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 TWO | The structures that make up Osaka may be mostly contemporary, but the culture is still deeply rooted in the city’s history. So, appropriately, you start the day at the National Bunraku Theatre, which hosts music, dance and performances of 17th-century Bunraku puppetry, a local tradition that has become entwined with Japanese identity, and which is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The puppets are graceful and eerily lifelike, moving to the twang of the three-stringed shamisen, and you exit the theater in a dreamlike state.
The sense that you’ve been whisked back a few hundred years is heightened as you amble down Matsuyamachi Street and observe locals fluttering ornate fans to cool themselves. Before long, you reach the 6th-century Shitenno-ji, the oldest temple in Japan. Commissioned by Prince Shotoku (and built by Korean carpenters), the complex marked the introduction of the Buddhist religion to Japan. Incense drifts in ribbons as you wander the grounds and immerse yourself in the temple’s deep red tones, multitiered pagoda and golden pavilion.
You tear yourself away from the tranquility of the temple and descend into Tennoji Station, where you grapple with a hopelessly complicated map. Luckily, the locals are insistent about helping out, and you quickly find yourself being accosted by an older gentleman. “Let me help you,” he says, pointing with his walking stick. “Go this way.”
So it is that you finally emerge at your destination: downtown Shinsaibashi, home to the mammoth neo-Gothic Daimaru Department Store, atop which you discover the Barakura English Garden, a delightfully incongruous cluster of olive and orange trees. Right next door to this is the eatery Ajikitcho, where you tuck into eight courses of sashimi, tofu and grilled fish, the clicking of chopsticks accompanied by the muffled conversation of the office workers eating alongside you. If this is a typical Osakan workday lunch, you muse, you might as well come into the office on Saturdays, too.
Since the 1994 opening of Kansai International Airport (which, in a remarkable feat of engineering, floats), Osaka has been besieged by shoppers from all over Asia, who come just for the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade—a 2,000-foot-long covered strip where you can pick up anything from Prada purses to Hello Kitty cushions. Accordingly, you find yourself being swept along by a torrent of credit card–wielding humanity as vendors cry, “Irasshaimase!” meaning, “Come on in!”
Having irasshaimased quite a bit, you stumble out into Dōtonbori, a hodgepodge of food stalls, bars and game parlors. This gloriously tacky, neon-lit thoroughfare tends to get a little, let’s say, lively at times (the Glico Man on the sign has been witness to many a celebratory jump into the canal). Above one seafood joint, the truck-size Kani Doraku crab wiggles its claws. The robot-clown Kuidaore Taro bangs his drum. And all along the strip, izakaya shills holler and flaunt their picture-book menus. It’s a funny old place, but not in a ha-ha way.
For actual laughter, you’re going to the Namba Grand Kagetsu Theater, one of the best manzai venues in town. There’s something both hyperlocal and universal about this age-old form of comedy, the humor of which relies on the practical jokes and casual jibes exchanged between a straight man and his zany sidekick, like a Japanese version of Laurel & Hardy. As entertaining as the show itself are the locals watching alongside you. At one point, as the sidekick gets slapped with a large harisen fan for his stupidity, the old lady next to you laughs so hard you consider calling for a medic.
Tonight, you decide to do dinner at a place that doesn’t require reservations, and jockey with women in full geisha regalia for a stool at Ajiho, a small, jam-packed eatery where regional delicacies like takoyaki (octopus balls in batter) and okonomiyaki (a grilled omelet/pizza hybrid) are cheap, quick and tasty. The sake too goes down very easy—perhaps too easy, because by the time you exit you’re thinking you might need that medic yourself.
Next, having made your way through the subway turnstiles at Shinsaibashi Station, you encounter a crush of white-shirted salarymen, who quiz you with inebriated enthusiasm about your origins. (“Where are you from?” “England!” “Ah, Beckham!”) As the wheezing-room-only train hurtles onward, you constantly hear the word gomenasai, a solemn form of apology used when someone steps on your toes.
Having arrived at Umeda, you make your way to The Ritz-Carlton Osaka, whose postmodern exterior belies the palatial grandeur within. The reception staff gives you a warm welcome, one that’s a little more genteel than you received on the train. You decide to take a raincheck on the hotel bar, making instead a slightly wobbly beeline for your room, where you luxuriate in an Italian marble bath before sinking into a king-size bed.