Osaka is a centre of commerce with a reputation for bright lights, a sense of humour and plenty of good food, reports Rob Goss.

Ask Japanese people about Osaka and you’ll get similar replies. Osakans love to indulge in food. They are more outgoing than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. And they love to make a deal. That reputation is reinforced by the local dialect, with words such as kuidaore – eat until you drop – and the casual Osakan greeting, mokarimakka—are you making money? Traditionally, that’s met with a cagey bochi bochi denna – so so.

Home to 2.7 million people – almost nine million if you count the entire prefecture – Osaka has business running through its veins. Roughly 500km west of Tokyo, the city grew as a major centre of commerce in the Edo era (1603-1868), and developed industrially in the Meiji era (1868-1912). Today, as a vibrant regional business hub, Osaka is home to the headquarters of Japanese multinationals including Panasonic and Sharp, not to mention a slew of less internationally known but equally influential businesses – drinks giant Suntory, general trading company Itochu and construction firm Daiwa House, to name a few.

According to data from the city government-related Invest Osaka, in all, Osaka City is home to just under 180,000 places of business and accounts for 4 per cent of Japan’s GDP. The wider Kansai region, which also includes the cities of Kobe (35km west) and Kyoto (55km north) but has Osaka at its heart, contributes 15.5 per cent. In terms of industry, manufacturing plays a major role in the Osaka and Kansai economy – “businesses make everything from toothbrushes to rockets”, is how Invest Osaka puts it in its guide to the city – and there are numerous businesses related to the environment, energy, the internet of things, robot technologies, and health and medical services.

For Chris King, a UK businessperson based in Osaka whose projects include Food Tours Japan, the city also has great potential for entrepreneurs. The Osaka Innovation Hub, which is backed by the local government, estimates that it is home to 1,000 early-stage start-ups. “Osaka is a merchant city where small business has always thrived, and continues to do so,” King says. “I think Osakans’ warmth, friendliness and good-humoured nature has much to do with historically viewing everyone as a potential customer. It’s a great city to live in and the cost of doing business here is very favourable.”

In 2019, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Osaka as the world’s third safest and fourth most-liveable city based on several factors, including quality of healthcare, education, infrastructure and stability. According to Numbeo, which compares some six million prices in 9,300 cities worldwide, consumer prices are on average 4 per cent cheaper and rents 40 per cent cheaper than in Tokyo.

High Energy  

The heart of Osaka City can be thought of as roughly being divided into three main urban hubs – Kita (north) and Minami (south), plus the small Honmachi area between them. The north, centred on the busy, high-rise Umeda neighbourhood and Osaka Station, is the city’s main business and hotel district, as well as being home to department stores, bars and restaurants. The south’s lively Shinsaibashi and Namba neighbourhoods are mostly about entertainment – the crowded streets here epitomise Osaka’s high-energy, fun-loving, neon-illuminated reputation. Around that core, you also have Shin-Osaka (where the bullet train station is located) north of Kita and several other areas.

Like Japan’s other big cities – and Osaka is the third biggest by population, behind Tokyo and Yokohama – Osaka frequently feels like it is under constant redevelopment. With the Osaka Expo 2025 on the horizon, and, with it, an estimated 28 million additional visitors expected during the 184-day event, construction is set to move up another gear.

“In the whole city, there will be more parks, cultural facilities and hotels ahead of the Expo,” says Asako Onoyama, chief concierge at the Intercontinental Osaka, a 272-room property located by Osaka Station. “There’s already a lot happening in our neighbourhood in Umeda.” Starting with the creation of Grand Front Osaka – a multi-purpose complex adjoining the Intercontinental that opened in 2013 – the ongoing Umekita development project is seeing the area immediately north of the station go through substantial changes, including the current creation of an eight-hectare green space. Another major project nearby is the reconstruction of Hanshin Department Store and Shin-Hankyu Building, set for completion in 2022. It will be a 38-storey multi-use complex with zones for department stores, offices and conference facilities.

Hotel openings 

In terms of places to stay, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reports that from the end of 2018 through to 2021, Osaka will see a 32 per cent increase in hotel rooms, in line with the Japanese government’s aim to attract 60 million foreign visitors to the country annually by 2030. One new property, which opened late last year, is a 193-room Courtyard by Marriott in Honmachi. Another is the four-star, 150-room Royal Classic in the heart of Namba, which incorporates an old kabuki theatre in its façade. This month sees the opening of E-Zone, a sports video game-themed hotel, with 94 beds and 70 high-spec gaming machines spread across nine floors – perhaps not the obvious choice for a business trip, but certainly different.

A spokesperson for the Osaka Convention and Visitor Bureau says Osaka will be getting an extra dose of luxury from the same company that runs the five-star Palace Hotel in Tokyo. “The Zentis Osaka is to be built along the Dojima River and will overlook Nakanoshima island, which hosts the Central Public Hall, one of the iconic retro buildings here in Osaka,” the spokesperson says. “It is just a ten- to 12-minute walk from Osaka Station. When it opens in early summer, it will have 212 rooms, as well as suite rooms, and the 14th to 16th floors will host rentable apartment-styled accommodation.”

A place to meet 

Until the outbreak of Covid-19, the city’s international air links had been getting a boost. ANA flies daily from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda with onward connections to both airports in Osaka. Since last year, British Airways has operated a four-times weekly Heathrow-Osaka service, using a B787-8 Dreamliner, a route it had not served since 1998. Swiss introduced a five-times weekly Zurich service last month and Qatar Airways was planning to operate five flights a week from Doha from this month. In the current crisis, many of these services have been suspended.

When life returns to normality, these developments should help with Osaka’s efforts to build its meetings and events industry, a sector it is keen to bolster. “There is a developing trend for cities to create ‘all-in-one’ convention centre and meeting spaces,” says a spokesperson at the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau. “However, in the case of Osaka, both the Osaka International Convention Centre and Intex Osaka [two of the city’s main facilities] are relatively far away from one other. This makes it hard to allow for such joint, integrated operation. That being said, with the huge opportunity posed by the likely arrival of integrated resorts to Osaka, we expect brand new facilities that we will be able to use to promote MICE [meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions], making us more competitive on both a national and global scale.”

Osaka has also produced a MICE catalogue that highlights many of the pre- and post-conference experiences available. These include performances of and workshops on traditional Noh dance-drama and taiko drumming, ninja experiences, and Japanese cooking classes. If you are going to learn to cook Japanese food, where better than Osaka? Osaka loves to make a deal, but also to eat and have a good time.


“Osaka is a foodie’s paradise. There’s great street food, but also fine dining. For something special, I’d recommend a category called kappo,” says Asako Onoyama, chief concierge at the Intercontinental Osaka. “Focused on high-quality seasonal ingredients and multiple small dishes, it’s omakase style – the chefs talk to you to find out what you like and then decide what to cook for you.” As part of the hotel’s Foodies in Osaka plan, Onoyama can organise a night at one of Osaka’s kappo restaurants.

Chris King, who runs Food Tours Japan, says: “If you want a really local experience and feel like exploring, go to the Ura-Namba neighbourhood [near Namba]. It has the most atmospheric streets brimming with tachinomiya [standing bars] – a real local vibe.”

With a couple of hours to kill, King also suggests a trip to the Kuromon market (9am-6pm daily). A five-minute walk from Namba, there are roughly 200 fishmongers, grocers and small restaurants where you can grab a casual bite to eat – such as a bowl of rice topped with fresh raw tuna, salmon and other seafood (1,500/£11.50), or with grilled wagyu beef (2,000 /£15).