Today an article I wrote about Osaka was published in the travel section of the Otago Daily Times. It talks about some of my favourite places in Osaka that have been featured in past blog posts, like Dotombori, Amerika mura and Shinsekai.
You can read the article online here or after the jump...
Student and travel blogger Siobhan Downes spent a semester in
Japan's most unconventional city, Osaka.
Osaka is Japan's black sheep.
Located in the Kansai region, Japan's third-largest city
(which rises to second place during the daytime thanks to a
huge working population) is the boisterous, crude and unkempt
Often compared to big brother Tokyo, the two cities have an
ingrained tradition of rivalry.
Whereas Tokyo politely turns up its nose at Osaka, Osaka
gives Tokyo the middle finger. It's an example of Japan's
regionalism at its fiercest.
I stumbled off the bullet train at Shin-Osaka station,
dragging five months of luggage and eight years' Japanese
language study under my belt. I was to spend the semester
studying at Kansai University.
When you arrive in Osaka, the region's quirks become
immediately apparent. They say Osakans like to break the
rules, and one of the most obvious manifestations of this
logic is that people in Osaka stand on the right side of
escalators, while the rest of Japan stands on the left.
To name another transport-related peculiarity, in Tokyo, the
trains are known for their complete, courteous silence. But
as I stood meekly on my first Osaka train, the passengers
around me chattered away at full volume.
Which brought me to
another realisation - my language study until now had been
based around Tokyo-centric, standard Japanese. In Osaka, I
was faced with a strong regional dialect, with completely
different intonation and vocabulary. I could essentially
throw my textbooks out of the train window.
Kansai University is located in Suita, a city in northern
Osaka prefecture with a population about the same size as
The demographic in this area consists almost entirely of
students and elderly people. Walking along the narrow,
footpath-less road to university each morning, I jostle with
cars, trucks, motorbikes, cyclists and other pedestrians for
the same space.
Osaka is particularly known for its feisty
obaasan (grandmothers), and you can witness these old,
toothless women in their 80s riding scooters down the road at
terrifying speeds, barking at dawdling university students to
get out of the way. They own the streets and they won't stop
Although, this is true of most Osakan drivers. As one of my
Japanese friends explained, the road rules in Osaka are, "If
it's green, go. If it's yellow, still go. If it's red, go
I laughed, until I realised he wasn't joking.
Weekends are spent in the inner city, where another important
part of Osaka's culture can be found. Food. Osaka is known as
Japan's kitchen, and there is even a unique saying to
describe the culinary experience here - kuidaore, or "eat
until you collapse".
The best place to do just that is in Dotonbori, a long,
narrow street containing a high concentration of restaurants.
It is rough-and-ready, loud and tacky. A giant mechanised
crab marks the entrance to the street. Dizzyingly bright neon
signs and lanterns scream "okonomiyaki", the region's
specialty dish - a cross between a pizza and a pancake.
Osaka has a proud history as a merchant city, and these
business skills are evident even today. The restaurant
workers at Dotonbori stand on the street bellowing out
welcomes, thrusting menus into your hands, and imploring you
to enter. People are very relaxed and open to dealing with
With a characteristic Osakan sense of humour, they
target foreigners and are not afraid to test their English.
"Hey, come eat here, it's very delicious! Where are you from?
"You like Japanese food?
"Please, come inside!"
I was sufficiently charmed by one such worker, a street
vendor okonomiyaki chef who engaged me in conversation as he
cooked, every now and then pausing to shout greetings at
He was very insistent on hearing about what I thought of
Osaka, and where else I had been in Japan ("Tokyo? Why would
you wanna go there?").
I decided to show off a little of my new-found knowledge of
the Kansai dialect, and he spluttered with laughter, clapping
his hands in delight. When the okonomiyaki was ready to eat,
he yelled into the shop behind him, and his wife came
hurrying out, with chopsticks and a plate for me.
She frowned as I took my first bite.
"How is it? Did he cook it right?"
I assured her it was delicious.
"I don't like the taste of Japanese food myself. I'm Korean."
