As the spring sun begins to set, sharply dressed men and women carrying briefcases stream out of the towering skyscrapers of the Kita neighborhood, the heart of Osaka, Japan. Modern buildings house the headquarters of many Japanese firms. Pop into a sushi place for lunch, and expect to be seated next to office workers grabbing a bite on their lunch break. While it doesn’t approach Tokyo in terms of population density and urban sprawl, Osaka, and the Kita neighborhood in particular, are more concrete jungle than cozy escape.
However, the most appealing part of Osaka might be what you don’t see. You don’t see large groups of tourists shuffling behind guides carrying colorful flags. You aren’t caught on the sidewalk waiting behind a couple wearing rented kimonos, trying to get the perfect selfie. As you look around while waiting to cross a busy street, you, the tourist might appear out of place.
Osaka Makes Tour Books as a Foodie Destination
Most tour books recommend Osaka for its food and dining. If you’re a carnivore, you should know that Kobe, famous for Kobe steak, is only 33 kilometers, or about 20 miles, to the west. You can get a taste of the melt-in-your-mouth meat with dinner and a show at a teppanyaki steakhouse where your meal is prepared right in front of you on a super-hot griddle. The knives are incredibly sharp. Expect to be mesmerized by how expertly and thinly the personal chef slices and dices the vegetables before setting them before you, one at a time You too may get a confirming peek at the scars running down your chef’s forearms, reemphasizing how perilous the job can be.
Virtual Reality Arcade
Anytime of the day, Kita is a great area for shopping. Step into the HEP Five mall, and look up to see crisscrossing escalators ferrying shoppers up through seven floors of mannequins displaying hip fashions. The upper floors of HEP Five are home to VR Zone, a virtual reality arcade, and a huge red Ferris wheel that makes the building easy to identify from any corner of the city. TV screens throughout VR Zone display the wait times to play the most popular games on offer. But it seems that if you visit after 9PM, the screens are blank, lines are nonexistent, and the uniformed employees all stand around chatting with one other to pass the time until closing. (Don’t worry, they are eager to step out of their conversations to get you suited up for each game.) If a late-night visit isn’t an option for you, wait times are also displayed on the website, so you can decide if it’s worth the visit.
While there are only a handful of games offered in English, in this writer’s view, the experience is unique enough to consider a visit. Take your camera so you can snap a few pictures of your travel companions wildly flailing their arms as they inch their way down a teetering balance beam, a few inches off the ground. While the view from your end might be pretty funny, from their perspective within the VR goggles, they are stepping out onto a plank, jutting off the top of a virtual 50-story high building, to save a stranded cat.
A late-night visit to HEP Five can also make you the only ones in line for the rooftop Ferris wheel. For only 500 yen, you get a skyline view of the bright lights of the city.
Once you’re ready to brave the tourist crowds again, head to Osaka Castle, the city’s number one landmark. Here you first encounter massive stones that make up the outer walls. Wandering guides offer free tours in broken English, with illustrations and guesses as to how the original builders got these megaliths from far quarries.
From the roof of the castle, there are impressive views of the city and the manicured gardens surrounding the castle. There’s an elevator to go up, but you’ve got to take the stairs down. Holographic dioramas appear on each floor. Elbow your way to the front to see tiny, shimmering characters wearing period costumes walking around recreations of historic sights and homes. Captions below the screen explain what’s happening in the scenes above.
Some travelers cross the globe to take in the major sights, eat the most noteworthy food and stay in the most highly recommended hotels. But, if you’re hoping to get a picture of what everyday life looks like for an average Japanese city-dweller, Osaka is, in this travel writer’s view, an excellent destination. If you prefer to split the difference, considering its close proximity to Kyoto, Osaka is a great daytrip, offering a brief respite from the crowds, before you return to tick off the other major landmarks on your list.
Photos by Elizabeth Lovelady
About the Author: Elizabeth Lovelady
Elizabeth is a Chicago-based director, playwright and arts administrator. Companies she has worked with as a director include Strawdog Theatre, Babes with Blades, Wildclaw and Red Theater Chicago, where she is also a Board Member. Her adaptation of the noir film DOA, which she also directed, won the 2016 Non-Equity Jeff Award for Best Adaptation. It has since been published by Dramatic Publishing, and is regularly produced across North America. As an arts administrator, Elizabeth has worked in fundraising and development for The House Theatre
of Chicago and Theater Wit. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Directing at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Learn more at Elizabeth Lovelady website