For better or worse, Osaka was featured in the New York Times this week, on Thursday. For better because any positive publicity for Osaka is good for tourism. For worse because the article, “36 Hours in Osaka, Japan” by Ingrid K. Williams, sends the wrong message: ESCAPE from real Osaka when you go.
What Williams missed is, real Osaka is about the people who live there and give meaning to its attractions, modern, but especially those old and traditional. Telling by her article, Williams hardly got off the beaten path. She writes next to nothing of the people, and this is disappointing. Osakans are generally warm, talkative, and welcoming. They are the kind of people who would prefer to walk you to a destination than show you where it is on one of those cheap, inadequate tourist maps.
Where does Williams want her readers to go? On a Ferris wheel–ESCAPE; to a Western-style whiskey bar with room for six customers–ESCAPE; to an art museum designed by a Westerner–ESCAPE; to isolated rooftop parks–ESCAPE; to a dark sea aquarium and observatory tower in the night sky–ESCAPE, ESCAPE; to modern hotels that feel like British country manors–ESCAPE…
Granted, these things can be found in Osaka, and they have their good points, but this is NOT what Osaka is about. Osaka is about its PEOPLE, and about the places THEY like to frequent. The only thing that saves Williams article from being a total flop, is her mentioning a few things that are more representative of modern times in this great aquapolis: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and the Hanshin Tigers. These are no-brainers though.
Where should one really try to go in Osaka? A few good rules of thumb: modern does not mean better; don’t trust tour guides from Tokyo — and perhaps most guidebooks for that. Go where Osakans like to go. Kyôbashi, Shin-Sekai, Tenjinbashi-suji shôtengai (Japan’s longest covered shopping arcade), Tennôji, Tsuruhashi, not to mention many other working class neighborhoods (shitamachi), are fabulous. Some of these places also have modern department stores and shopping malls, if that’s your thing. Enjoy areas under or around train tracks/stations, and don’t be afraid to venture out to places that are a little darker, if dirtier. You’ll be surprised by how friendly people are, how many can speak English, or will otherwise try their best at forming sentences in a second language.
Of course, I always recommend traditional theater such as bunraku and kabuki (English earphone guides usually available), and Takarazuka — all-women’s revue — is also great. The much-more earthy taishû engeki is fun, and I have to recommend rakugo, though this is not as accessible to those who can’t speak Japanese.
Finally, when you get a chance to take in the real Osaka, you will soon discover people ready to show kindness accompanied by friendly smiles and warm laughter. Just don’t forget to return the warmth and say, dômo, ôkini! (“thanks a lot” in the local dialect).
New York Times article: 36 Hours in Osaka, Japan