Every trip does not have to be about ticking off a sightseeing list. Some of the best destinations are seen by getting under its skin to experience it like a local -- and a visit to Osaka, Japanese’s third largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama, is a prime example. While it does have a national art museum, a castle and an aquarium, really discovering this city is a lesson in experiential travel. Chowing down on local dishes and enjoying a beer with boisterous, good-humoured Osakans at the baseball will teach you more about Japanese culture than any museum or temple.
People who live in Osaka tend to shed the conservatism that is found elsewhere in Japan -- perhaps owing to its prosperity as an arts, theatre and cultural hub at one time -- and the first place you will notice this is on the subway. Elderly ladies laugh together sweetly, teenagers stand in groups and poke fun at each other while businessman bark angrily on cell phones in animated discussion. Bucking the Japanese train etiquette seen elsewhere in the country, passengers do not speak in hushed tones while staring at the ground and the no-cell phone sign is rarely adhered to. Osakans are full of life and down-to-earth, so whether you are dining out, grabbing a beer or just asking for directions, you will find that it is easy to strike up a conversation with the city’s friendly and forward locals.
Eat and be merry
Osaka is known as the food capital of Japan with fresh seafood from Osaka Bay and produce from the surrounding mountains, and was referred to as 'Japan's kitchen' during the Edo Period (1601-1867) as essential goods were sent here from all over the country to be shipped worldwide from its busy port.
Osakans are passionate about feasting and even have their own expression to describe it, kuidaore: 'to eat oneself bankrupt'. There are plenty of places to gorge yourself in the city, and while Osaka does have an abundance of high-end international and Japanese dining options, most will not have you filing for bankruptcy just yet. The city is known for its traditional cheap eats and any trip to Osaka would not be complete without sampling what’s on offer.
Takoyaki (dumplings filled with octopus) is a delicacy that originated in Osaka, and you will find little takeaway shopfronts throughout the city, with the best in the Dotombori district in minami (the south of the city). Order yourself half-a-dozen takoyaki topped with mayonnaise and a thick sauce similar to Worcestershire, stab one with your toothpick and shovel it into your mouth. Chomping into one of these piping hot dumplings will inevitably have you scalding the roof of your mouth, but it is all part of the experience.
Okonomiyaki, a savoury-style pancake that translates roughly to 'as you like it', is another Osakan favourite. It can be made with a variety of ingredients which, when done Osaka-style, are all scrambled together with batter and cabbage before hitting the grill. Choose your own ingredients from tender squid, plump prawns or juicy pork, topped off with bonito (fish) flakes, a thick brown okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise. The best spots to try okonomiyaki are the tiny 'mom and pop' operations that are full of history and authentic atmosphere, where you will feel as though you are dining in someone’s home. Try popular Tengu (Toyosaki 3-15-19; 06-6372-7676) near Nakatsu station. Or jump off at Dobutsuen Mae station on the Midosuji and Sakaisuji lines, head into the covered arcade and ask around for one of the best okonomiyaki spots in the city -- Chitose (06-6631-6002).
Tokyo may be known for its neon and nightlife, but Osaka has its own slice of madness -- and it is called Dotombori. All the action in this southern district concentrates around the Dotombori canal, Dotombori street and on the Ebisubashi bridge. It is best explored on a weekend once the sun goes down, when it takes on a B-grade horror movie atmosphere with giant mechanical moving crabs, oversized hot dogs, puffer fish and cows hanging overhead from buildings among flashing neon and coloured billboards. On ground level, crowds wander the strip taking snaps of convincing plastic food models in front of restaurants, hawkers squeal about meal deals and spiky bleached-blonde Japanese men in suits attempt to woo young women to the 'host' bars nearby (male versions of the hostess bar). Come here to take it all in, grab a cheap ramen (noodle dish in broth) from the open-air 24-hour Kinryu Ramen street stall (Dotombori 1-7-26; 06-6211-3999; you can’t miss the giant dragons on the roof) and people-watch for hours.
Beer and baseball
Two things close to many Osakans’ hearts, and essential pursuits for any stopover in this town, are beer and baseball. The summer season from June to September sees beer gardens popping up all over the city, typically located on rooftops of hotel buildings like the Ramada and department stores like Hanshin. Usually the offer is all you can drink (nomihodai) (beer and spirits, but most opt for large frothy lagers) and eat (tabehodai) for about 3,500 yen – guaranteeing a rowdy night out.
Another good spot for experiencing the city’s spirit is at a baseball game during the March to October season where locals are at the height of their boisterousness. The majority of Osakans are Hanshin Tiger fans and are known as the country’s most dedicated and fanatical fans. Catch baseball fever at a game at Koshien stadium, a 20-minute train ride from Osaka on the Kobe line, and hang out with fans amid of barrage of chants, trumpets, Tigers flags waving in the air and thousands of balloons being released at the seventh inning.