From Minami's neon-lighted Dotombori and historic Tenno-ji to the high-rise class and underground shopping labyrinths of Kita, Osaka is a city that pulses with its own unique rhythm. Though Osaka has no shortage of tourist sites, it is the city itself that is the greatest attraction. Home to some of Japan's best food, most unique fashions, and warmest locals, Osaka does not beg to be explored—it demands it. More than anywhere else in Japan, it rewards the impulsive turn down an interesting side street or the chat with a random stranger. People do not come here to see the city, they come to experience it. Excluded from the formal circles of power and aristocratic culture in 16th-century Edo (Tokyo), Osaka took advantage of its position as Japan's trading center, developing its own art forms such as Bunraku puppet theater and Rakugo comic storytelling. It was in Osaka that feudal Japan's famed Floating World—the dining, theater, and pleasure district—was at its strongest and most inventive. Wealthy merchants and common laborers alike squandered fortunes on culinary delights, turning Osaka into "Japan's Kitchen," a moniker the city still has today. Though the city suffered a blow when the Meiji government canceled all of the samurai class's outstanding debts to the merchants, it was quick to recover. At the turn of the 20th century, it had become Japan's largest and most prosperous city, a center of commerce and manufacturing. Today Osaka remains Japan's iconoclastic metropolis, refusing to fit Tokyo's norms and expectations. Unlike the hordes of Tokyo, Osakans are fiercely independent. As a contrast to the neon and concrete surroundings, the people of Osaka are known as Japan's friendliest and most outgoing. Ask someone on the street for directions in Tokyo and you are lucky to get so much as a glance. Ask someone in Osaka and you get a conversation. Most of Osaka's museums are closed Monday. One exception is Senri Expo Park, which closes (along with its museums) Wednesday. Museums stay open on Monday national holidays, closing the following day instead. Likewise, Senri Expo Park stays open on Wednesday holidays, closing Thursday instead.
You can find a particularly broad range of Japanese food in Osaka, from the local snack foods, okonomiyaki (a thick pancake filled with cabbage and other ingredients) and takoyaki (tasty, grilled octopus in batter), to full kaiseki restaurants. The seafood from the Seto Inland Sea is always fresh, as is the tender beef used at the many Korean barbecue restaurants in Osaka's Korea Town, Tsuruhashi. French and Mexican cuisines are also popular in Osaka.
Under Osaka Station is the Shin-Umeda Shokudokai—a maze of narrow alleys lined with izakaya (lively after-work drinking haunts). The beer and hot snacks comfort many an overworked person on the commute home.
For some energetic dining neonside, head to Dotombori-dori and Soemon-cho (pronounced so-eh-mon cho), two areas along Dotombori-gawa packed with restaurants and bars. Kimono-clad mama-sans serve the city's expense-accounters at Kita-shinchi, in south Kita-ku, the city's most exclusive dining quarter.
Osaka is known more as a business center than as a tourist destination, so hotel facilities are usually excellent, but their features are rarely distinctive, except at the high end of the scale. The city has modern accommodations for almost every taste. Choose accommodations based on location rather than amenities. Note that most hotels offer special rates much lower than the listed rack rates.
Osaka has a diverse nightlife scene. The Kita (North) area surrounds JR Umeda Station; and the Minami (South) area is between the Shin-sai-bashi and Namba districts and includes part of Chuo-ku (Central Ward). Many Japanese refer to Minami as being "for kids," but there are plenty of good restaurants and drinking spots for more-seasoned bon vivants. Osaka's hip young things hang out in America-mura, in the southern part of Chuo-ku, with its innumerable bars and clubs. Kita draws a slightly more adult crowd, including businesspeople.
If you're looking for all-night dancing, Club Karma hosts serious techno parties on weekends and on nights before national holidays. The cover charge starts at about ¥2,500. On other nights it's a scenester hangout offering good food and hip music.
Up-and-coming Japanese rock bands and popular Western bands play at this popular venue. The sound system is excellent.
