Osaka has that unfortunate image of being treated as mere gateway—to the more alluring attractions of Kyoto, or to walking amongst the gentle deers of Nara. We landed here anyway, we might as well see what it can offer—is what we imagine to be in every Osaka visitor’s thought bubble.
As a matter of fact, the city—the third largest in Japan—has plenty to showcase, especially for a place known as just a layover spot. It is known as a food city with an exciting culinary scene. It has one of the largest aquariums in the world. It has the Osaka Castle, certainly one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, which turns absolutely magical during cherry blossom season. Of course, it is also friendly and approachable, and is possessed of Japan’s quiet and quieting atmosphere, which only really gets disrupted in the few areas with heavy tourist concentration.
Other destinations in Japan:
Yes, Osaka is not exactly a top go-to, but that might actually be a good thing: its tourist spots never really get as packed like Kyoto’s staple landmarks do. Just this month, the traffic of people at Nishiki Market and the Arashiyama Park were enough to make any visitor choose to head back to the undisturbed bliss of one’s hotel room. Having spent the first half of our trip in Kyoto—only because the sakura was to go in full bloom there first before it does in Osaka—Osaka proved more relaxing, allowing us more space to roam around in and enjoy our holiday. Besides, it seems the city knows it has very limited time to impress its guests—as proven by these three areas: Dohtonbori, the Tennoji area, and the neighborhood of Nakazakicho.
These spots are each packed with not one but a few attractions where you can while an entire afternoon or evening away. Spend the spare hours of your holiday in these Osaka locations and you’re bound to have something to write home about.
What brought us to this area is the Vermeer exhibition (ongoing until May 12) at the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts. But apart from the works of the Dutch painter, the 70-year old building also houses more than 8,000 pieces of Japanese and Chinese art including paintings and calligraphy of historical significance, as well as stone and bronze statues, and a collection of lacquer pieces dating back from the Edo period.
The museum is located within Tennoji Park whose sizeable water square is beautifully flanked by a row of cherry blossom trees on one side and a red and green bridge on the other. Apart from its sprawling lawn, there is also a zoo and a burial mound where two warring clans famously fought in the early 1600s.
An enchanting garden called Keitakyuen is attached to the fine art museum. It is done by the same designer as the Maruyama Park in Kyoto (which becomes a veritable marketplace on Sakura season). Its elaborate design involves a big pond, black pine trees, a mountain and waterfall, as well as a summer house called Azumaya where one can quietly watch the cranes take in the beauty of its surroundings. The garden opens at 9:30 AM and accepts guests only until 4.30 PM. Admission is 150Y.
Because one’s time in Osaka is usually limited, not many people have pursued this bohemian neighborhood that is quite a drive away from Dohtonbori, and just less than a half hour drive from Tennoji Park (if you take a cab it could cost you and your friend’s dinner). People refer to it as retro town, and the New York Times says it’s an enclave of “narrow lanes and wooden houses that survived the air raids of World War II and the decades of urbanization that followed.”
No arch or marquee announces you’ve arrived in Nakazakicho, but the quaint little shops strewn into residences on its narrow alleys will tell you you’ve found the place. There are shops that specialize in little knickknacks, in tailored denim, in books and art, in vintage clothes.
But the real anchor of this community of hipness is unofficially Salon de Amanto, a neglected more-than-120-year-old tenement building turned into a cafe with what looks like very little effort. The place is a canvas of old paper and used wood—even the nails were reused—evoking bygone days of hushed conversations on revolutions held in bunk beds and study corners.
A canopy of leaves greets the visitor, and after the entrance door one is confronted by the sight of young men and women quietly having coffee or just enjoying the smallest bits of talk. Upstairs a group of coolly dressed individuals are preparing a screening. The kitchen serves various alcoholic drinks, coffee, and simple snacks, among them toasted white bread with banana, cheese and mayonnaise (it tastes the way you imagine it), something a 12-year old left alone at home would likely whip up.
Walking the alleys of this district is like being caught in a pinball machine of Japanese food, each hole serving different combinations of staple favorites—gyoza, ramen, chicken karaage, chahan, soba and takoyaki—each version as flavorful as the next. The place really comes alive at dusk as tourists gather in the area for dinner and drinks, but first getting momentary amusement from the attention-seeking gigantic crab replicas and promo girls dancing on store balconies. If you could find a spot, a photo by one of the bridges at sunset is just as satisfying as having one with the Glico running man behind you.
One lunch, we tried Houzenji Sanpei, the okonomiyaki place suggested by the New York Times. We expected to be treated to one of the cooks preparing the veggie and pork cake dish in front of us. Alas, while our waiter heated the pans on our tables, we were only given a pre-cooked okonomiyaki to heat. To salvage lunch, we had a feast of our favorites—ramen, karaage, et al—in one of the nearby restaurants, and the spring was back in our steps in no time. It’s hard to make a mistake with the restaurant choices in this area; we’ve never been in a bad one outside of Houzenji Sanpei.
After dinner, we recommend dropping by the smallest bar in Osaka (or maybe the whole of Japan): Bar Core, a corner spot that looks like one of those expensive portable saunas from outside but is actually a no-nonsense whisky bar inside. Its size is one of its charms: the bar can only accommodate six people of average weight, and the lone bartender/owner Masuhide doesn’t seem to mind that he can barely walk two steps within his station (he’s been tending to customers since 2012 when the bar opened, and only skips work on Sundays). Guests are allowed to smoke despite the size of the space—but it never feels like you’re smoking in the airport lounge. My bill for an 8-year old Yamazaki: 600Y.
If you’re a vinyl geek with a penchant for basement décor chic, you’ll find a comforting nightcap spot in Jazz Bar Top Rank—if you don’t get turned off by the grumpy barkeep first or the expensive drinks (example: 1200Y for a shot of Black Nikka). “My prices reflect my passion,” warns the sign on the door. “Not cheap price!” The bar opened in 1982, and the age is showing in the shelves about to give up with the weight of what is likely thousands of records. But the sound of its vintage speakers—blaring Chet Baker when we came in—is rich and crisp.
When in Japan, one cannot escape the allure of the narrow alley. It is what led us to a low sliding door behind which is one of the most charming bars we’ve been to. Called Momo, it is tended by a man in his 70s named Tetsuya (the small bike parked outside is his). One cannot fully explain its charm, maybe even magic—but being there is like being shut out from the rest of the world. Inside there’s an easy, convivial atmosphere, and your Hibiki never tasted so good.
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A narrow alley will lead you to Momo.
The author in one of the polaroids from 2015 at Momo.
Shops at Nakazikacho.
Arabiq is a book and art shop cum cafe at Nakazikacho.
Pricey drinks but there's fantastic acoustics at Jazz Bar Top Rank.
Thousands of vinyl records fill the wall of Jazz Bar Top Rank.
The food and beverage staff of Salon de Amato.
The young crowd at Salon de Amanto.
A corner library at Salon de Amanto.