Despite it’s reputation for being big, grungy and dirty, exploring beneath the surface Osaka is like a doll. She is baby-cute, unpredictable and mischievous. Commercial centre of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto region, and third largest city in the country, Osaka is loved by many as being more free-sprited and less conservative than other mega cities in Japan. It also has an excellent transport system and is easy to get around, once I learned that everything revolves around Namba station.
Namba is city central – the place where all the train and subway lines seem to radiate from – and it’s within a short subway ride of anywhere in the city worth visiting. Shinsaibashi-suji shopping street in the Minami area runs directly north from Namba station. As in much of Japan nothing seems to open before 10 in the morning except coffee and noodle shops and, I’m sorry, but coffee has a long way to go in much of Japan. Hence, every morning I was a regular at Shinsaibashi’s Starbucks, where I would enjoy a pretty reasonable coffee and a pastry before getting on with my day. “Ah, the cinnamon scroll lady,” the girls would giggle, bowing politely, as I walked in each morning. “And a flat white for you this morning?” I loved these girls.
My preferred window seat overlooked the Nagahori Street intersection which would ebb and flow with surges of commuters coming up from the subway. Delivery guys on bikes piled high with cartons would weave their way through the crowds, bells ringing incessantly. Sometimes an elderly geisha, still in her kimono and wooden jandals would shuffle past on her way home, hunched over and watching the ground as she walked. These were always heart-stopping moments for me – something so intriguing and foreign to my western mind. By the end of breakfast the commuters would have moved on and the place would be the quietest I would see it until the following morning.
Shinsaibashi is just one of the ‘shopping streets’ in central Osaka. Somewhat like a mall on the move, they are single lane roads, traffic-free except for the many pushbikes, covered by arcade-style roofing and are strung along several blocks, crossing whatever comes in their path. You can buy anything in these places, although some have a prevalence of one kind of store. Shinsaibashi is all about hip, young fashion – edgy bargain-priced urban clothing, bizarre colours, bo-peep dress stores. Tenjimbashi-suji shopping street is more focused on houseware and linens, while the upmarket stores and boutiques are generally found out along the open streets like Mido-suji and in the underground malls.
Kozenji-Yokocho Alley is full of traditional restaurants and bars, with more raw fish dishes than I care to mention. I’m not a great fan of raw fish, or horse meat, or raw liver, all of which are commonplace. I got smart and usually ate in the hybrid places where Japanese ingredients are used in more western style dishes and are, at least, cooked. Healthy Burgers became a favourite, noodle shops were usually OK, and occasionally sushi, although that tended to be mostly raw as well.
The Kuromon Ichiba market covers a number of blocks and serves as the central city market. You can shop for a week here, although most of the food is fresh and unpackaged so it’s better to shop daily. Whole stalls of marinated and pickled veges set the culinary tone, with others selling nothing but armloads of fresh noodles, tubs of live fish and shellfish, laden baskets of seaweed or medicinal herbs. There were tiers of cooked tempura ready to reheat – that was a favourite – and even a coffee stall with sacks of green coffee beans, with some roasted and ground. Dumpling stalls were common, as were other stalls selling strange sweet things that I could never quite identify.
There’s not a lot of English spoken in Osaka and some stall and shop owners resort to signs they keep under their counters for sad people like me who don’t speak much Japanese. ‘Try on?’, ‘Is it size?’, and ‘We can make bigger’. Of course it has to be bigger, Japanese women are generally so petite.
But my favourite time was at night, when the neon lights come on and the shopping streets zing and pulse with ultra-bright neon displays, often several storeys high. Add in the shrill voices of the girls who sell from the shopfronts, loudly enticing people inside, the insanely noisy gaming stores on every block and the sheer numbers of people who come out to strut and shop after dark, and these shopping streets are just crazy.
First published in Wild Tomato magazine in 2010