Japan’s third city may not have the gloss of Tokyo or the timelessness of Kyoto, but it’s second to none in terms of its food, energy and an unflagging sense of fun
Author Robert Michael Poole Photography Alfie Goodrich
DAY ONE | Osakans love to one-up their flashier cousins in Tokyo. So it’s no surprise that the Imperial Hotel Osaka boasts such over-the-top flourishes as a mist sauna in your room and tennis courts on the roof. Following a bracing swim in the tree-lined indoor pool, you head to the Nadaman restaurant on the 24th floor for some delicious okayu (rice porridge) with onion and sesame seeds. It’s a hearty dish, which you’ll definitely be needing for the long day ahead.
With your belly full, step out onto the promenade of the Okawa River and, in order to get oriented to the city’s layout, board the Aqua-Liner cruise from the adjacent OAP pier. This sightseeing boat rises just 5 ¼ feet above the water’s surface, short enough to pass under the city’s many low bridges and to access banks cluttered with stunning autumnal koyo (colorful leaves), which barely muffle the hum of the city’s workforce clamoring on the sidewalks.
Having ended up at Osaka-jo (or Osaka Castle) via the Nakanoshima Central Hall—an early-20th-century neo-Renaissance structure that houses concert halls and, you are told, a restaurant that serves “nostalgic” food—you disembark behind demure kimono-clad women toting ornate lace parasols. Passing under the castle’s Aoya-mon gate, you pause to gaze at the 16th-century structure’s tapering stack of eaves, its golden detailing gleaming against stark-white walls and black tile. Inside, hulking samurai armor and impossibly delicate silk screens speak to Japan’s split personality.
Exiting the castle grounds, you hail one of the city’s impeccable taxis and point the driver to Yotaro Honten, a tempura shop handed down through generations. Fried in cottonseed oil at the counter by owner-chef Ohira-san, the fresh vegetables and shrimp are crisp and flavorful—so good, in fact, that the eatery is Michelin-starred. “It’s a popular place,” Ohira-san says. “So popular that closing time is simply when we run out of food.”
A short cab ride west takes you to Nakanoshima Island, home to a narrow cluster of museums and galleries that includes renowned architect César Pelli’s ambitious National Museum of Art. Inside you find an impressive array of artworks, ranging from Yoshitatsu Yanagihara’s bronze pigeons to ancient Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. At the nearby Osaka Science Museum (where Japan’s first Nobel laureate, Hideki Yukawa, theorized the existence of subatomic particles), you spend an equally engaging hour tinkering with interactive doodads and trying to count the stars in the planetarium’s enormous faux sky.
Eager for a taste of the city’s experimental cuisine, you head to dinner at Fujiya 1935, where, upon entry, you are ushered into a tranquil traditional-style antechamber. It’s a little livelier in the dining room, where Spanish- and Italian-trained chef Tetsuya Fujiwara delivers culinary fireworks to a humming crowd. “What I learned in Europe was how to develop a presentation of Japanese food that stimulates all five senses,” he says while serving up bread on slabs of hot black slate. You munch pistachio marshmallows and wasabi- and tarragon-flavored pike conger eel, before the meal’s sparkling finale of mango, basil and coconut ice cream.
As the evening draws in, Osaka-jo shines brighter over its outer moats. You sit beneath the cherry trees for a while, then, on the castle’s north side, make your way up to the 18th floor of the Hotel New Otani, whose Keyaki teppanyaki bar offers fine views of the city. You sip local Suntory beer alongside a family of visiting Tokyoites, who look out of a window in slack-jawed appreciation. Smiling, they teach you to repeat sugoi kirei (“what a gorgeous view”) as they exclaim it one by one.