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Osaka is known in Japan for its down-to-earth yet vivacious character, and Osakans will be the first to tell you how different they are from their Kyoto and Tokyo brethren.
Osaka’s full of late-night tachinomi standing bars and karaoke joints, packed to the brim with the area’s outgoing and friendly inhabitants. They’re a great way to get a real taste of the city, but that’s just the beginning.
The best way to get to know Osaka and experience the local culture for yourself is to explore the city by neighbourhood, and of course, get involved in the nighttime eating and drinking revelry.
Here are the 10 neighbourhoods not to miss on your adventure in this quirky and charismatic place.
Best for: Quintessential Osaka hotspots
The beating heart of Osaka, and most popular with tourists, the Dotonbori district is usually the initial stop for visitors exploring the city for the first time. The most photographed sign in Osaka is the giant blue Glico running man who advertises one of Asia’s most famous confectionery companies located in Utajima, Osaka.
Lots of selfies are taken in front of Glico man’s statuesque figure which can be seen from the Ebisu Bridge, a popular meeting place in Osaka’s premier shopping and entertainment district.
Ebisu Bridge is situated in the middle of the 600m-long Ebisubashisuji Shopping Street that runs north from Namba Station. The bustling streets either side of the Dotonbori canal are packed with tax-free souvenir and fashion shops, vibrant eateries, and cheerful street-food vendors.
At one end of the bridge, a giant plastic 3D mechanical crab looms over the entrance to Kani Doraku, a famous and beloved Japanese chain crab restaurant. Ramen shops are ubiquitous, and enormous purple plastic octopus sculptures are pinned above takoyaki vendors beckoning hungry shoppers to sample Osaka’s classic soul food: puffy balls of dough made of a wheat-flour batter with a chunk of octopus inside.
Hozenji Yokocho alley is a worthwhile little detour from the Dotonbori area. A charming stone-paved laneway buried in the alleys leading up to Dotonbori, it’s home to Hozenji temple and the moss-covered Fudo-myo statue known as Mizukake Fudo. This location is popular with local celebrities such as actors, writers, and artists and embodies the old world of Naniwa (the city’s name before it became Osaka) and has been filled with nightlife since the 17th century when the area was a theatre district. Stop by, say a prayer, and splash some water on Mizukake-Fudo before checking out the plethora of well-established Japanese dining options behind the temple offering yakiniku (Japanese BBQ), over-the-counter kappo sushi, fugu (blowfish), and more.
Getting there: Nankai, Kintetsu, or Osaka Metro lines, Namba Stn, 10-min walk
#2 NishiShinsaibashi (West Shinsaibashi)
Best for: Shopping
Shinsaibashi is Osaka’s main shopping area. East Shinsaibashi encompasses the Ebisu Bridge area and the Shinsaibashi covered shopping street. West Shinsaibashi is known for two main areas: Horie and Amerika Mura (American Village).
Amerika Mura, AKA ‘Amemura’ is a popular choice for those looking for late-night drinks and dancing. Pubs and izakayas, hookah lounges, karaoke bars, and dance clubs can all be found in this gritty but charming area. Based around the unassuming and easy-to-miss Sankaku Koen (Triangle Park), a hangout for skateboarders and a popular meeting spot, Amemura is Osaka’s youth fashion ground zero. “Buy and sell” used-clothing boutiques are dotted around and one-of-a-kind boutiques stock a fascinating and eclectic mix of anything from street fashion, goth, punk, and skater to designer vintage.
Horie is the less-gritty, more-classy side of Shinsaibashi. Tachibana-dori (Orange Street) is the main attraction here, catering to those looking for sophisticated goods. Once upon a time, this 1km laneway was a renowned furniture district. Today, it’s neatly lined with unique, stylish, and up-market clothing, furniture, and homeware stores.
Getting there: Yotsubashi Subway line, Yotsubashi Stn, Exit 5, 2-min walk; Midosuji Subway line, Shinsaibashi Stn, Exit 7, 2-min walk
Best for: Food and drink
The way to an Osakan’s heart is through their stomach, and when your hometown is a city known as “tenka no daitokoro” (“kitchen of the nation”), who could blame you?
While gastro gems are dotted all over the city, there are few neighbourhoods that can compete with the epicurean haven that is Ura-Namba. Literally meaning “back of Namba”, Ura-Namba follows narrow winding alleys east of Namba Station all lined with izakaya (Japanese-style pubs), hole-in-the-wall tachinomi (standing bars), and one-of-a-kind eateries serving tasty Japanese and fusion dishes at very reasonable prices.
Don’t miss Torame Yokocho – a group of restaurants marked by a large vermillion torii gate at the entrance. Customers can order from any of the restaurants within Torame Yokocho using special coloured tags, meaning you can eat okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes with meat and veg mixed in), karaage (Japanese fried chicken), sushi, kushikatsu (morsels of meat and veg fried on sticks), and more, all in one belt-loosening sitting.
Getting there: Nankai, Kintetsu, or Osaka Metro lines, Namba Stn, 1-min walk
#4 Nippombashi (Den Den Town)
Best for: Anime and electronics
The neighbourhood of Nippombashi is most famous for its pocket of all things otaku (nerd) in the anime, manga, video games industry. Every year Nippombashi hosts the Nippombashi Street Festa, the biggest cosplay festival in Western Japan.
Den Den Town or denki no machi (electric town) is how this pocket is colloquially known, and the nickname stretches back to post World War II days when consumer electronics stores popped up around the area. It stretches from the seafood-filled Kuromon Ichiba Market to Shinseikai in the north-south direction, and occupies the area surrounding Sakaisuji street.
