08:00: Osaka may be considered Japan’s second city in many ways but when it comes to urban sprawl it has just about as many flashing neon signs, packed trains, and towering skyscrapers as that found in Tokyo. For an idea of how things used to be, start your day by heading over to Osaka Castle, nearly an oasis of serenity in the center of this city of 2.6 million people. Around the grounds, paths wind beneath cherry trees, near the moats, and up to the imposing stone walls that surround the structure. Osaka Castle Museum includes displays that feature the history of castle, which was originally constructed by warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-1598), elaborate samurai armor and helmets, and a top-floor observation deck. The area surrounding the compound also offers no shortage of vendors peddling grilled mochi (rice cakes) wrapped in nori (seaweed) and piping-hot red bean cakes.
10:00: A bit north, near Osaka Station, is the 173-meter-tall, twin-towered Umeda Sky Building provides views of the city from its Floating Garden Observatory. The access to this perch creates a setting similar to an episode from “The Jetsons,” requiring use of a quick-moving elevator and then a pair of glass-walled escalators that are suspended just below the circular observatory. From this platform, 360-degree panoramas unfold and include the castle you just left to the southeast.
12:00: For lunch, try the Umeda branch of the famous noodle chain Ippudo. As is the case with all Ippudo shops, this outlet (Tel: 06-6363-3777) offers Hakata-style ramen (tonkotsu), characterized by a heavy, pork-broth soup and slices of chashu (simmered pork). Since it is a popular location, be prepared to wait a few minutes in line — and order the “set” version that includes a side of gyoza if grilled dumplings are to your liking.
13:00: The Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street is a lively 2.6-kilometer roofed arcade, making it the longest in Japan. Start by taking a stroll through the gravel compound of Tenmangu Shrine, the focus of one of the country’s most boisterous festivals occurring each July 25. Then continue north and browse through the over 600 shops jammed with cutlery, confectioneries, used books, sundry goods, and stationery. For a break, stop in at Zuko (Tel: 06-6353-8506), a quaint café where the sharply dressed proprietor serves up handmade cakes to go with the coffee.15:00: The 1970 World Exposition in Osaka was a landmark event, offering exhibits of early wireless phones and capsule hotels and hosted the first IMAX film screening. On that site, in Suita City, about 15 kilometers north of Osaka Station, the 260-hectare Expo ’70 Commemorative Park was constructed. Take a walk through one of the park’s two gardens and don’t miss the Steel Pavilion, which was reopened last year and includes a gallery space and the original music hall that boasted then cutting-edge “stereophonic” sound. The event’s centerpiece was the sculpture “Taiyo no To” (Tower of the Sun) by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto. The 70-meter tall structure, featuring three monstrous faces set within a pair of wings that span over 50 meters from end to end, has been preserved in all its glory at the park.
18:00: Moving south, the Den Den Town shopping area (www.denden-town.or.jp) is Osaka’s answer to Tokyo’s Akihabara district. The shops and boutiques here are frequented by subculture hobbyists interested in gadgets, comics, erotic anime DVDs, and electronics. Take note that the merchants are generally not opposed to haggling over prices. To get a feel for the eccentric vibe, hit up Café Doll, a “maid café” in which the female servers are attired in frilly dresses and numerous other fantasy-related costumes.
20:00: Within walking distance is the Dotonbori area, the city’s top entertainment district. The murky canal that splits the quarter will see drunken revelers take the plunge following big-name sporting events. For you, photos snapped in front of the large Glico sign, displaying the candy company’s runner mascot, should suffice. The area is known for its numerous outdoor stands serving takoyaki (battered and grilled octopus). But for a sit-down meal, the crab dishes at the main branch of Kani Doraku (Tel: 06-6211-8975) are also popular choices. Settle back from a seat that overlooks the water and order a course meal, which will include boiled crab, salad, and soup — your delicious reward for a job well done.
Note: This report originally appeared in CNN Traveller magazine in the March/April 2011 issue.