Published in the Financial Times.
This bustling business hub also has a slower side with historic temples and hearty food
Historically the primary seaport and mercantile capital of Japan, Osaka stagnated during the Meiji Restoration, which heralded the meteoric rise of Tokyo and the return of imperial rule. Osaka has been through a resurgence, however, and, 150 years later, residents enjoy a balance of vibrant urban life and traditional culture.
Building for the future
In the running to host World Expo 2025, Japan’s second city has embarked on several large-scale urban regeneration projects aimed at improving its prospects as a business destination and knowledge hub. The 24-hectare Umekita development project north of Osaka Station features commercial facilities including convention centres, showrooms, hotels and offices. It also has a “Knowledge Capital”, a hub that hosts start-up incubators and aims to further develop innovative technologies and services.
Other significant projects include the development of Yumeshima, a 390-hectare man-made island in Osaka Bay, as a new global tourism hub. Plans stipulate that 60 hectares will be set aside for the 2025 Expo, with 70 hectares turned into a resort facility comprising a convention centre, casino, hotels, shopping arcades and galleries.
The nation’s kitchen
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Osaka was christened “the nation’s kitchen” — not because of its cuisine but because it was overflowing with goods waiting to be shipped through its port — rather like a giant larder. Today, Osaka is famous for its B-kyu, or so-called B-level, cuisine: hearty, affordable, everyday dishes. The quality of the okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), takoyaki (octopus balls), ramen (noodle soup), soba (buckwheat noodles), kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables) and sushi is exemplary.
A large non-Japanese population — 9.1 per cent of the total number of foreigners living in Japan — means the city has a good selection of international cuisine too. Diners in search of the tastiest dishes should look out for the longest queues and join them. Kuromon Market has the freshest sushi and sashimi, alongside stalls selling T-shirts and trinkets.
Osaka’s geography is characterised by its rivers and vibrant industrial area, but it is also well connected to some fine beaches. Suma Beach, one of the most popular in the Kansai region, lies 40-60 minutes away by train from Osaka station. The beaches at Tarumi and Maiko are a short hop further out of town.
Alternatively, you can cross the world’s longest suspension bridge — the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge outside the nearby city of Kobe — which takes you to the sand at Keino Matsubara Beach on Awaji Island’s south-western shoreline.
A step back in time
The political and cultural centre of Japan until the 17th century, Osaka possesses some of the oldest and most remarkable historical sites in the country. These range from the majestic Osaka Castle, a reconstruction of the 16th-century original that initially served as the nation’s political centre, to Shitennoji, the first official Buddhist temple in Japan, constructed in AD593. Isshinji Temple contains Buddha statues made from human ashes and resin.
The city’s public transport system is convenient and efficient, consisting of under- and overground railways, buses and a single tram line. While the underground gets crowded during peak hours, the service is frequent and delays are rare — so rare in fact that passengers receive notes to take to work as proof to their bosses if their train is late.
Tokyo lies two and a half to three hours away by bullet train, while Kyoto, known for its cherry blossoms, is a 15-minute journey. Direct flights from Osaka to Beijing take three hours, two hours to Seoul and 10 hours to Sydney.
Photographs: Getty Images/iStockphoto; Alamy; Getty Images