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If you could spend one day in any city, where would you choose? Rio de Janeiro, perhaps? How about Las Vegas? What if the question were altered to “spend your life,” instead of a day, would you still choose Rio? Would the glitz of Las Vegas still be as appealing?

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the answers to that second question do not include Rio nor Vegas. They’ve concluded you should consider living in: Auckland, Osaka, Adelaide, Wellington or Tokyo — in that order.

In its annual Global Liveability Index of 140 of the world’s major cities, the EIU considers a variety of factors in five broad categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. The pandemic had a clear effect on this year’s results, with many European cities dropping down the list due to inability to access health care.

That left my former adopted hometown of Osaka to take the competition’s silver medal for livability, and my initial response to that was, “Really?”

It’s important to note that this list only considers 140 cities in the world, and many of them are in poverty-stricken or war-torn countries. Kobe wasn’t considered, for instance, though it has a lot of the benefits of Osaka along with a pleasantly cool sea breeze in the summer. Even with that caveat, I think it’s worth drilling down a little into the categories to see how the EIU’s version of Osaka stacks up to my own experiences of living there.

Japan is stable — if you don’t count the earthquakes. You’re not likely to get mugged or burgled, and there have been fewer terrorism incidents or shootings in cities here than in many Western ones. Though they weren’t likely what the EIU meant by “stability,” we really can’t discount the negative impact that quakes, typhoons or any other forces of nature can have on quality of life. Maybe one reason why Osaka scores more highly than Tokyo on the list is that the capital is Godzilla’s main stomping grounds?

Osaka’s health care services have also been under significant strain due to waves of COVID-19 infections, but cities in Europe and the Americas have generally had a much worse time in the pandemic. As for my own experience in this area, I’ve had to see a doctor because of hay fever in Tokyo, but was able to breath easy in Osaka. Odd.

Splash of green: The area around Osaka Castle is green, but many Osakans head to the countryside for nature. | GETTY IMAGES
Splash of green: The area around Osaka Castle is green, but many Osakans head to the countryside for nature. | GETTY IMAGES

Culture and environment strikes me as a tricky category for Osaka. I think of the massive green spaces in my hometown of Glasgow, and struggle to come up with something similar in Osaka. There are certainly large green spots, such as the area around Osaka Castle, but many Osakans have to take two trains to access true nature. Once there, they’ll have to wend their way through crowds of people to find a relatively open patch of grass. (Hmm, now the hay fever thing makes more sense.)

Also, cities like London have towering cultural edifices available to the public for free. Where is Osaka’s equivalent of the British Museum or National Gallery? Osaka’s much more modest Museum of History charges ¥600 for entry.

Perhaps the EIU, like me, has a penchant for Osaka’s slightly rough-and-ready food and drinking culture. I don’t mean rough, as in “this person might stab me” (see Category 1: Stability). I mean that there’s a profusion of izakaya pubs, strangers who strike up conversations, fried octopus balls and atsukan (heated sake). I can remember sitting at one izakaya counter being pestered by an older gentleman who wanted to practice his English. I brushed him off until he tapped me on the shoulder — with a hand that was missing two fingertips.

“I am yakuza. I am your friend,” he said.

As I said, slightly rough and ready. Needless to say, I became immediately more solicitous toward the guy and his cultural ambitions.

I suppose on a global scale, Osaka’s primary and secondary education system, like the rest of Japan’s, is excellent. The city might not be famous as a hotbed of research in the way Boston or Edinburgh is, but it boasts Osaka University (which came in at No. 72 in this year’s QS World University Rankings).

I guess my impression of Osaka’s educational standards is slightly colored by an experience I had teaching at a school in a disadvantaged area of the city. The junior high kids were running wild (remember, I’m from Glasgow). Classes were often much smaller than they were supposed to be, with some kids not coming to school, and others roaming the corridors. Volunteer parents had to be called in to patrol during the school day. Maybe these are mild problems compared to disadvantaged schools in most other wealthy countries. At least no one was frisking the students for weapons at the entrance.

Osaka certainly has good infrastructure; it’s even serviced by two airports: Kansai International and Osaka International. I know this because I arrived 180 minutes before my flight at the wrong airport, but still had time to make it to the correct airport by utilizing the city’s excellent rail infrastructure.

Everyone has their own idea of “the good life.” Health care may not seem important if you are young. Education may not seem important if you aren’t planning on having children. You may desire something more specific — a community that’s tolerant or diverse, for example. If you enjoy wandering from a fried octopus vendor to a bar at midnight, while still safely making the last train home, then Osaka’s your place. You could certainly do worse than the second-most livable city in the world, even with the yakuza living next door.

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