Sunday, September 21, 2008

A day in Osaka

Modern Japan is definitely a materialistic society, and Osaka metropolis (大阪) is leading this trend. This is the least one can expect from a town where the traditional greeting, now slightly out-of-date, is « Mokarimakka ». An approximate translation would be « How is business? » or « Did you make any money today ? », a refreshing sincerity I found elsewhere only recently in a surprising greeting card wishing me “Big bucks and a good health” for the new Year. Osaka was, for the most of Japanese history, the economic center of the country. More than the great rival and more recently urbanized Tokyo (東京) with its villages and parks, Osaka is the quintessential Japanese town, vibrant, noisy, and very likeable.
For French or English people, the rivalry between Tokyo and Osaka regions is hard to imagine. There are of course sports duels between the baseball teams: Yomiuri Giants (読売巨人) in Tokyo and Hanshin Tigers (阪神タイガー). There is also a gap in behaviors between the exuberant Kansai dwellers, always ready to make an exhibition of themselves, and Tokyo people remaining aloof in all circumstances. The Tantei Knight Scoop (探偵ナイトスクープ) television show produced in the Kansai region is amongst the best examples of the inhabitants taste for making fun of themselves. The region also has its special Japanese dialect, Kansai-ben, quite distinct from the Edo dialect that became standard Japanese. You will be called “Aho” in Osaka, whereas you would be a “baka” in Tokyo, both words used to mean you are a fool. There are enough distinct words so that, in addition to the colorful accent, Kansai-ben can be immediately distinguished from standard Japanese.
Osaka is at the heart of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto (京阪神) region, with 18 millions inhabitants on an equivalent area to Greater Paris, with 2.6 million inhabitants in the downtown area. Called “Yamato” in the past, this plain was at the heart of Japanese history until the Shogunate moved the country administrative center to Tokyo in the 17th century. Osaka, formerly called Naniwa (難波) was even the Japanese capital in early times. The giant keyhole-shaped grave of the Emperor Nintoku (仁徳天皇, 4th century), in Sakai is one of the most impressive remains of its early history. Osaka is not only a giant warehouse, it is the birthplace of bunraku (文楽), a traditional puppet show, and had a major role in Kabuki history.
More recently, economic rivalry with Tokyo is found in the competition between Matsushita (松下, owner of Panasonic and National brands), headquartered in Osaka, and Sony, a company from the south of Tokyo. Osaka is also home to Sanyo, Sharp, Suntory, Daijin, Mizuno, and Zojirushi to quote only household names. This sounds impressive, but this very industrial city suffered a lot in the 90s crisis. The city is still considered as a place which enjoys good food: Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), Takoyaki (たこ焼) and Udon (うどん) are amongst the most famous local delicacies. We will conclude this short overview of Kansai, by mentioning that the region mainly developped around the private local trains lines, with a final result quite as convenient as the one in Tokyo.
A walk in Osaka can start in Umeda, the modern area around Osaka station. North of Osaka is the shopping center, with branches of the main Japanese department stores. In the south is the business district with modern buildings. It is a pleasant walk to Namba (難波), the heart of the city, with a few buildings dating back early 20th century. The branch of the Bank of Japan has the neo-classical style so common in Japanese government buildings, and the headquarters of Osaka Gas (大阪ガス) company, in the south, is a nice piece of 1930 architecture. The area west of the pleasant tree-lined Midosuji (御堂筋) avenue, is the most interesting.
Namba is the vibrant center of Osaka, spreading along the Dotonbori (道頓堀) River. With its original giant signs, such as the famous giant crab, this is a concentrate of Japanese consumer society, and also a convenient and very interesting shopping area. Its covered streets give it an air of provincial Japan, It is historically the entertainment center of Osaka, and used to house many kabuki theaters.
This short tour of the city could end in Tsutenkaku (通天閣), a metallic tower built in 1956 and sponsored by Hitachi. The site hosted a replica of the Eiffel tower destroyed during the war. A few minutes walk from the Ebisucho mae(恵美須町駅) subway station, this is a representative piece of «Showa» architecture, from the name of the post-war emperor. After a few years in Japan, many people enjoy the quaint atmosphere of this style mixing concrete and metal.
A tour of Osaka can be completed by a visit to Universal studio Japan, and also the superb aquarium (Kaiyukan, 海遊館). Osaka is also a good base to visit the neighboring historical towns of Kyoto and Nara(奈良), especially during Japanese Obon and Golden Week holidays, where accommodation is almost impossible to find in Kyoto, but most “Business hotels” in Osaka will be almost empty.

Practical Information

Access to Osaka : direct flights from Paris with Airfrance (1 daily flight) and most European cities. « Open jaw » tickets (onward flight to Osaka, return through Tokyo) can be very handy, and often cost no more than a regular return ticket.

Access from Tokyo: Tokaido Shinkansen Nozomi : 2h36min, 14,050 Yens, Hikari 3h07, 13750 Yens

Access to Kyoto : Keihan line (京阪線) from Yodoyabashi (淀屋橋to Keihan Sanjo (京阪三条) (51 minutes, 400 Yens), or JR line from Osaka station to Kyoto (less convenient).

Access to aquarium: Chuo-sen subway line, 7 minutes from Honcho station to Osaka Ko. transfer from the JR Loop line to Chuo line at Bentencho ou Morinomiya stations. Open from 10am to 8pm, entry Y2000 for adults. More details on

Access to Universal Studio Japan: JR Yumesakiゆめ咲線 line, Exit at « JR Universal City », 5 minutes from Nishikujo station on the JR Osaka look lne (大阪環状線). More details on

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