72 hours in Osaka
Only three hours from Tokyo by bullet train, Osaka is a turbo-charged setting for a long weekend adventure. A 72-hour bender must include historic landmarks such as Osaka Castle. But we can't leave this variegated city without exploring its underground culture as well. Here are our picks for making the most of a whirlwind trip, mixing the traditional and the alternative.
Non-Japanese speakers, memorize the word “okonomiyaki.” It’s a tragedy if you leave without tasting the grilled savory pancake that is Kansai’s soul food. Look for family restaurants such as Tengu, where recipes are passed down from several generations.
Takoyaki -- grilled octopus balls made from pouring batter into molds -- are another Osaka specialty. Every major street has a stand where you can buy a dozen for ¥500. Twists on the original include egg or melted cheese toppings, and takoyaki stuffed in a crepe. But nothing beats mom-and-pop shops, such as Tako House at Umeda station, where a shy grandma oversees the cooking.
Yuzu (citrus fruit)
Yuzu is a divine cross between a lemon and a tangerine. In Osaka, you’ll find the flavor in every type of dish: sorbet, sake, shochu. The fruit is rarely found fresh outside of Japan, so don’t hesitate to gorge on it at every meal.
Shinsaibashi’s Shopping Arcade is a bustling treasure hunt: look for indie and vintage boutiques, such as Dangerous Nude, amidst the mass retailers. Nearby Amerikamura is the cultural equivalent of Tokyo’s Harajuku, with punks and rockers hanging out in Triangle Park (here’s a map of the best stores). Poke your head through the beaded curtains for cyber fashion, tarot cards and 1980s toys.
A stone’s throw from Umeda Station, EST is a “shopping town with dream and excitement” for young women. The boutiques lure you in with frantic J-pop music and the chic outfits seen in Cutie and ViVi magazines. If the hundred plus shops aren’t enough, across the street is Hep Five, a shopping and entertainment megalopolis with a red Ferris wheel.
Kaiyukan is one of the largest aquariums in the world and a family favorite. Young Osaka resident Takumi Tanaka reminisces on his childhood visits. “It’s always fun to see the penguins and dolphins playing, but my favorite thing to do is visit the floating jellyfish tanks. It’s so relaxing to watch the intertwining tendrils,” he says. “Also I love to watch the staff feed the sea otters, who play like children.”
Tanaka also encourages first-timers to visit the historic Osaka Castle, especially during the cherry blossom season. “There are always festivals and gatherings in the beautiful park, and little stalls that sell traditional foods like takoyaki. It’s fun to just sit on the benches and watch people go by,” he says.
Believe it or not, the Pokemon Center is one of the top tourist attractions in all of Japan. The gargantuan Umeda store is stocked with every character product imaginable. Children in Pikachu hats will remind you that the brand’s motto is “gotta catch em all,” so bring your wallet.
Hard rock bars
Skulls leer from the shelves, hair metal bands play on the big screen, and the drinks have names like Belgian Satan Beer. Shout it out loud at Osaka’s hard rock bars (link to my article), where the barstools fill up with tattooed youths and celebrities such as Nikki Sixx. For more on Osaka's rock bars, click here.
Gay and alternative nightclubs
True to its friendly reputation, Osaka has a flourishing LGBT nightlife. Neon-lit themed gay bars line the streets of Umeda’s Doyama district -- a group of men in samurai robes waved at us to join the party. Alternative club kids congregate at DJ Taiki’s Black Veil party, where Victorian gowns collide with rainbow eyelashes.
Get away from the grit with a day trip to Nara, only an hour away by subway. The cultural capital dazzles with six Buddhist temples, a Shinto shrine and the Imperial Place. But the biggest thrill, for tourists of all ages, is petting the sacred deer that roam in Nara Park.
OK, so Kyoto as a day trip from Osaka might be a bit of a stretch, but if you only have so much time in Japan it is worth at the least swinging by if you have the chance. Kyoto is north of Osaka, and home to thousands of well-preserved places of worship such as Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). First built in the 14th century, the three-story gilded structure holds the Buddha’s ashes and is set in an exquisite garden with a mirror pond.
Explore Kobe’s parks and harbor, which lie to the west of Osaka. Chinese officials recently agreed to let Oji Zoo keep the two adorable panda bears, Kou Kou and Tan Tan, for five more years. Be sure to take pictures before they’re homeward bound.