Takao Oda, who mixes perfectly crafted cocktails behind the glittering gold countertop at his Bar Oda. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, October 16, 2010]
Sports and Amusement Parks: Spectator events are held at the UFO-like Osaka Dome and the stadium and sports area in Naga and other stadiums and arenas around town. Osaka’s beloved Hanshin Tigers baseball team plays at Koshein stadium between Osaka and Kobe. There are amusement parks with lots of twisting high-tech roller coasters and scary rides at Hirapa (Hirakata Park), and Simland Q. Expoland was closed after people were killed a derailed roller coaster. See Universal Studios Below.
The Maishima Sports Island, a manmade island off the northern port of Osaka, with some interesting recreation areas. Fukuyama Bowl (Osaka) is the world's largest bowling center, with 156 lanes. Joyopolis has a branch in Umeda. It is a huge arcade operated by Sega with life-size versions of its video games along with virtual reality white water rafting, skateboarding, searching for treasures and fighting monsters in a medieval castle. In one ride you and six other people cruise around in a submarine and shoot at giant octopuses and other creatures with an electric gun.
Restaurants in Osaka
In the opinion of many Osaka has the best food in Japan and there are tens of thousands of restaurants in the city, offering a variety of Japanese foods, as well as cuisine from China, France, Italy, Thailand, India, and many other countries. There are also a large number of American fast food restaurants such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, numerous cafes and coffee shops, and a Hard Rock Café.
A good list of restaurants is sometimes available from the tourist office and restaurant guides are sometimes on sale at bookstores and newsstands. You can also check lists of restaurants and suggestions in Time Out, other local entertainment magazines, the Lonely Planet books, and other guidebooks.
The Michelin Guide Kyoto and Osaka 2010 was released in October 2008. Six restaurants in Kyoto and one in Osaka were awarded three stars. They included 400-year-old Japanese restaurant Hyotei, the main restaurant in Arashiyama of Kyoto Kitcho and the French restaurant Hajime in Osaka. In the guide the five level rating system was applied to restaurant and ryokan.
There are many good eating area in and around Umeda (in Kita), Namba (in Minami), Dotonbori (part of Namba) and to a lesser extent Tennoji. There is a particularly good selection of cheap restaurant in the underground shopping centers and covered shopping streets at Umeda, and the streets in Minami south of Nagahori-dori around Osaka Tower. Osaka has a large Koreatown with a lot of Korean restaurants.
There are a lot of good Japanese pancake restaurants, sushi bars, indoor yakitori bars, bakeries, and Chinese restaurants scattered all over Osaka. There are good deals where restaurants are grouped together and offer special deals to be competitive. Soemoncho (in Namba) is famous for its high class restaurants. Hozenjiyokoncho (also in Namba) has many small restaurants and bars. The restaurants at the hotels tend to be overpriced. There are many good, cheap grilled meat restaurants around the Korean Market (near Tsuruhashi Station on the JR Loop Line).
Osaka has the second largest fish market in Japan but visitors are generally not welcome. There are some sushi and seafood restaurants around it.
Shopping in Osaka
Kuromen Ichiba market Osaka people have a reputation for bargaining everywhere even at the department stores. One 37-year-old housewife told the New York Times, “I usually haggle when I go shopping...I negotiate prices, even in large stores. We haggle while smiling and tricking each other, and we make them give us discounts. If you live in Osaka, you’ll do it. It’s something you’re born with here.”
Bargaining and haggling are not as common as it once was, especially since the recession closed many mom and pop stores, leaving behind Tokyo chains that don’t tolerate it. One Osaka shop owner told the New York Times, “In Tokyo, I understand people don’t want to haggle over prices because they think it’s not cool. They check prices from place to place before actually buying anything. Ths Tokyo style is spreading to Osaka.”
The main shopping and entertainment districts are Umeda (in Kita), Namba (in Minami), Dotonbori (part of Namba) and to a lesser extent Tennoji. The Shinsaibashi Shopping Street (the busiest in Osaka, with department stores on one side and many old established shops on the other) is across the Dotombori River from Namba. Osaka Amenity Park (OAP), near the Imperial Hotel Osaka has many upscale European designer shops. There is a shopping area at Kansai Airport.
