Ahead of Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup this year, and the Summer Olympics next year, and with a new direct flight from London with British Airways, we spend some time in Japan's capital for all that makes you feel good; Osaka.
Despite the fact that Japan officially opened its borders to foreigners in 1853, when the Americans stormed Edo, as Tokyo was then known, in its fleet of black ships, there is a saying amongst those who have been travelling to Japan in more recent decades; that it really only opened up to foreigners for the 2002 football world cup.
It was this event that saw hotels teach their staff in English, restaurants print Western menus, and guidebook writers descend on the cities and towns, all keen to direct tourists around a country that was viewed as about as alien as you could get from Europe or America.
The following year, Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation came out, and that was it. Everyone was hooked on visiting Japan. In fact, in 1995, they had 3.3 million visitors. In 2018, that had risen to 31 million. By 2020 it is predicted to have hit 40 million.
And as more people arrive, the tourist trails expand. People venture beyond Tokyo into the surrounding prefectures in search of something truly authentic. And as far as cities in Japan that feel ‘authentic’ go, Osaka has to be number one.
It lies only 15 minutes by bullet train from Kyoto (Japan’s ancient capital famed for its rickety wooden buildings and geisha) and feels a million miles from sterile Tokyo and its salarymen. Osaka is known as the city where Japan lets its hair down. It is also the country’s food capital.
Osaka is an industrial town – a port city on Honshu island with factories and power plants on the outskirts and financial skyscrapers in the middle – separated by a belt of grey suburbia that stretches as far as the eye can see. But don’t let that put you off, it was voted the third most liveable city in the world in 2018 by The Economist.
It’s full of quirky restaurants, high-end cocktail bars, nightclubs galore, and classical theatre – and offers some of the best shopping in Japan, from vintage to designer, electronics to antiques.
And the best bit? British Airways has just started operating a route from London to Osaka four times a week – with a flight time of 11 hours and 30 minutes to travel the 5,909 miles, and return seats from just £569 in economy, £960 in Premium and £2030 in Business on a B787-8 Dreamliner, it is the perfect reason to visit.
Here Candid Magazine provides a guide for what to see, do, eat, drink and where to sleep for 48 hours in Osaka.
What to see
Dotonbori: This is the city’s main tourist drag. Take a 30 minute guided boat ride down the canal and see more neon signs in one place than you thought possible. It’s also the street food hub of the city, known as the ‘kitchen of Japan’, where you can try specialities including kushikatsu, which is skewered meat in seaweed coated in bread crumbs on a bamboo stick, or cabbage pancakes known as okonomiyaki, or Takoyaki, Osaka’s street food mainstay which consists of octopus, ginger and spring onions in battered flour balls. And the best way to experience the food here is to plunge in – sign fronts covered in huge robot crabs or floating puffa fish invite you through tiny doorways to culinary adventures. And remember, the longer the queue, the better the prize.
Shinsaibashi: This is where to head for shopping (and remember to bring your passport for tax free prices, saving around 7% on all purchases). One side of this neighbourhood is infinitely long covered parades, where you can find everything from limited release Nike trainers to bargain vintage Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags from small, quirky vendors. The other side of the neighbourhood has all the designer shops you could ever dream of; Miu Miu, Gucci and Mulberry – some of which produce clothes and accessories just for the Japanese market – the perfect excuse for some impulse buys.
Osaka Castle: A must on any tourist itinerary, Osaka castle is a gleaming white and pink traditional square Japanese castle, originally constructed in the late 1500s by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It eventually fell into the hands of the Tokugawa Clan, the last of the shogunates of Feudal-era Japan. Although the castle – as with many of the historical buildings in a country prone to earthquakes – has much been rebuilt over the centuries, inside it houses historical exhibitions and its gardens are famous for their plum blossom.
Kuromon Ichiba Market: For a taste of what shopping and dining was like fifty years ago in Japan, head to Kuromon Ichiba Market. With a reputation for one of the best markets in the country, especially famous for its sea food, it has transformed these days into a more tourist friendly spot, with wifi, rest areas, toilets, and vendors that speak some English. It is still a feast for the senses however, where you can see Japanese chefs inspect the catch of the day, and shop owners grill the freshest sea-born delicacies you’re likely to try anywhere in Japan.
Minoo National Park: Just a 30-minute train ride from Hankyu Umeda, Osaka’s main train station, is this national park. It is the perfect antidote to the bustle of the city, and filled with waterfalls and traditional temple-lined paths. The oasis of calm is great in the autumn when the maple leaves turn red – you can even eat them deep-friend from street-side vendors. It’s a great place to experience rural Japan at its prettiest.
Hozenji Temple: This temple might be tiny, but it is certainly memorable. Slap bang in the middle of the city’s entertainment district, it is great for five minutes of solitude in the middle of the neon jungle. The shrine’s main Buddha sculpture is covered in a thick layer of green moss because of the constant splashes of water thrown over him by worshippers. Don’t forget to explore the surrounding alleys of cobbled stone paths and noren-cloth covered doorways.
