Overlooked and under-appreciated by tourists favouring Tokyo or Kyoto, Osaka is perhaps the most interesting city in Japan. With a long history of samurai and trade, it boasts important landmarks, and a very defined sense of identity.
Considered one of the dodgiest areas in Osaka, Shinsekai has a lot of character – and characters! Visit at night and choose a kushi katsu restaurant, maybe a smaller one with plastic chairs outside (in summer) to best enjoy the view of Tsutenkaku, a 100m, octagonal construction modelled after the Eiffel Tower, and get set ordering deep-fried foods on sticks.
We recommend plum and shiso chicken, but go crazy and try cheese-cake, or half-boiled egg. Prices are usually between ¥80 to ¥100 per stick, and up to ¥500 for a mug of beer – which kushi-katsu goes really well with. Don't forget to yell okini! (oh-kee-nee “thank you”) as you leave.
Another sweet night spot is Dotonbori, but it’s absolutely crammed full of tourists and their selfie-sticks. See the famous Glico man, and the robot crab; revel in the neon glare from karaoke bar signs, and the run-down, 1980s, cyberpunk atmosphere.
Turn down a few lanes off the main drag, to discover a quiet cobble-stoned street of restaurants, which the crowds never seem to find. For travellers who prefer people-watching, find a spot on Dotonboribashi bridge among spiky-haired hosts plying their trade. Beware of the optimistic high school girls attempting to ride their bicycles through the crowd.
Osaka castle is incredibly impressive. The walls are 30m high and were built by a canny warlord to keep his rivals busy (and broke), and to show his dominance over the family he defeated. Despite its bloody history, the castle sits within a beautiful, calm park that is a favourite spot in cherry blossom time for BBQs.
The main building itself is a reconstruction, with a museum within. There's much debate among locals about the newly-added elevator, however it does increase the ease of access for travellers with walking difficulties.
Less family-friendly, but interesting on many levels, is the neighbourhood of Tobita Shinchi. This large brothel district remains true to a traditional style that has otherwise vanished from Japan.
Beautifully dressed prostitutes sit in the doorways, waiting for customers. Even in winter, they sit by kerosene heaters, ensconced in fluffy blankets, which still manage to reveal some skin.
Black SUVs idle along the street, reminding nervous tourists that Osaka's underbelly are watching, unless they are otherwise engaged. Photography is not allowed.
Osaka is not as well known for its temples and shrines as Kyoto, but it is the site of the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, Shitennoji.
On any day, there is a lot that is visually and culturally interesting here: from the pagoda, and other temple buildings, to beautiful rows of hanging lanterns, to the pond of abandoned pet turtles.
On the 21st and 22nd of every month, there is also a huge flea market, and those willing to venture out on the 11th of February, will witness Doya Doya Matsuri, a sympathetic-shudder-inducing festival, where high school boys run through sheets of freezing water to catch paper charms, and ensure their luck for the year to come.
From restaurant fare to market-fresh street food, Amelia Gambier reveals the best ways to taste Osaka’s unique take on Japanese cuisine.
Strap on your walking shoes, and experience the best of lively city's amazing history, and culture in one day.