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Since leaving Japan, I’ve been asked several times what my favorite place in the country was — and I honestly can’t put my finger on it. I loved Japan, but I think I loved the country overall more than any particular destination within the country.
Tokyo was a great city, and it would be a great place to live for a year or so, but there was no quality that made me crazy about it. Kyoto was gorgeous, and traditional, but I’ve never been a fan of cities that seem to be dominated by the tourists more so than the locals.
But then there was Osaka. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my favorite place in Japan — but it made my heart beat a bit faster. These days, recalling my time in Japan, I feel great affection for Osaka, something that I don’t feel for anywhere else in Japan.
Well, how do I describe this city?
Tokyo is sleek and sophisticated. Kyoto is traditional and beautiful. They are perfect, immaculate representations of life in Japan.
Osaka, by contrast, is LOUD.
While both Tokyo and Kyoto can often feel like a majestically choreographed art piece set against the unblemished porcelain backdrop that is Japan, Osaka is brilliantly unpretentious by comparison. The fashion isn’t quite as on point as Tokyo. The markets are shabbier. And “sophisticated” certainly wouldn’t be the first word to come to mind.
It’s just fun. And bright. And casual.
While baseball may be America’s sport, it’s incredibly popular in Japan as well. Huge crowds stopped to watch the latest game on the screen. (Now, are we ever going to get an actual World Series? That would be interesting…)
I had seen a few goth loli (gothic Lolita/zombie Marie Antoinette) girls roaming the streets, but where do they actually buy their costumes? While wandering Dotonbori Arcade, I found myself in a costume shop filled with crazy dresses, six-inch platform shoes, crinoline miniskirts, neon tights, and wigs in every shade of the rainbow.
The shoes were pretty interesting.
Goth loli love their super-high platforms.
Next door was I guess what one might call an arcade — but instead of games, it was filled with giant photo booths where groups of girls went in to pose, then used the computer to change their makeup, hair, even their outfits!
They also had lots of crane games with seemingly unattainable prizes — like these giant spellbound teddy bears…
And then there was SANTA. Peace, Japanese Santa!
Soon the sun began to set — and I learned that visiting Osaka in the evening was one of the best decisions of my trip.
The wild and brash neighborhood of Dotonbori lights up at night with neon all over the place, easily making it the best visual spectacle I saw in Japan. The sunset was absolutely spectacular.
Even without color, though, it’s still a sight to behold.
Giant papier-mache fish dominate the streets. They’re actually signs for fugu, or pufferfish, restaurants. Fugu is actually safe to eat when prepared safely (and chefs go through extensive training in order to serve it), but it still causes occasional deaths — mostly to fishermen who don’t prepare it correctly. Read more here.
As for food somewhat less likely to kill you, Osaka has a fabulous street food scene! One thing to try is tako yaki, fried octopus balls. Believe me, they’re delicious. Okonomiyaki, a savory pancake filled with everything from pork and shrimp to vegetables, is another Osaka specialty.
But more than anything, Osaka was a city where I felt like I could relax more than anywhere else. Perhaps it was because Osaka isn’t as formal or fancy as Tokyo or Kyoto. Maybe the street food made me feel like I was in Southeast Asia. Either way, I completely fell for this neon-drenched city.
If you’re visiting Japan — and especially if you’re visiting Kyoto, a short train ride away — don’t miss Osaka. Simply don’t. Go to Dotonbori at night and you’ll be as dazzled as I was.