09 July 2016

Osaka Sights: Day & Night

I realised that, despite having posted about a few things around Osaka, such as Universal Studios, the suburb of Sakai, and the Taishi Shotoe festival of lights, I hadn't actually posted anything about Osaka city itself yet. Although I spent far more time exploring other parts of the Kansai region during my stay in Osaka, I think it's worth mentioning a handful of things I visited in central Osaka. Although I didn't do all of these things in one day, this could easily be a one-day itinerary for a day and evening in the city.

Osaka Castle
Every Japanese city worth its salt has a castle and Osaka is no exception. Having said that, I think Osaka's is certainly one of the best, boasting not only a huge moat and extensive grounds with gates, turrets, and huge stone walls, but also an excellent and informative museum within the castle itself, and a viewing platform on the top floor, which affords views of the urban metropolis that is been built up around the castle.

The moat separated the castle from its urban surroundings

The castle boasts impressive gold ornamentation

Although the current castle is a 20th century reconstruction, the origins of the castle lie in the 16th century, and the museum inside the castle is dedicated to this history. The museum contains artefacts relating to the museum's history, ranging from armour to folding screens illustrating battles that surrounded the castle.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi began construction of the castle in 1583, on the former grounds of a large temple called Ishiyama Honganji. Much of the museum is dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi's era, and a whole floor is dedicated to the Summer War of 1615 during which the castle fell into the hands of the Tokugawa shogunate. The exhibition area uses the folding screen as a starting point to tell the story, explaining certain sections of the screen in more detail with blown-up versions of the images and figurines.

The top floor of the castle offers a 360 degree view around the castle, including its surrounding grounds and the modern high rise buildings that lay beyond.

If you are visiting the castle and its grounds I would leave at least 2 hours to do so. You could even spend longer there if it's a nice day (as I'm sure you can tell from the photos, it wasn't when I went!) and have lunch in the grounds. There are various stalls selling food and snacks such as takoyaki. The castle grounds are particularly popular during cherry blossom season, when the park is filled with the attractive pink flowers.

Osaka Museum of History
The museum is a stone's throw away from the castle, and you can buy a combination ticket if you are visiting both on the same day, which will save you a few yen.

Osaka Museum of History as seen from Osaka Castle Park

As I've found with many museums in Japan, the route of the permanent exhibition starts from the top floor and works its way down. The top floor is dedicated to the Naniwa Palace, a palace that was built in Osaka during the city's early history. It acted as the country's seat of government before capitals were later established in Nara and Kyoto. There is a reconstruction of the interior of the palace on the top floor of the museum, and you can also see the original site of the palace from the museum's huge glass windows, which offer views across the city from various floors.

Replicas of the palace's vermillion pillars

Mannequins in period court dress

The site of the palace as viewed from the museum

Each floor of the museum works its way towards the present chronologically, via the Edo period to the modern period. During the Edo period Osaka became one of the largest cities in Japan: it was a busy port city and also developed a culture of Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet theatre) theatres. Today Japan's National Bunraku Theatre is located in Osaka, in the Dotonburi area, which I will mention again later in this post.

Osaka was a major port town in the Edo period

The final floor dedicated to the city's history allows you to walk through Osaka in the modern era, recreated using slightly creepy looking white plaster mannequins.

This is a pretty good museum with enough English information to learn a good deal about the rich history of one of Japan's oldest and largest cities. It is definitely worth a visit to explore Osaka's past, which isn't immediately obvious from its current appearance as a hectic urban metropolis. It's a fairly new museum (opening in 2003) and seemed to be popular with both tourists and locals alike.

Dotonburi is a popular tourist street which runs parallel to the canal of the same name, and is a great spot to watch the city go from day to night, as the street comes alive with hundreds of neon signs. The area is, as I mentioned earlier, the historical centre of Osaka's theatre culture, and still has theatres today. Although I didn't visit a theatre in the area, I did visit the Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum. Ukiyo-e broadly speaking are wood block prints produced during the Edo period, and those produced in Osaka were generally of Kabuki actors. I love ukiyoe so the museum for me was a must-see, but I was slightly disappointed at how small it was and how limited the English explanations were. So perhaps this is one for those with a particular interest in these kinds of prints. I think next time I visit the Dotonburi area I will go to the Konamon Museum instead which is dedicated to Osaka's gastronomic history as an area famous for okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) and takoyaki (octopus balls). The museum is free, looks like fun and has a giant octopus on the front so I simply can't imagine it being disappointing!

The Dotonburi street itself is chock-a-block with food vendors, selling all the things you'd expect in Osaka, including okonomyaki, takoyaki, ramen and even the deadly pufferfish, 'fugu' if you dare. You can snack on different specialities from various vendors as you walk along the street, or you can have a sit-down meal if you prefer.


The restaurant signs are over-the-top!

Karaoke, Okonomyaki

The view of Dotonburi canal

Neon signs above the night-time crowds... like Piccadilly circus but on a much larger scale!

Feeling thirsty?

I really enjoyed walking through this area on a couple of evenings, but it also made me realise how glad I was not to have stayed in central Osaka for the month I was there. I don't enjoy walking out the door into throngs of tourists and commuters every day, and this part of town always seems to be busy and certainly never sleeps!

Smoke House Ape
Osaka, as you would expect from a big city, has plenty of choice in terms of places to drink. I don't go to bars that often, but when I do, I do enjoy going to a place that takes pride in the drink and food it offers, and has an ambience that's a bit more interesting than one created by music and sofas that could just as easily be found in your local generic coffee shop chain. Craft beer pub Smoke House Ape definitely offers something more and is ideal for the more curious drinker.

Found on the first floor of a building opposite JR Namba station, this is a small but perfectly shaped bar which also boasts a balcony: great for people-watching with a beer on a fine evening. As the name suggests, the food from the kitchen is smoked in-house. Sadly as I came here straight after dinner I didn't try the food! But I would love to come back here the next time I'm in Osaka and arrive with a hungry belly.

The beer selection is impressive and not only covers local brews from the Kansai region and from around Japan, but also from around the world (the selection varies regularly). Whether you want to go for a lager, ale, porter or IPA, there'll be something interesting on the menu. The evening I went I had a super-local IPA from Minoh Beer, Osaka, and a gose-style beer from the Ushitaru Brewery / Kyoto Brewing Co. The latter was quite sour and fruity and not like anything I'd had before. The beer shown below is actually Fist City Chicago Pale Ale, which wasn't my drink but the glass was more attractive than mine so of course I had to take a photo!

A corner of the bar's balcony

Bottoms up!

There really is a lot to explore in Osaka. The city certainly has its own character and is distinct from other Japanese cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo. I hope to spend a few more days in Osaka before I finally leave Japan next year.

Have you ever been to Osaka? What other sights should I visit?

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