I later found out Osaka is home to Japan's largest Korean
Cross Dotonbori Bridge and soon you'll find yourself in
another unique Osaka area, Amerika-mura (America Town), a
reflection of the curious fascination that many Japanese have
As a Kiwi studying in Japan, the most frustrating question I
face on a daily basis is "Are you an American exchange
student?" and the obvious disappointment when I reply, "No.
I'm from New Zealand."
Osaka's Amerika-mura represents the ultimate in
America-worship, a conglomerate of fast-food chains, tattoo
parlours, fashion, hip-hop culture and American iconography.
The American flag is emblazoned on everything. So is Uncle
There is even a scaled-down Statue of Liberty.
The real reason to visit Amerika-mura, however, is to sit in
Triangle Park, a concrete park right in the middle of the
town, and engage in a spot of people watching.
Amerika-mura is Osaka's centre of youth rebellion, and
Japanese teenagers come to this park to parade crazy
fashions, get inked or pierced, smoke cigarettes and hang out
with friends. In a notoriously strict, group-oriented
society, Amerika-mura is one of the few places where young
people can celebrate individualism.
Further south from the sightseeing meccas of Dotonbori and
Amerika-mura is another side of Osaka altogether.
Nishinari-ku is an area that many guidebooks advise tourists
to stay clear of, a rarity in a country that is known for its
This area is home to Japan's biggest slum, a place where day
labourers, prostitutes and the homeless population can
congregate, out of sight from mainstream society.
Both the area and its people tell a story of failed dreams
and abandoned futures.
Take one of Nishinari-ku's famous neighbourhoods, Shinsekai
("The New World"), for example.
It was once Osaka's most vibrant and glamorous entertainment
district, containing an imposing structure, Tsutenkaku Tower
("Reaching Heaven" tower) that would become a symbol of
Osaka's pre-war modernism and progress.
Then World War 2 happened and Shinsekai, along with most of
Osaka, was destroyed in the relentless firebomb raids. The
tower was demolished, its steel recycled for the war effort.
Although both Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower were eventually
rebuilt after the war, the one thing that never recovered was
the neighbourhood's reputation.
These days, the covered shopping arcades of Shinsekai are
worn out, as are the people in them.
Old men spend their days sitting in darkened rooms playing
shogi, Japanese chess, and customers squeeze into cheap kushi
katsu, deep-fried skewer restaurants.
Homeless people sit quietly in the shadows of the tower.
You won't find many tourists on this side of the tracks, but
the locals are very proud of Shinsekai's history, and insist
that it's one of the few places where you can see "the real
Osaka", stuck in a time that the rest of Japan has left
This is my Osaka.
In this city the images I had of Japan are being challenged
every day; stereotypes of Japan as a homogenous, white-collar
nation simply do not hold up after visiting Osaka.
It is a loveable city, full of character. It's not
particularly beautiful - in fact, as a fellow exchange
student drily remarked, "It looks like God vomited concrete
It's gritty, brash and at times overwhelming, but it's a
learning experience like no other.
I may be here to attend university, but more than anything,
it feels like the city itself is my classroom, and the people
are my textbooks.
• Siobhan Downes is a University of Otago student of
If you go
How to get there: Fly with Air New Zealand from
Auckland to Kansai International Airport from $NZ1699 return.
From the airport, Osaka is less than an hour's train ride
Where to stay: Hotel Granvia Osaka, located above JR
Osaka Station, is right in the middle of it all. Book on
Expedia (www.expedia.co.nz) from $NZ199 per
night. For budget-conscious travellers, Japan's famous
"capsule hotels" are a unique accommodation option. Asahi
Plaza Shinsaibashi (www.asahiplaza.co.jp) in
Amerika-mura is Osaka's biggest capsule hotel.
One night's stay comes in at just under $NZ50.
Where to eat: Splurge in Dotonbori at Osaka's famous
crab restaurant, Kani Doraku. Easy to find - it's right
underneath the giant moving crab.
Alternatively, take your pick of any takoyaki or okonomiyaki
The dodgier-looking ones are usually the best. For atmosphere
as well as taste, head to one of Shinsekai's oldest and most
popular kushikatsu shops, Daruma.
It will be the one with the longest line outside.