Comparing Osaka with almost any other Japanese city is akin to likening a bloodied steak to boiled chicken.
Its people, a sassy, friendly breed, with a legendary, often ribald sense of humor, carry a swagger you don’t see elsewhere. Unlike Tokyo, where the stranger is largely ignored or, at best, banished to peripheral vision, in Osaka you are sized up: its men and women look you straight in the eye, your presence is frankly appraised.
It’s not that the Japanese, in general, are a modest people, it’s that they do not wish to appear to be immodest. Osakans, however, have no such concerns. Strong women, gregarious men — they are known for their generosity and instinctive kindness, the helping hand they unfailingly extend to visitors lost in the maze of their city streets.
In the modern era, Osaka achieved a high degree of visibility with Expo 70, its booths and fairground-like exhibits focused around sculptor Okamoto Taro’s “Tower of the Sun.” Strongly influenced by the work of the Catalan artist Joan Miro, the steel and concrete tower, a crude, bug-eyed abomination, was difficult to avoid. A similar streak of showy, devil-may-care vulgarity characterizes the entertainment districts of present-day Osaka.
As flat as a mesa, I didn’t see a single slope or incline during my entire time in the city. In summer, the air is gummy with humidity, its staleness seasoned with smells from copious amounts of food, a veritable embarrassment of offerings. Grub and booze pour out of every crevice of the city, a stream of endless preparation and consumption. Osakans have never denied their own profligacy and costly love of food. There is even a local expression, “Kyoto kidaore, Osaka kuidore,” signifying that Kyoto-ites bankrupt themselves buying kimono, while Osakans eat themselves into debt.
The roaring heart of Osaka is not its commercial center but Dotonbori: a canal and entertainment district, crammed with bars, peep shows, small theaters and karaoke joints, it is best known as a food emporium.
The two most conspicuous dishes offered by Dotonbori street vendors are takoyaki, dumplings griddle-cooked with octopus, ginger and green onions, a filling snack that can, and is, eaten at any time of the day, and okonomiyaki, a pancake mix made with shrimps, pork, mountain yams and vegetables. The preparation of the latter originated in Hiroshima, but is strongly associated with Osaka.
A particularly Osakan style of sushi is Osaka-zushi, made from layers of seaweed, fish and vinegared rice, which is prepared in wooden molds or wrapped around an omelet stuffed with pickles. Unagi (eel) is a popular dish, believed to boost stamina in the hotter months, though these days’ Japanese bred eel is becoming as rare as caviar. Another favorite is udon suki, where meat, vegetables and seafood are mixed with thick wheat-flour noodles and prepared in a piping hot broth at your table.
If there is a symbol for Dotonbori, it is the much-photographed Kani Doraku, a model of a giant crab attached to a popular restaurant of the same name, one known for joyful over-indulgence. Watching the undulating motion of its claws mesmerizes large numbers of pedestrians.
In his long essay on Japanese aesthetics, “In-ei-Raisan,” (“In Praise of Shadows”), writer Junichiro Tanizaki extolled the beauty of restrained light, but sounded a cautionary note when his thoughts turned to Osaka, where “the shadows have mostly been driven away. Even the moon, so long a delight to the Japanese, is being lost in the glare.”
At night, Dotonbori turns into a motherboard of neon billboards and digital screens. It may not be the subtlest of displays, but the purposefully cultivated vulgarity has undeniable style, one that visitors from continental Asia immediately respond to. I heard almost as much Chinese as Japanese spoken on the streets, with visitors perhaps finding a home from home, an animated equivalent of the best eating districts in their own cities. There was a kindred mood among the uninhibited Osakans and throngs of Chinese visitors tucking into the food and street life of the area with relish.
Construction along Dotonbori began in 1612, after a prosperous local merchant financed its canal as a transportation route. There were five popular theaters a few steps south of the canal, including the Naniwa-za, where the bunraku puppet theater was first performed. Boats would dock along the canal, disgorging theatergoers.
The canal is just as lively today, with cruise boats plying its waters and people congregating on Ebisu Bridge to pose in front of the area’s famous Glico running man sign . The bridge is also the point from which excited youths jump into the canal when the local baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, win a match. There was a plan a couple of years ago to turn an 800-meter stretch of the canal into an open-air swimming pool. Those who opposed the scheme pointed out the tendency of late-night revelers to urinate in the waterway, and the habit of dispatching objects like unwanted washing machines and bicycles to its depths. The plan seems to have quietly died.
Alex Kerr, a writer of great discernment, who, along with the late Donald Richie, might be considered one of the high deans of Japanese aesthetics, surprised several people by declaring Osaka his favorite city in the country, one with, “the best entertainment districts in Japan, the most lively youth neighborhoods, the most charismatic geisha madams and the most colorful gangsters.”
Color was certainly something I noticed on my first day in the city, crossing a busy road in the kitchenware district behind Nankai Nanba Station, a short walk from Dotonbori, where my boots stuck on the sticky surface, as if the asphalt had melted into a glutinous flytrap for pedestrians. Several cans of paint had fallen off the back of a truck traveling at high speed, their contents spurting over the road in a frenzy of color, creating an urban canvas not unlike a Jackson Pollock painting. It seemed somehow to embody the unbridled character of the city.
The Japanese regard Osakans as a quite different species, by no means a sub-species, but a form of life that in some unfathomable way unsettles them.
Where in places such as Tokyo and Kyoto, people make an effort to blend in, Osakans prefer to stand out. This is reflected most visibly in their dress. “Osaka,” Kerr adds, “is a riot of ill-matched color, tasteless footwear and startling hairdos.”
The most existential of Japanese cities, Osaka is not noted for the reflective nature of its people, nor for deep, troubling ruminations. If there were any poets or holy men in the city, they were buried a long time ago beneath the sidewalks of places like Dotonbori, districts that lend themselves more to droll satire than ponderous analysis.
I left the area at midnight, the pleasure zone showing little signs of winding down. Everyone, even the canal rats that grew plump on the food spillage, seemed to be having the time of their life.
Getting there: Osaka is a 2½-hour journey from Tokyo via the Nozomi Shinkansen to Shin Osaka Station. Dotonbori is a short walk from both Namba Station and Osaka Namba Station. For more information on the area, visit www.dotonbori.or.jp/en. For other information on Osaka, visit www.osaka-info.jp/en.