Though Osaka has a long history, it's best known as a rollicking, progressive commercial city with the country's best dining, more shopping than you could do in a lifetime, and very friendly locals who are easily encountered in ubiquitous corner bars and eateries. Wealthy, quirky and fun-loving, Japan's third-largest city is a fascinating (and eventually exhausting) foray into neon-illuminated, crowded, pulsating and always entertaining urban delights, from fashions to food, theme parks to mega-malls.
Though a 1930s replica of the sixteenth-century original, Osaka Castle (osakacastle.net) is an impressively gabled and fortified pile surrounded by parkland; its keep has an interesting museum devoted to famous Japan-unifying shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Osaka has some temples and traditional gardens, but the other attraction most worth visiting is the Museum of Oriental Ceramics (www.moco.or.jp), one of the finest collections anywhere. Make sure to leave time for a day trip to tranquil, temple-rich Nara (narashikanko.or.jp), 30 kilometres away.
Osaka is the best destination in Japan for dining, starting with innumerable street eats that include stuffed omelette-like pancakes (okonomiyaki) and fried octopus balls (takoyaki). Unpretentious and welcoming yakitori (skewered chicken) and udon noodle bars are everywhere, and restaurants have easy-to-point photo menus. To experience a kaiseki meal – the Japanese equivalent of haute cuisine in multiple, exquisitely displayed courses – head to Kashiwaya Restaurant (relaischateaux.com), which has three Michelin stars and meals themed by season.
Osaka isn't so much about traditional sights as soaking up its exceptional urban ambience and exploring various throbbing, neon-lit neighbourhoods such as Amerika-Mura for youthful bars and stores, Den Den Town for the latest in electronic gadgetry and gingko-lined Midosuji for brand-name boutiques and upmarket style. Save kilometres-long Dotonbori-dori for an evening of street eats, souvenir shopping and stickybeaking at bemusing street fashions; at its edges, it dissolves into explore-worthy alleys.
If you have kids, head to Osaka's redeveloped waterfront entertainment that includes Universal Studios Japan (usj.co.jp), with its wild rides themed on Hollywood movies such as Jurassic Park, Jaws and Spider-Man. Also excellent is the huge eight-storey Osaka Aquarium (kaiyukan.com), whose 15 different habitats allow a look at whale sharks, penguins and giant spider crabs. Elsewhere in the city, Spa World (spaworld.co.jp) is a vastly amusing, themed hot-spring resort.
Swissotel Nankai Osaka (swissotel.com/osaka) hovers right above the fabulous bustle of Namba station, a short walk from the eye-popping eateries and nightlife of Dotonbori district. (Complimentary Friday afternoon walks, led by staff, delve into Dotonbori's shops and food scene.) Rooms have great views over Osaka; two new Japanese-style suites are worth the splurge. The hotel has a spa, swimming pool and seven dining venues, of which Minami allows you to watch a teppanyaki chef at work.
Seasonal Japan is delightful. Escape Osaka to nearby Mino Park for glorious November foliage, autumn tea ceremonies and snacks of maple-leaf tempura. During the April cherry-blossom season, Osaka Castle, Sakuranomiya Park and Expo '70 Commemorative Park have magnificent pink displays.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Swissotel Nankai Osaka.
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