Tourists from other Asian countries have it figured out: Osaka is the new place to be in Japan. The city’s visitor statistics are soaring, yet most Americans still bypass Osaka in favour of Kyoto and the guidebook sights of Nara.
What are they missing? Recently, cool new coffee shops, restaurants, bars and boutiques have added another dimension to this concrete metropolis – the country’s third largest. Add in traditional cultural treasures and zany, only-in-Japan experiences, and it’s no surprise Osaka’s star is now on the rise.
4pm: Neighborhood finds
Acquaint yourself with a little-known side of Osaka in Nakazakicho, a rare neighborhood of narrow lanes and wooden houses that survived the air raids of World War II and decades of urbanisation that followed. Now innovative locals have transformed many long-neglected buildings into creative spaces like Salon de Amanto, an artist-run cafe and community centre that hosts lectures and performances in a creaky tenement from the 1880s.
Around the corner, wade through piles of vintage clothes and kitschy “zakka” (life-improving miscellany) at Green Pepe. Scope out contemporary art exhibits at Atelier Sangatsu, a gallery beside a colorful graffiti wall. Shop for wearable art at Hanane T-shirt Living or scoop up rare Care Bears from the wacky collection at Select Shop Tenten. Finally, recharge at Utena Kissaten, a retro coffee shop in a well-preserved traditional wooden house.
7pm: Chicken dinner
“Yakitori” (skewered grilled chicken) is usually accompanied by cheap draft beers in smoke-clogged locales. But not at Ishii, an upscale yakitori restaurant that opened last year and earned its first Michelin star in 2017. Book a seat at the blond-wood counter to sip sparkling sake while watching the chef fan a ventilated charcoal grill and twirl skewers of top-grade Kumano chicken from nearby Mie prefecture. An omakase meal (about 6,000 Japanese yen, or about US$53) began with superb appetisers like mashed lily root balls stuffed with miso cream cheese and a salad of grilled greens. Then a parade of chicken parts – wing, neck, thigh – concluded with mini hot pots drizzled with truffle oil.
11pm: Submerged sips
For the times when you just want to have a drink inside a replica of a submarine, there’s Bar Shinka, a mind-boggling hangout behind an unmarked metal door at the end of a dark alley. This surreal space was constructed entirely from parts of an old sub; the result is a dimly lighted simulacrum that could fool a seaman, with moving gears, switches, gauges and blinking lights. Once inside, slip off your shoes, order a whiskey highball and marvel at the details, but beware the eerie scuba diver lurking near the bathroom.
9am: Game overload
In the mood to roller-skate at dawn? Or wake up to batting practice? Whatever the hour, go to Round1 Stadium Sennichimae, a 24-hour entertainment complex with multiple floors of activities, from karaoke to bowling and arcade games. To work off excess energy, buy a bracelet for all-you-can-play access to “spo-cha” (short for “sports challenge”), an area with 40 different games – among them basketball, volleyball, mini motorbike racing, mechanical bull rodeos, Segway riding, roller-skating, batting cages, mini-golf, archery and tennis. Competition often heats up after dark, but daytime hours are family-friendly.
11am: Morning roast
In a narrow storefront in the trendy Amerikamura neighbourhood, LiLo Coffee Roasters is reliably packed with local coffee lovers who spill onto the small patio and makeshift benches on the sidewalk. One of the first specialty coffee shops to open in Osaka, this three-and-a-half-year-old institution offers more than a dozen types of beans, both single-origin and blends, in light, medium and dark roasts. Need help deciding? The friendly baristas are quick with advice and detailed cards with tasting notes are served with every cup.
Noon: Boutique bonanza
Stroll a few blocks southwest to the Horie district, a grid of streets packed with boutiques. Find souvenirs for dapper outdoorsmen at Unby General Goods, a shop stocked with preppy twill backpacks and steel bento camping boxes. Discover up-and-coming Japanese fashion brands at Palette Art Alive, where racks display Belper’s colour-block knits and furry men’s motorcycle jackets from Anndirk Izm.
On the popular shopping strip known as Orange Street, make a beeline for Biotop, a multilevel concept store with a ground-floor cafe and greenhouse, a rooftop garden restaurant and aspirational merchandise displayed in between: bonsai trees, made-in-Japan denim, vintage Chanel bags, organic cosmetics and artisan ceramics.
2pm: Alley eats
Amid the neon carnival of Dotonbori, a glimmer of old Osaka remains intact along Hozenji Yokocho, narrow stone alleyways lined with small izakaya and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Near the entrance, find Tendonnomise, a tiny, no-frills, seven-stool shop serving one specialty: tendon, a perfect bowl of steamed rice with a rich soy-based sauce and tender shrimp tempura straight from the fryer (650 yen).
