A 24-hour Japanese metropolis may conjure up images of a bleak, Bladerunner-esque, neon-lit landscape - but the reality of Osaka is a wonderful blend of the traditional and the ultra-modern
On arriving in Osaka, many people comment on the noises, sights and smells that bombard your senses, with street vendors drumming up trade, tempting noodle and sushi bars and the thundering clatter and electronic chatter of pachinko machines and video games. However, peace and tranquillity are never far away, and an underground journey to Tennoji train station will deliver you to one of Osaka’s most tranquil but largely ignored attractions.
Between Tennjoi and Shinimamiya stations are a couple of gardens, one of which is well worth a visit. Ignore the modern concrete park and head for the art museum - behind it is a fantastically well-kept traditional Japanese garden, which you will quite possibly have all to yourself. A short walk will then take you on to the Shi-Tennoji temple complex, with a wonderful pagoda and old temple buildings to explore.
Having soaked up some culture away from the crowds, you will probably be ready to throw yourself back onto the tourist trail. There are a few big attractions in Osaka: Universal Studios, Osaka castle and the Kaiyukan (aquarium). If you’re only in the city for a short time, I would recommend skipping the first two and heading straight for the aquarium.
Put all images of a few rays and the odd shark swimming round a grotty tank right out of your mind – Osaka’s aquarium is a monster. A huge escalator takes you to the top of the building and you then take a winding walk down past all manner of sea creatures, from otters and turtles to sardines and tuna (try remembering a few of the names in Japanese - it might help you out in a sushi bar later!). The aquarium can get packed on public holidays and at weekends, so avoid these times if you can.
Food and drink
As the evening approaches, it is a good time to head into the entertainment district of Shinsaibashi. Here you will see the neon that Japan is famous for, and you will be spoilt for choice with places to eat and drink. If you choose carefully, eating out can be cheap, fun and delicious, and for non-Japanese speakers, Japanese-style pubs (izakaya) are a good option. Izakaya generally have large picture menus, which makes choosing your food a little easier, and as the idea is to order lots of small dishes to share, it means you can sample a range of food without worrying if some of the dishes are not to your liking.
Drinking in Osaka requires a little more care. There is no shortage of bars, but cover charges, and hostesses (and hosts) who are there to flirt and pour your drinks, can leave a big hole in your pocket when it comes to leave. Perhaps even worse, you may end up playing it safe and spend the evening sipping overpriced Guinness in an Irish-themed pub. Get yourself organised and buy a copy of Kansai Time Out from one of the major bookshops, or pick up a free copy of Kansai Scene from one of the aforementioned Irish pubs. These will have recommendations of gaijin (foreigner) bars, where you can drink safe in the knowledge that you’re not going to be stung with a big bill at the end of the night. Very few of these bars are inhabited only by foreigners, and one of the friendliest, and a great place to meet locals, is Cinquecento. It also has a fantastic range of martinis at just 500 yen a pop (anywhere between £2.50 and £4.00, depending on exchange rates).
A day in a 24-hour city wouldn’t be complete without a night on the town, and although you could drink in bars like Cinquecento until the early hours, or move on to a karaoke box with your friends, Osaka has some fantastic nightclubs, many of which are situated in the Shinsaibashi area. Again, planning ahead is required: clubs can be hidden in basements or high up in buildings, and Osaka has a maze of unnamed streets. Get yourself a map, and check out record shops like Manhattan Records, which will have plenty of flyers advertising club nights.
Clubs tend to get going around midnight and are inevitably livelier at weekends, but places like Grand Cafe and Underlounge are open most nights of the week, and the ultra-cool Triangle has some fantastic hip-hop and house nights. For those who prefer rock and indie, the appropriately named Rock Rock bar, close to the huge Nikko Hotel in Shinsaibashi, is another friendly, all-night option. Clubs can be expensive, ranging from 1,000 yen to 3,000 yen (anywhere from £5 to £25, again depending on exchange rates) but they’ll generally throw in a couple of drinks with your entrance fee. Clubbing in Japan is an altogether more pleasant experience than in the UK, from the friendly staff and punters to the super-talented DJs, and you’re highly unlikely to come across any trouble.
As exhaustion sets in, the final place that every visitor to Osaka should sample is back where we started, between Tennoji and Shinimamiya train stations. Here, you will find a little slice of heaven hidden inside a monstrous concrete building called Spa World. From as little as 1,000 yen, you can spend up to 24 hours soaking naked in inside and outside baths. There’s a floor for the boys, a floor for the girls, and a mixed floor, where swimming costumes are worn. As well as baths, there is a pool, lazy river, various beauty treatments and places to eat and drink. What could be better after 24 hours in the city than sitting naked at a bar with a hot towel on your head, enjoying a cold beer with friends?