This club on the ground floor of the Hotel Vista Prima Donna regularly features a jazz trio and a vocalist. Well-known acts also stop by for performances. The cover charge starts at ¥3,000.
This tiny basement bar, which reaches capacity with 70 people, is the city's single most interesting venue for live music. A mecca for the region's avant-garde types, the place is out of the way and very smoky, adding to the underground feel. Events start and finish early, so get here by 6:30. There's something happening every evening.
After browsing the fashions in Minami's boutiques, pop into Café Absinthe in neighboring Kita-horie for Mediterranean food and good music. Live performances usually start at around 9. The music and the crowd are very international and very laid-back.
As with everything else in Osaka, the city rewards shoppers with a sense of adventure. Though Osaka is full of shopping complexes, towering department stores, and brand-name shops, you must step away from the main streets and explore neighborhood shops and boutiques to find the best deals, newest electronics, and cutting-edge fashions. Osaka's miles of labyrinthine underground shopping complexes offer an escape from summer heat and are an experience in and of themselves. The network of tunnels and shops in underground Umeda is the most impressive (and confusing). Fortunately, signs and maps are plentiful and the information desk staff speaks English.
There are specialized wholesale areas throughout the city, and many have a few retail shops as well. One such area is Doguya-suji, just east of Nankai Namba Station and the Takashimaya department store. This street is lined with shops selling nothing but kitchen goods—all sorts of pots, pans, utensils, and glassware are piled to the rafters. Though most customers are in the restaurant trade, laypeople shop here, too. Feel free to wander around: there's no obligation to buy. A trip here could be combined with a visit to nearby Den Den Town, known for its electronic goods. Also in this neighborhood, east of the main entrance to Doguya-suji, is Kuromon Ichiba, the famous market district where chefs select the treats—fruits, vegetables, meat, and much more—cooked up at the city's restaurants that evening.
Headquartered in Osaka, Hankyu has 15 floors of shopping. Across the street is Hankyu Men's Osaka, which claims to have the country's largest selection of men's clothing.
The food hall in the basement of Hanshin department store is the city's best.
The department stores around Osaka Station are "gourmet palaces," each with several floors of restaurants. Daimaru, an OSaka landmark, has one of the best selections.
One of the largest Japanese department store chains, Takashimaya has an impressive presence in Osaka.
Don't be put off by the name: this enormous electronics department store sells far more than just cameras. On the north side of JR Osaka Station, the store is impossible to miss.
This company is jean designer to the stars—Madonna included. The main shop is in Minami-semba, a 10-minute walk north of Minami-horie.
To the east of the Hankyu Grand Building is NU Chayamachi—a collection of small boutiques, both local and foreign, and some good cafés.
If you want to take a break from shopping, head to the roof of HEP Five, where you can ride an enormous Ferris wheel.
Grand Front Osaka
Osaka's newest shopping complex sits just outside of Umeda Station. With over 266 shops, restaurants, and galleries as well as the new InterContinental Hotel, this all-in-one complex is set to fufill just about any shopping needs. Even if you aren't in the market for anything, the Panasonic showroom is worth a quick visit to see how Osaka's leading electronics manufacturer envisions life in the future.
National Bunraku Theatre
Theater fans won't want to miss the chance to see a performance at Osaka's National Bunraku Theatre. Bunraku is not your average puppet show: the three-foot-tall puppets each require a trio of handlers, and the stories, mostly originating in Osaka, contain all the drama and tension (if not the sword fights) of a good samurai drama. The National Bunraku Theatre is Japan's premier place to watch this 300-year-old art form. An "Earphone Guide" (¥650 rental) explains the action in English as the play unfolds. Performances are usually twice daily (late morning and late afternoon) on weekends. To get here, take the Sennichimae or Sakai-suji subway lines to Nippon-bashi Station and take Exit 7. The theater is just before you pass under the Hanshin Expressway.