We only had two days in Osaka, but based on what little we got to see, Osaka reeked of second city. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, as I love places like Chicago and Montreal, but compared to Tokyo, Osaka definitely felt grittier, smaller, and not as sleek.Our hotel, the enormous City Plaza Hotel, was such a stark contrast to the two intimate ryokans we had stayed at in Kyoto and Nara. In fact, both ryokans could have fit into our hotel’s lobby alone. Our room was filled with light and had a great view of the city.
For our first night, we walked to Dotonbori, a major tourist destination that runs along the Dotonbori canal. Originally a theater district, it is now an eccentric shopping and entertainment area characterized by restaurants and nightlife. At night, the area is quite beautiful, with small footbridges, lanterns lining the canal, and bright lights reflecting on the water. However, with all the tourist crowds and neon billboards, I couldn’t help but think of the Las Vegas strip.
What Dotonbori does have that Las Vegas doesn’t is tons of great street food options. We tried one of Osaka’s specialties, takoyaki, which are wheat flour balls cooked in a molded pan, filled with bits of octopus, pickled ginger, and green onion, then brushed with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with dried bonito shavings. Pretty much every other vendor in Dotonbori sells takoyaki, and a song about takoyaki is even blasted into the streets from various restaurants. We also had okonomiyaki, another Osaka specialty, from one of the restaurants in Dotonbori, which was wonderful. Okonomiyaki are savory pancakes made of flour, grated yam, eggs, shredded cabbage, and a variety of other ingredients, such as seafood or bacon. It is then pan-fried on both sides and often topped with thick okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes, pickled ginger, and mayonnaise. I make okonomiyaki at home, but the one we had in Osaka was even better.
My favorite thing at Dotonbori was the Glico store. The Ezaki Glico Company started in 1922, but it wasn’t until 1966 that they released a new product into their family — a chocolate-coated pretzel-like cookie stick. Inspired by the Japanese onomatopoeia for the snapping sound made while eating these crispy sticks, they named their new product “Pocky.” In the beginning, these sticks were each hand-dipped in chocolate, leaving one end of the stick bare. Pocky sticks come in compact and easy-to-carry packaging that made it a perfect on-the-go snack. They can now be found everywhere, and apparently there’s even a Pocky truck that hands out free Pocky around the world. (Why have I not seen this in New York yet??)
The next morning was rainy (and we had left our clear umbrellas in Kyoto), so we hung out at our hotel for a couple of hours and tried our hotel’s natural foot bath. Located outside in front of the lobby, it’s open to the public, which is impressive and notably un-American. We watched one man as he wiped down his wet feet after sitting in the foot bath, put his napkins in a small trash bag (he came prepared!), and suited back up to go to work. I sure wouldn’t mind having a foot bath every morning on my way to work!The rain eventually stopped, so we made our way to Shinsekai, which felt like a less crowded version of Dotonbori. Apparently Shinsekai’s northern half was modeled after Paris’ Montmartre, but we must have only spent time in the southern half, which was modeled after New York’s Coney Island. It was daytime so we didn’t see the neon billboards, but the streets were lined with colorful advertisements, quirky statues, and more restaurants selling the same things. Until pretty recently, Shinsekai had a dangerous reputation owing to its homeless population and criminal activity that existed before the ’90s. However, it felt no different from Coney Island, which I guess is pretty seedy itself.We tried another Osaka specialty, kushikatsu, at one of the many restaurants in Shinsekai. I wasn’t excited too excited for fried food, but I changed my mind as soon as I bit one of the skewers. These deep-fried meat and veggies on sticks are dipped into katsu sauce, which can be found in a tub on each table. A sign on our table said, “Please do not double-dip.” Kushikatsu is the epitome of fried food — light, crispy, and full of flavor. It sure put America’s onion rings and corn dogs to shame.After slumming it in Shinsekai, we decided to do a 180 and walk to Namba Parks, a luxury office and shopping complex with a rooftop garden and amphitheater for live shows. Osaka lacks outdoor parks, so Namba Parks was conceived as a way to add visible green to the city. The structure had a cool canyon design, and the bathrooms were impeccable, but I hope that Osaka continues to build actual parks throughout the city instead of spending money on lavish rooftop ones inside malls.There’s a common saying that in Kyoto, you spend your money on clothes, and in Osaka, you spend your money on food. I have to disagree. While we did see a lot of gorgeous kimonos worn throughout Kyoto, I certainly preferred our kaiseki meals there to the fried food in Osaka. Plus, my favorite Japanese foods (sushi and ramen) are actually specialties of Tokyo, not Osaka. For cheap street food, however, Osaka does win. Perhaps the saying should be changed: “In Kyoto, you spend your money on food and clothes, and in Osaka, you spend just a little money on street food.” I guess that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Two days was too short to give Osaka the time it deserved, and I think I would have appreciated the city more if we had had a local guide instead of depending on travel books telling us where all the touristy hot spots are. I also think I would have been more impressed by neighborhoods like Dotonbori and Shinsekai if I wasn’t a New Yorker, and if I didn’t think they resembled Las Vegas (the tackiest place in the United States).
I had such a wonderful time in Japan that it would have been nice to return to my favorite city of Tokyo to feel complete before leaving, but it was time for us to head to the next country on our honeymoon: the Philippines, land of our people. Kamusta, Los Baños!Tips for future travelers:
- If you liked Tokyo, you’re probably not going to like Osaka as much — and vice versa. Plan your trip (and prepare your heart) accordingly.