For more variety, head down the alley to Houzenji Sanpei, an okonomiyaki restaurant where chefs toss your choice of ingredients – the filling yakisoba includes fried noodles, squid, pork, cabbage, kimchi and bonito flakes (700 yen) – onto sizzling griddles.
4pm: Puppet show
Traditional Japanese puppet theatre called “bunraku” is less well-known internationally than other ancient performance genres like Kabuki and Noh. Founded in Osaka in the 1600s, bunraku employs large puppets, controlled by three puppeteers simultaneously, to tell tales of heroism and tragic romance narrated by an expressive chanter and accompanied by the music of a three-stringed samisen.
Today, the main venue for this rare art form is Osaka’s National Bunraku Theater, where performances are staged throughout the year. Purchase same-day tickets to single acts (about 2 hours; from 500 yen) at the theater’s box office; audio guides in English are available.
8pm: The new noodle
Udon, the thick, chewy wheat noodle, takes the starring role at Aozora Blue, an udon specialty restaurant opened in 2014 by the chef Hirofumi Matsui and his wife, Yuki. Here, noodles are made in-house from flours that are stone-milled on-site (peek through the kitchen’s glass partition to see the machinery). Take a seat in the stylish dining room – all natural wood with cool tree-stump stools – and try the course-ground udon, its unusual beige hue reminiscent of soba, served in a warm, delicate broth. Add a side of tempura, pickled vegetables and a carafe of sake to round out the meal. Dinner for two about 3,500 yen.
10pm: Bar crawl
The easiest way to meet outgoing Osakans is on a bar crawl through the city’s diverse nightlife. Start the night at Craft Beer Works Kamikaze, a laid-back bar with 23 taps pouring excellent “ji-biru” (Japanese craft beer), like Shiga Kogen’s Imperial IPA. Make new friends at Hana Sake Bar, a cosy locale nearby serving Japanese whiskey, shochu, awamori and tasting flights of sake. Ascend a spiral metal staircase to enter Bird/56, an intimate jazz bar on the third floor of a building occupied by music bars.
And end the night at the Misono Building, a past-its-prime entertainment complex where the second floor has been taken over by a tribe of tiny, eccentric bars, like Tenku Kissa, a trippy dive with faux foliage, woven webs and an amiable bartender going drink for drink with patrons.
10am: Market haul
Osaka has been a commercial hub since the Edo era and the abundance of top-notch Japanese food products that passes through the city daily can be conveniently sampled on a stroll through Kuromon Ichiba Market. This covered food market, stretching longer than five football fields, caters not only to local chefs and residents but also to hungry tourists who can purchase fresh products – giant crab legs, Kobe beef, white strawberries, spindly sea urchins – and have dishes prepared to order for immediate consumption. One must-try is an “octo-pop”: bright-red baby octopus stuffed with a quail egg, on a stick (280 yen).
1pm: Water World
Ease into the afternoon in the steaming saunas, baths and swimming pools of Spa World, an eight-floor theme park dedicated to bathing. In addition to traditional Japanese cypress wood “onsen” or natural hot springs, this aquatic complex boasts family-friendly swimming pools, waterslides and more than a dozen themed baths on two single-gender floors (the “European” and “Asian” zones). Depending on the day (designated zones change monthly), wade through a replica of Capri’s Blue Grotto and steam in a faux-Finnish log cabin or soak in a fizzy carbonated tub and relax in the resort atmosphere of a Balinese-style pool. Weekend entrance fees start at 2,700 yen for three hours.
Luxury hotels, mid-range business properties and city-centre hostels have been opening at a rapid clip to accommodate the uptick in travelers. One budget-friendly newcomer is the Dorm Hostel Osaka (1-12-20 Higashi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku; 81-6-4708-7441; from 3,800 yen), which opened in late 2016 in the central Shinsaibashi neighborhood. At this collegiate hostel, a laid-back library lounge leads to mixed and female-only dormitories, accommodating up to 60 guests in roomy bunks with comfortable Nishikawa Living mattresses.
For a splurge, consider the Ritz-Carlton Osaka (2-5-25 Umeda, Kita-ku; 81-6-6343-7000; from about 28,000 yen). The city’s grande dame hotel, located near Umeda station, offers 291 plush rooms, over-the-top suites, an indoor pool and restaurants serving Japanese, Cantonese, French and Italian cuisine.
By Ingrid K Williams © 2017 The New York Times