I'm so excited to share the first in a new series! The Wanderful City Guides! I've invited a few lovely ladies to contribute to the series, and intend to see the guides grow as I meet new and interesting travelers out there in this pretty world. The goal is to share stories and destinations that are a bit different from the norm.... hidden gems, along side the famous locales as well, and things that you wouldn't necessarily find in Lonely Planet or Frommer's.
The first guide is from Brooke Larsen. Brooke's an American writer and comedian teaching English in Japan. Her guide is from Osaka, Japan! Kanpai!
Our Wanderful Guide: Brooke Larsen
Photos: Reylia Salby (and Brooke Larsen)
If Tokyo is the New York of Japan, Osaka is New Orleans - not as popular, but still historic and weird enough to draw visitors interested in the world-renowned cuisine and wild nightlife.
Osaka is the third largest city in Japan, so it is well known, but everything it’s famous for - and the city itself - is a bit... quirky. Its beloved baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, hasn’t won a series in decades, yet has fans so devoted they often strip and jump into the dirty Dotombori canal for good luck. A giant neon sign depicting a man finishing a race - an advertisement for confectionery conglomerate Glico - is a more popular photo spot than historic Osaka Castle.
The local dialect is gruff, vulgar, and often mocked and the people seen as gluttonous, talkative, and lewd (not your typical Japanese values). Not convinced of it’s charm? If strange isn’t your cup of tea, Osaka has plenty of beauty, history, and culture that makes it a worthwhile vacation spot.
Osaka is known as tenka no daidokoro, “the nation’s kitchen,” and for good reason. When people visit they come to eat (and usually leave with a few extra pounds as a souvenir). The best place to feast is Dotombori, a district that serves famed local delicacies like takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kushikatsu at every stop.
You can walk into any restaurant at random in Dotombori - if not in the entire city - and leave satisfied. The atmosphere is just as alluring as the food - giant crab, octopus, and dragon statues stretch over the entrances of street stalls and restaurants and neon advertisements colorfully reflect on the canal at night.
North of Dotombori, near labyrinthine Osaka Station, is a place called Tabe-nomi-houdai Yokocho which literally translates to “All-You-Can-Eat-and-Drink Alley.” This ingenious institution is home to 8 restaurants and costs about $30 for three hours of the best binge of your life.
Osaka City is a sprawling behemoth home to about two million people; the metropolitan area it belongs to houses about 12 million. Most of these people consider shopping a hobby, so every bit of extra space imaginable - even train platforms and underneath overpasses - is devoted to retail.
There are far too many shops in the city to even begin making a concentrated list of the best. Thankfully, Japan has thought of a way to conveniently condense commerce - the shōtengai.
Covered shopping arcades, or shotengai, are your one stop shops. These are all over Japan, but the longest one in the country just happens to be in Osaka. It’s called Tenjinbashi-suji and is almost two miles of cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, pachinko parlors, and - you guessed it! - shops. Tenjinbashi-suji stretches over multiple neighborhoods and three train stations so it’s hard to miss. There’s another large shotengai called Shinsaibashi-suji right off the Dotombori canal.
Tokyu Hands / Loft
Tokyu Hands and Loft are not the same store - they’re not even owned by the same company. However, both are delightful department stores devoted to hobbies and crafts and the wares are so innovative, useful, and adorable you can easily spend hours inside. If you’re looking to buy some unforgettable souvenirs, engage in a DIY project, or spruce up your home, stop here. There are multiple locations of both in Osaka.
Proving again that Japan is the best at one-stop shops, Biotop is a plant nursery, clothing store, beauty boutique, and cafe all in one and it’s beautiful. Biotop is located on Orange Street in Horie, a fashionable shopping district. Just look for the green, overgrown exterior - truly a sight for sore eyes in the midst of the neon and concrete sprawl.
The main hubs of Osaka are Kita (which means “north”) and Minami (“south”). Kita is home to Umeda, Kitashinchi, Tenma, and Fukushima. Minami is where you’ll find Namba (Dotombori) and Shinsaibashi. Take a train to any station sharing one of those names and you’re bound to have a good night - all are jam packed with bars, izakaya (Japanese style pubs), and 24-hour ramen shops.
While walking between bars make sure to pick up a can of beer at a combini (convenience store) since it’s legal, if not encouraged, to drink on the street.
Japan pioneers innovation, but you probably haven’t heard of the country’s greatest gift to humankind: spocha, short for the (made up) English phrase “sports challenge.” Round 1 is a chain of the best spocha in the land - these multi-story buildings house bowling alleys, skating rinks, playpens, arcades, archery, tennis, darts, billiards, bubble soccer, karaoke, and more. Oh, and there’s a bar if you choose to get drunk while engaging in dangerous physical activity. Spocha only costs about twenty bucks to do as long as you want... or at least until the sun comes up.
This tiny alley south of Dotombori is home to scores of izakaya and has been a popular nightlife spot for about 400 years. If you get the urge to pray for a safe night out, or need to purge yourself of sin after the fact, there is a temple also named Hozenji conveniently located at the end of the street.
You never know what you’re going to get at Shinsaibashi favorite L&L - the entertainment is eclectic, the food is authentic Israeli, the shisha comes in a score of flavors, and the DJs play anything you can dance to. Comedy shows hosted by ex-pat stand-up group ROR regularly take place in the basement (in English!) and the beloved manager’s catch phrase is a play on onegaitashimasu, the polite form of please: “onegai touch my ass.” What’s not to love?
The first video game bar opened by a non-Japanese resident of Osaka, Space Station is popular with locals and tourists alike. It’s home to a number of consoles, hundreds of games, and decor and cocktails inspired by characters you know and love, like Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter's Zangeif. If you’re lucky you might catch a chiptunes event, which, if you don’t know, features 8-bit electronic music created using a vintage console. Space Station is just a two minute walk from L&L.
So there's your list! I'm hoping to hear from you all as you plan your road trips and ocean hopping journeys of 2016 as well! Big thanks to Brooke (and Reylia, for the photos) for being my first wanderful guide!