These days, Den Den Town is best known as a shopping district comprising 500 stores specialising in anime, manga, video games, electronics, maid cafes, themed restaurants, and more. Offering the largest selection west of Akihabara in Tokyo, many of the shops are duty-free for tourists, making it the one-stop shopping spot for all your Japanese hobbyist needs.
Getting there: Nankai, Kintetsu, or Osaka Metro lines, Namba Stn, 5-min walk; Nippombashi Subway Stn, 5-minute walk
Best for: Alternative culture and Tsutenkaku Tower
The bright, gaudy, neon-lit neighbourhood of Shinsekai is an offbeat local area to the west of Tennoji Park and south of Den Den Town. Teeming with cheap and cheerful eateries and souvenir stores, Shinsekai is a retro entertainment district home to the iconic Tsutenkaku Tower. Built in 1912 as part of a revamp of the area, the tower was designed to resemble the Parisian Eiffel Tower on top and the Arc de Triomphe at its base.
On a visit to Shinsekai, drop in at the renowned kushikatsu vendor Daruma for some delicious deep-fried treats on skewers and wander down the Janjan Yokocho covered shopping arcade to check out the quirky shops and souvenir stores. If time permits, spend an afternoon in Spa World, a gigantic onsen theme park with European and Asian-themed hot spring pools, water slides, and a kids’ play area.
Getting there: Sakaisuji Subway line, Ebisucho Stn, 2-min walk; Midosuji Subway line, Dobutsuen-mae Stn, 2-min walk; JR Shin-Imamiya Stn, 4-min walk
Best for: Breathtaking views of Osaka
Osaka’s third major downtown hub, Tennoji, remains underexplored. However in the past few years, it’s started to transform from a shabby, dated part of town into a happening urban centre and bustling shopping district. The towering Abeno Harukas department store, now the tallest building in Osaka, has risen over the area in recent years soaring 300 metres above the Kintetsu Abenobashi train station.
Visitors can enjoy sweeping views from the Harukas 300 observation area, picnic in Tennoji Park, roam around Tennoji Zoo, and pay a visit to one of the oldest temples in the country, Shitennoji Temple, which also hosts a bustling food and crafts market one Sunday a month.
Getting there: JR and Osaka Metro lines, Tennoji Stn; Kintetsu line, Osaka-Abenobashi Stn
#7 Osaka Castle Park
Best for: History and nature
Osaka Castle was originally built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1583 and is one of the main draws of the city. While the current structure only dates from 1931 and is totally modern inside, the exhibitions inside the castle display thousands of historical items including armour, weapons, and traditional screens depicting epic battles fought on the castle grounds.
The observation deck on the top floor provides panoramic views of Osaka City. The castle gardens are equally impressive and the ideal spot for a stroll and a picnic. In mid-February, Nishinomaru Garden is splashed with bright pink plum blossoms and, of course, the park is lined with the famous Japanese cherry blossoms which bloom late March to early April.
Getting there: JR line, Osaka-jo Koen Stn
Best for: Family-run food stalls and Osaka’s craft beer
Tenma springs to life around sundown, when narrow laneways full of “mum-and-pop” (a term used to describe small, family run businesses) restaurants dish up their fare to locals, office workers, and any tourist who happens to stumble upon them.
For a taste of Osaka’s own Minoh craft beer, head to the alley’s of Tenma Ichiba just a stone’s throw from JR Tenma Station. In the daytime, the Tenjinbashisuji covered shopping street — Japan’s longest shopping arcade — is great to explore quirky shops and second-hand stores. At the southern end of the arcade sits Osakatemmangu Shrine, one of the city’s most important Shinto sites. At the northern end, the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living offers a foray into mid-19th century (late Edo period) life in Japan.
Getting there: JR Loop line, Temma Stn; Sakaisuji subway line, Ogimachi Stn or Tenjinbashisuji-6-chome Stn
Best for: High-class nightlife
Umeda is the largest transport and shopping hub in Osaka with the crimson HEP FIVE Ferris Wheel and the soaring Umeda Sky Building providing the best lookout points over the city. While much of the Umeda area is corporate and commercial, the Chayamachi District area is a popular downtown district for Osaka’s youth with a seemingly endless array of dining and shopping options.
NU chayamachi is a modern, sophisticated shopping centre teeming with trendy shops and gourmet eateries, while the Grand Front Osaka shopping complex is known for its modern design, gourmet food court, and outdoor terrace. Doyamacho is the LGBT district of Western Japan, home to high-class nightlife. The infamous Kitashinchi area is where you’ll find salarymen and women partying after work, often in the company of hosts and hostesses.
Getting there: JR line, Osaka Stn; Hankyu, Hanshin and Osaka Metro Lines, Umeda Stn
Best for: Arts
A haven for entrepreneurial arty types, the hip, up-and-coming neighbourhood of Nakazakicho was one of only a handful of places in Osaka not to be destroyed by bombs during WWII. A bomb was dropped on the area, but didn’t go off, meaning many of its old buildings are still standing. Many of the buildings in Nakazakicho date back well over one hundred years to the beginning of the Showa Era (1926–1989), the Taisho Era (1912–1926), and even into the end of the Meiji Era (1868–1912).
A generation of young aspiring artists and entrepreneurs have made it their mission to remodel these old Japanese houses, called nagaya (single-floored wooden condominiums), transforming them into cafes, shops, art galleries, and studios. A good place to start your Nakazakicho adventures is Salon de Amanto, a restaurant and cafe started by Jun Amanto, one of the pioneers of the entrepreneurial arts movement in the district. Easily missed by tourists and even locals, Nakazakicho is one of Osaka’s hidden gems.
Getting there: Tanimachi Subway line, Nakazakicho Stn, 5-min walk
(All images: Jason Haidar)
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