Osaka: Japan’s Jetsons City
In Osaka, a group of artists that go by the name Kingyobu or “Goldfish Club” has found a way to make phone booths into beautiful street-side aquariums. It’s just one way to keep artifacts from antiquity relevant in a Japanese city whose feudal past seems as dwarfed by a confident futuristic spirit as Osaka Castle does within the city’s modern skyline.
Indeed, such structures as the Umeda Sky Building stops even someone like me, raised in the shadows of Manhattan, in his tracks. The building’s twin vertical 40-story towers are connected at the top by a bridge forming a massive frame that literally captures the sky.
Everywhere one goes in Umeda, which is home to most of Osaka’s skyscrapers, thousands of people seem to be in transit. This perpetual migration is taking place on ground level and throughout the upper tiers of the city. The swarms are even moving beneath ground level at Osaka Station, which is the axis of the entire city.
You would think that being the largest rail terminal in western Japan (handling 2.4 million people per day) would be enough for Osaka Station, but this amazing complex is also home to a vast futuristic mall and one of the world's largest underground shopping areas.
Umeda’s labyrinth of underground malls goes for miles connecting the JR Osaka Station, Umeda Station and other subway stations, in addition to the city’s towers and their various department stores. Umeda’s department stores -- Hanshin, Hankyu, Daimaru and Isetan -- and such shopping malls as Diamor Osaka, HEP Five, HEP Navio, and Whity Osaka are huge brands in Japan. As you move up story upon story through the seemingly endless set of ascending floors of the Hankyu Hanshin department store, the crowds never seem to get thinner. At the very top of that building you can see Osaka Castle, which once held off the armies of the Tokugawa Shogunate (albeit briefly), but is now dwarfed by skyscrapers.
Most American travelers think of Japan as a country caught between a serene antiquity and a frenetic modernity. Osaka’s rush to the future is so furious that even the recent past is reduced to a quaintness more suitable for goldfish than modern people. Osaka has been an economic hub for centuries but the old city was almost leveled in World War II, paving the way for the development of the futuristic city we see today, and it’s dazzling.
At night in the strip along the Dotonbori River between the Dotonbori-bashi Bridge and the Nippon-bashi Bridge is where Osaka gives Vegas a run for its money as a fabulous parade ground for neon, billboards and outrageous signage. Fabulously gaudy billboards and giant crab puppets with moving claws call diners into a freewheeling restaurant and night club scene that is essentially Osakan.
Kuidaore is an Osakan terms that’s roughly the equivalent of that Texan standby, “Too much ain’t enough.” Kuidaore refers to dining in Osaka and it means, “Eating until you are bankrupt.” The restaurants along the Dotonbori strip are famous for their bar grills. This is not the quiet ambience of traditional Japan. In these restaurants, the music is loud as are the conversations as hardworking business people, bohemians and young rockers, who kick back at the end of the day with a beer and a barbecue in a pretty raucous environment.
Of course, you can still find the more demure restaurants of traditional Japan down classic urban alleyways like Hozen-ji Yokocho that branch off the main Dotonbori drag. This lane preserves the pre-war atmosphere when geisha roamed these lanes. Dining in Osaka ranges from fast foods to fine dining. The city had five Michelin-starred restaurants in the 2012 Japan guide.
If you’ve got footloose clients in Osaka recommend the KAIYU Ticket. It costs 2,400 yen ($26) and is valid for one day. It offers unlimited access to subways, tram lines and city buses, as well as entrance to some museums and discounts to about 30 different attractions, including the Tempozan Ferris Wheel and the Osaka Bay Cruise Santa Maria.
It’s not uncommon in Japan to feel that you’ve stepped into another time. The Kansai region is especially rich in such places. Many walk the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto to enter that fine antiquity of classical Japan. And while Japan’s past is celebrated widely by visitors, the future deserves a visit now and again, too. And if Osaka isn’t exactly the way an urban landscape may look in 100 years, I’m guessing it’s pretty darn close. For more information on Japan, click on Japan National Tourism Organization.
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