Due to the devastating earthquake/tsunami in the north-east of the main island Honshu and the ‘what if’ looming over the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan has seen visitor numbers plummet. It shouldn’t have, because there are many awesome areas in the country that are perfectly safe to visit, such as Osaka.

Osaka lies about 60 miles south of Kyoto, in the heart of the Kansai region — also the birthplace of most ancient Japanese culture. In some ways, it’s the Kuala Lumpur of Japan – most people just pass through on their journey, if they stop there at all. Osaka is considered to be the second city of Japan, although by population it is only the third biggest (after Tokyo and Yokohama). It’s seen by many as the edgier, cheaper and somewhat smaller anti-capital: the Chicago, the Manchester, the Bordeaux of Japan.

Osaka (then known as Naniwa) was the capital of ancient Japan, long before anybody had even heard of Kyoto. Later, as political power shifted to Nara, Kyoto and finally Tokyo (among others), Osaka occupied itself with the more enjoyable things: countless forms of art and entertainment were born here. Because of its harbour and closeness to the continent (Osaka literally means ‘big harbour’), Osaka was one of the first cities in Japan to become industrialised. To this day, it’s also nicknamed ‘commerce city’ by the Japanese, and still has one of Asia’s three biggest freight harbours.

Of more interest to the traveller, Osaka is famous for three things: its friendly, straightforward (by Japanese standards) locals that speak a particularly colourful dialect known as Osaka-ben; its good, cheap and plentiful food; and its night life and entertainment.

Forget ‘konnichi wa’: it’s ‘maido’ here

In Tokyo, people can be somewhat aloof and ignore travellers as they are always in a hurry, travelling in those horribly crowded trains. In contrast, Osakans are a curious folk, not afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger; and, thanks to many universities in the area, a surprising number of them also speak English quite well.

Eat till you drop!

Eating out is a pleasure, and it’s much cheaper here than in other Japanese cities. There is a Japanese saying that in Kyoto, people shop till they drop, but in Osaka, they eat till they drop!

And it’s true. Forget everything you’ve heard about the healthy Japanese diet: the local signature dishes are takoyaki, fried octopus balls (not what you think it is!) that are sold by many street vendors, and okonomiyaki which is often described as a Japanese pizza, but which is more like a very freestyle omelet — though it probably has as many calories as your average pizza!

Of course all the traditional, elegant and healthy Japanese cuisine you can think of is available here, plus countless pastry shops, cafés and international restaurants — including a little Korea Town if you need some spicier food for a change!

Entertainment: the Venice of Japan

I know, how many names does one city need? Osaka was known as ‘the water city’ during its heyday as Japan’s entertainment city, due to the many canals and the two rivers that crossing the city. But there are more bars hidden away in those skyscrapers than you can imagine!

There’s nothing in Tokyo that you couldn’t find in Osaka – department stores, covered shopping arcades, pachinko parlours, tiny bars, big clubs, Maid Cafés and everything else a visiting anime or manga fan could dream of.

Osaka has two main downtown areas: around the JR central station (Umeda), where all the trendy department stores, fine dining places and many expat spots are located; and the somewhat wilder, rowdier southern area around Namba station. Here you can walk along the main drag (Dotonbori) any night of the week from 7pm and have the impression that it’s 11pm on a Saturday night. Osaka might not look like much during the day, but it definitely comes out at night!

For something very different, check out Shin-Sekai (‘New World’), about a mile or two subway stops south of Namba, where they tried to set up a futuristic town centre in around 1910. The area was forgotten during the following decades of war. Building work was resumed in the 60s, so that now, the quarter boasts a futuristic retro-charm that has to be seen to be believed.

Osaka is an amazing city that has to be seen to be believed — come and experience it for yourself.

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