Ancient palaces, soaring skyscrapers and slot-machine dens are among the attractions for visitors to Japan’s third-largest city. Mark Caswell explores the many faces of modern Osaka
1. SHIN UMEDA CITY AND THE FLOATING GARDEN OBSERVATORY
Located within the Kita district of the city and adjacent to the Westin Osaka, Shin Umeda City is effectively two 173 metre-high skyscrapers connected at the top by an open-air observation platform known as “the floating garden”. The idea behind the name comes from the fact that, as mirrored-glass buildings reflect the landscape of the surrounding city, the observatory looks as though it is floating in the sky. The 360-degree views from the top (and the glass elevator which transports you there) are spectacular, especially at night. It can get pretty windy though, so make sure you take some warm clothes along with your camera. Open 10am-10.30pm daily; entrance fee is £3.30. Visit skybldg.co.jp for more information.
2. OSAKA CASTLE
Next on the route is one of Japan’s most important castles, located to the north-east of the city. Built towards the end of the 16th century by the then ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who succeeded in unifying Japan after more than a century of fighting), much of the perimeter walls and buildings have since been reconstructed. However, some original features remain, including the impressive Otemon Gate, and an enormous 60 sqm, 130-tonne block called the Octopus Stone. The main tower itself has been rebuilt on numerous occasions, following a lightning strike, fire, and damage during the Second World War, but the reproduction still gives visitors an idea of the architecture of the time, and there are great views of the city from the top of the tower. If you are lucky enough to visit in spring, you’ll find the gardens full of trees laden with cherry blossom. Open 9am-5pm; entrance to the main tower costs £2.80. Visit osakacastle.net.
3. OSAKA MUSEUM OF HISTORY
Just outside the main entrance to the castle you’ll see a modern building complex with a huge glass “globe” wedged into the bottom – this now houses the Osaka Museum of History (originally located in a building inside Osaka Castle). Starting on the tenth floor in the Nara Period (AD 710-794) you’ll work your way though Osaka’s history, including a scale model of the “Water City” during the Edo Period, and a reconstruction of the city’s bustling Dotonbori (see below). The museum is situated on the site of the seventh-century Naniwa Palace, and archeological remains of the building can be seen on the basement level. Open 9.30am-5pm (8pm on Friday, closed Tuesdays); entrance £2.80. For more details visit mus-his.city.osaka.jp.
Osaka has a population of 2.6 million (rising to 3.7 million during weekdays), and it seems like a fair proportion of them head for the Namba district during their free time. A kaleidoscopic world of neon lights, pachinko parlours (the incredibly popular slot-machine dens), food stalls, trendy shops and even trendier teenagers, Namba is an unmissable stop on any visit to Osaka. Dotonbori is the area’s most well-known street, and here you’ll find huge neon signs including a famous image of a runner crossing a finishing line – think Piccadilly Circus and Soho times ten and you’ll get some idea of the sights and sounds you can expect here. Osaka is also famous for its gastronomy, and Namba is a great place to try some of the local delicacies, including takoyaki (octopus balls), and the filling okonomiyaki (a kind of fried pancake containing anything from squid to shredded cabbage or cheese). It goes without saying Namba is best visited at night when the lights come on and the residents come out to play.
5. TEMPOZAN HARBOUR VILLAGE
Out to the west of the city and accessible via Osakako station on the Chuo underground line, Tempozan Harbour Village is a large entertainment area with plenty to keep visitors busy. There is a shopping centre, a 100 metre-high Ferris wheel, the ultra-modern Suntory Museum, with art exhibitions and an Imax theatre (reputedly the largest in the world), and a double-size version of Columbus’s Santa Maria sailing ship. The main attraction though is Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, which holds over three million gallons of water, is inhabited by over 35,000 creatures, and has 15 zones including “Antarctica”, the “Great Barrier Reef” and the “Coast of Chile”. Open 10am-8pm daily, entrance £9.50; visit kaiyukan.com.
6. SPA WORLD
Split over three floors and with room for up to 5,000 visitors, Spa World is a mega-spa facility open 24 hours a day. There is a “European” section featuring a Roman-style bathing room, a Finnish sauna and an area dedicated to the Greek mythical underwater city of Atlantis (complete with sharks and tropical fish), while the Asian floor has Balinese, Persian and Japanese-themed rooms. Note though that these floors work on a single-sex rotation system (no swimming costumes allowed), meaning that for six months, only men can visit the European section and women the Asian floor, and vice versa. However, there is a mixed-sex swimming pool area, with slides and a spa bath. Hot water for the baths (or onsens) comes from geothermal springs 900 metres below ground. The Spa World complex also has restaurants, a gym and a hotel on site. It is open around the clock except between 8.45am and 10am when it is closed for spa maintenance daily. Visit spaworld.co.jp.
For more details visit seejapan.co.uk.