Explore further afield: Osaka is the perfect place to plant yourself for exploring the surrounding region, including the city of Nara, famous for its ancient temples and free-roaming deer, and Kobe where the world’s most famous beef comes from cows that are massaged daily and given beer – as well as ancient Kyoto. They’re all within just a 20 minute ride on the bullet train.
Where to eat: Japan has more three-Michelin starred restaurants than any other country in the world (the guide’s native France has 27, with Monaco included). Testament to Japan’s love of food and dedication to its perfection no doubt. Four of these are located in Osaka, and our favourite is Hajime. Tucked down a quiet side alley in the city centre, and run by the young chef Hajima Yoneda (who trained as an engineer), it is not the most traditional Japanese fare, but French-Japanese fusion food.
It’s lots of fish, fresh vegetables, Asian accompaniments, and some dishes have over 60 separate ingredients. The highlight has to be the presentation – the Japanese say ‘you eat with your eyes’ and here, everything is a work of art crafted with jewel like precision. Hajime is a visual as well as a culinary genius. Expect food full of umami, but be warned, photographs inside are banned so dishes are eaten as soon as they are served – at the optimum temperature. And with only seven tables inside, booking is well-advised.
Where to drink: For one of the chicest bars you’ve ever seen, head to Kaara. Its paired-back interior is the height of wabi-sabi minimalism, with a drinks menu to match. The knowledge of the waistcoat-clad waiters is mind-blowing, as they mix cocktails that look as beautiful as ancient Japanese ceramics. They also specialise in stocking the rarest Japanese gins and whiskies – both of which are gaining huge global attraction currently for their quality. For a while, this bar was rated the best in the country by the Japanese version of Trip Advisor.
Where to sleep: When it comes to the best hotel in Osaka, there is only one name; The Ritz Carlton. Opened in 1997 and housed in a skyscraper (all rooms are between the 24th and 37th floors) it is in the upmarket Nishi-Umeda district, surrounded by upscale shops and restaurants. Expect Rolls-Royces and Ferraris parked outside.
Inside, the hotel feels like a home from home for westerners, styled on an 18th century country manor – complete with oil paintings hanging on the wood panelling, marble floors and chandeliers. In fact, the hotel is the first in Osaka to have its own antiques collection, which extends to over 40 objects. The Western vibe is a big draw for Easterners too, who flock to the Ritz Carlton Osaka for its famous British afternoon tea.
Upstairs the 291 rooms and 50 suites are a more simple affair, with creamy, classy interiors and fresh white linens. Bathrooms are made from Italian marble with separate baths and showers, filled with Asprey products, and his and hers sinks. Rooms come with all the usual mod-cons, controllable by touch-panels throughout. The best bit however, is the view, which stretches from the city’s business district to its parks and castles, all seen from one of the highest hotels in the region.
The hotel also has a business lounge on the 36th floor with panoramic windows offering views across to Mt Ikoma, accessible to those with club access and staying in suites – and is the perfect place for a quiet complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea or pre-dinner cocktail. There is also the Ritz Carlton Boutique for souvenirs and Gourmet Shop for breads, pastries, chocolates and wines. The hotel even has its own chapel, salon, flower shop and photo studio should the wedding mood take you. It also has an ESPA spa offering a range of treatments, and a stunning pool, sauna, steam and gym complex if you feel the need for some energy to beat the jet lag.
For food, there is the sumptuous French restaurant, La Baie (which has a great wine list), the Japanese restaurant Hanagatami that offers sushi, tempura, teppanyaki, and charcoal infused samabyaki all served in traditional Japanese garden surroundings, A Cantonese restaurant called Xiang Tao which provides amazing dim sum for those wanting to look a little further east, and finally, Splendido, where some of the finest Italian food found in Japan can be sampled. All the restaurants have been revamped in the last three years, and three of them in 2019 alone, meaning the decor and menus feel fresh and on trend.
It’s also in Splendido that the hotel comes alive for breakfast, which for non-Japanese people is a great game of fun as you eat your way through a variety of traditional, and often confusing, local delicacies. For the less brave there are pastries, cooked western breakfasts and an omelette station.
The Lobby-Lounge comes alive in the day and is great for hosting guests, while The Bar is the perfect place for a night cap in the evening and where the great and the good of Osaka congregate – as well as glamorous international visitors to the city.
The hotel doesn’t share the glass-and-steel vibe of its sister residence in Kyoto, but is incredibly warm, welcoming and luxurious. It could easily become a home-from-home.
It seems then, that is no time better than now, to visit Osaka.
Words by Toby Mellors
British Airways offers four flights a week from London Heathrow to Kansai, Osaka, with prices starting from £569 in economy, £960 in Premium Economy and £2030 in Business Class.