Osaka's Vast Skyline
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Osaka is part "Shogun" and part "Lost in Translation." Tidy Buddhist temples rub up against modern hotels and pachinko parlors. In the center of town, the iconic Osaka Castle and its ancient moats and beautiful grounds are ringed by high-rises. Flattened during World War II, Osaka is a tangle of bridges, elevated roadways and skyscrapers, but surprisingly, Ferris wheels are also a big part of Osaka's visual signature, throbbing at night in neon color.
With 2.6 million people, Osaka is Japan's third-largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama. Another 1.5 million businesspeople and students crowd into town on weekdays. The city, located at the mouth of the Odo River on Osaka Bay, has a high energy quotient, which ticks up several notches at night when people spill into the entertainment and restaurant districts. And there are thousands of restaurants. Osaka has a longstanding reputation as "the kitchen of Japan," a culinary mecca known for its hearty cuisine. It's a city, it is joked, where people eat and go broke.
Osaka is also known for its stylish malls and shopping arcades, basically roofed shopping streets. It's a good thing some cruise ships choose to overnight here. With its many dimensions, Osaka is a town to take your time with.
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City • Hong Kong • Koh Samui • Kuala Lumpur • Langkawi • Mumbai • Nagasaki • Osaka • Saipan • Sihanoukville • Singapore
Japanese is the language, so don't count on hearing much English spoken or understood. Editor's tip: If you plan on using a taxi, it's a good idea to have your destination written in Japanese characters to show the driver.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the yen -- visit www.xe.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates. ATM's are plentiful. Credit cards are widely accepted in finer stores and restaurants. Many taxis also now accept credit cards.
Fine souvenirs include silk kimonos, porcelain and Japanese pearls. If you're thinking about taking a small gift to someone back home, there's Japanese tea, fans and the rice lotion that Sumo wrestlers rub on their bodies. Osaka is known for its vast underground shopping malls, selling anything and everything. But it also has specialized retail districts selling, for example, electronics and kitchen goods. Two noteworthy shopping destinations: The super-trendy America-Mura, or American Village, a bustling, energetic district popular with teenagers and young people, and Shinsaibashi-Suji, which is signature Osaka with its many shops, both traditional and fashionable.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the fabulous Tempozan Pier, which basically puts you smack dab in the center of Osaka's ever-developing waterfront. You can't miss the huge neon-lit Ferris wheel, said to be among the largest in the world. In advance of disembarking, passengers must go through a rigorous immigration inspection, lasting several hours and including fingerprints and photographs.
It would be easy to spend a full day in the area around the port, called Tempozan Harbor Village. Just steps from the pier, the terrific Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium is home to nearly 600 species and 30,000 marine animals that come from the Pacific Rim. You'll find Pacific white-sided dolphins from the Tasman Sea, penguins from Antarctica, giant spider crabs from Japan, green sea turtles from Cook Strait and an impressive jelly fish collection. The aquarium's headliner is a whale shark that presides over the planet's largest fish tank. Exhibits are labeled in English and Japanese. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Also nearby is the stylish Suntory Museum, which features a 3D IMAX theater and rotating exhibits of art and design based on everyday life. The museum is open 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (closed Monday). Tempozan Marketplace is loaded with souvenir shops and restaurants and a food court offering Osaka specialties like Takoyaki octopus balls, broiled blowfish and okonomiyaki, a Japanese-style pancake or pizza topped with ingredients such as red ginger, udon noodles, squid, shrimp, bean sprouts and thinly sliced pork.
Osaka has a convenient subway system (easily navigable by non-Japanese speakers), and there's a stop at Tempozan Harbor Village. It's also easy to hail a taxi on the street or at taxi stands. A cab ride from the pier to the Sony Building in Shinsaibashi, a central area of downtown for shopping and dining, costs 3,000 yen (about $30). Editor's note: It's not customary to tip your driver.
The city's best-known attraction is Osaka Castle, originally completed in 1583 and later destroyed. Today's reconstructed fortress, built in the 1930s, has a collection of exhibits related to the castle and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who first built the castle as the permanent residence of the ruler of Japan. On the eighth floor is an observation deck offering great views of the city. The extensive grounds, with 5,750 Japanese plum and cherry trees, are also worth a look. A trolley circles around Osaka Castle Park from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It costs 200 yen (roughly $2). For additional details, visit the Osaka Castle Web site.
The oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, Shitennoji, was founded in 593; today the complex, none of it original, continues to operate as an active place of worship. Based on the philosophy of Wa, or harmony in all things, the temple has formed its own sect of Buddhism with the goals of pursuing good works in the areas of education and social welfare. Beloved by the local people, Shitennoji is a model of classic temple design with its five-story pagoda; kondo, or main hall; and kodo, an assembly hall. It also has two teahouses. For more information, visit the Shitennoji Web site.
To fully appreciate Osaka's zest, explore it on foot. In addition to America-Mura and Shinsaibashi, other areas worth visiting are Tenjimbashi-Suji, the longest shopping street in Japan, and the lively Dotonbori district, noted for its nightclubs, restaurants, shops and a new promenade along Dotombori Canal. Take a cab or the subway to your destination and then wander as long as your feet will let you.
To view the bright lights of Osaka at night, take a river cruise. The Naniwa Tanken Cruise and Osaka River Cruise pass under 48 bridges during a one-and-a-half hour tour in Dotonbori, the city's liveliest nightlife district. Cruises depart from Minato-Machi River Place.
Been There, Done That
The nine-acre Universal Studios Japan, like its two sister parks in the U.S., offers a variety of shows, rides, restaurants and attractions. Missing home? Check out the Land of Oz, Water World and Jurassic Park. A one-day pass costs 5,000 yen (about $50).
Ferris wheel ride, anyone? This town loves Ferris wheels. Check out the rides at Tempozan Pier and on top of Umeda Mall.
Ride a bullet train to Kyoto, a popular side trip because of its 2,000 ancient shrines and temples. Remarkably, Kyoto hosts a total of 17 World Heritage sites. Kyoto is a two-hour drive from Osaka, or a 30-minute ride on the bullet train, called shinkansen. The train travels at over 186 miles per hour.
With its unofficial motto of "cheap but delicious," Osaka is a great place to score a foodie's fix. Restaurants crowd the streets and many have picture menus, often posted outside, to help you order. Among many other dishes, Osaka is associated with shabu shabu, a savory hot pot similar to sukiyaki; kitsune-udon, noodles in a slightly sweet broth seasoned with fried bean curd and chopped chives; yakitori, traditional Japanese chicken or beef kebobs; and, of course, sushi, sashimi and tempura dishes. Many of the shopping arcades and underground malls have food courts as well as restaurants. There are also countless restaurants within walking distance of Tempozan Pier.
Shore excursions in Osaka are as simple or as in-depth as a traveler could want. Beyond the typical highlights tour, most cruise lines arrange longer excursions, lasting up to 10 hours, that venture to Kyoto, Kobe and Japan's first capital, Nara.
Best For Exploring Osaka -- Osaka is fairly well spread out and a city highlights motorcoach tour is a good way to get a visual snapshot of the city. You'll get a good grasp of its youthful exuberance as well as its historic traditions. The tours typically stop at Osaka Castle and Shitennoji Temple, which has a nice tea house.
Best for Cultural Immersion - - Take a tour of Kyoto, the spiritual center of Japan, topped off with an overnight in a traditional Japanese inn. You'll walk on tatami, or straw floor mats; change into a typical robe or yukata, and enjoy a hot-spring bath, or onsen. Then it's nighty-night on the futon after a traditional dinner with geisha performances. For cruise ships that don't stay overnight in Osaka, there are also day tours of Kyoto's highlights.
Best for Night Owls - - A ship-sponsored "Bright Lights" excursion lets you experience spirited Osaka at night. You'll drive through the city, passing through the bustling entertainment district of Dotonbori before stopping for a shabu shabu dinner. The tour concludes with a visit to Osaka Castle, all lit up at night.
Staying in Touch
Osaka's popular Minami area, which houses the Dotonbori entertainment and shopping district, has a number of 24-hour internet cafes, including Aprecio and Kinko's.
For More Information
On the Web, visit the Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau
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Independent Traveler Forums: Japan
--By Ellen Uzelac, a travel and finance writer based on Maryland's Eastern Shore