Den-Den Town is the largest electrical appliance shopping district. It is filled with shops with the latest digital camera, computer and video games, robots and electronic gizmos. The stores have names like Fanatic Computer and Scoopland. One of the largest stores, Softmap, has different branch on different blocks.
Kuromon Market (Nipponbashi) is Osaka's busiest food market. Regarded as Kansai’s Kitchen, it contains more than 170 shops selling fish, dried seaweed, tofu, vegetables and fruit to restaurants as well normal shoppers. Many of the shops sell gourmet and high quality food items intended for fancy restaurants. About 18,000 people visit the market every day,
Doguya-Suji Market (near Namba Station) has numerous shops selling restaurant supplies and plastic food. Aburatani Koseido is particularly good place to shop for plastic food. The Korean Market (near Tsuruhashi Station on the JR Loop Line) contains more than 1.000 shops and stalls. It caters to Osaka’s large Korean community and offers a wide selection of kimchi, spices. Korean-style crabs, and other Korean food as well as stores with traditional Korean clothes and household items.
Shopping Website: Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau Osaka Info
Whity Umeda is the largest underground shopping mall in Japan. Spreading out under three streets off Umeda, it is divided into 3 zones. All the concourses are lined with restaurants, boutiques and novelty shops. There are entire sections devoted to fashion dress shops, tea houses and bars. Nearby are the Hankyu, Hanshin and Daimaru department stores. West of Whity Umeda is Dia Mor Osaka, another large underground mall. The Big Man large screen television is a popular meeting place.
Hankyu Sambangai Shopping Arcade has rows of fashion shops on the first basement floor and a man-made river running along the second basement floor. Nearby is Trevi Plaza, named after a famous fountain in Rome, and the Hankyu Fire Building. Both are popular gathering places for young people. There is a relatively new shopping arcade in this area called the Petit Champs Élysées.
America Mura (Americatown) and Yorappa Mura around Tower Records in Shinsaibashi are places where young Japanese come to be seen and check out the latest fashions and trends. The area contains a large Tower Records, a popular Disney store, boutiques, used clothing stores, bars and restaurants. It has been estimated that 200,000 clothes-crazy young people descend here on the weekends.
Accommodation in Osaka
Osaka has quite a few deluxe hotels including a Hyatt and a Hilton. There are also quite a few standard hotels, hostels, and business hotels. Hotels are scattered all over town; some are located near the train main stations. The Minami (Namba) area and the Osaka Station (Umeda area) are the best places to look for business hotels.
There is a better selection of cheap hotels and hostels in Kyoto. Many people recommend staying in Kyoto and visiting Osaka by train. The English-language West Japan phone has a good list of hotels in Osaka, Kyoto and the entire Kansai area. "Hotels in Japan" from the Japan National Tourist Organization (given out at overseas tourist offices) has a good list of deluxe, luxury and standard hotels.
Hotel Websites: Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau Osaka Info Osaka Hotels ihsadvantage.com ; Hotels Combined hotelscombined.com JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books
Osaka subway map
Transportation in Osaka
Most people get around on the excellent but sometimes confusing 100-mile subway system. There are also numerous JR and local train lines (Hanshin, Nankai, Keihan, Hankyu and Kintensu), expensive taxis and buses without English signs. For more information see the "Getting Around Within Cities" section earlier in the text.
In most cases the bus fare is ¥220 for short inner city rides and more depending on the distance. Prepaid cards can be used for all city subways and buses. The come in ¥1,000, ¥2,000, ¥3,000, etc, denominations. Prepaid cards are also available for the city buses.
A special one-day ticket is available for ¥700. One- and two-day tickets that can be used on all buses and subways without limit cost ¥1,200 for one day and ¥2,000 for two days. The prices are half for children. These tickets can be purchased at subway stations, bus stations and bus and subway information centers. Websites: Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau Osaka Info ;
Train Station: The main long-distance train stations are at Umeda and Tennoji. Shin Osaka is where you catch shinkansen (bullet trains) to Hiroshima and Kyushu in the south and Kyoto, Nagoya, Tokyo, Nagano, Yamagata, Niigata and Akita in the north. Osaka Station Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO
Image Sources: 1) Japanese Guest Houses 2) 4) 7) Wikipedia 3) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 5) 6) 8) Osaka Visitor's Guide 7) Ray Kinnane 8) Osaka Vistor's Guide and Urban Rail
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays