AS I EAT breakfast in the restaurant of my hotel, I can look down on Osaka Castle. Sitting atop a massive mound whose walls rise dramatically from the dark green waters of its wide moat, the picturesque castle is already besieged by tour buses at this early hour. Later in the day, it will be overwhelmed by massive numbers of visitors, who will strip the shops of souvenirs and fill camera memory cards with pictures.
However, the castle is not all it seems. Beneath the ancient-looking façade is a concrete frame, dating to 1931. With the original destroyed by fire in both the 17th and late 19th century, the design was based on paintings found on folding screens. It was damaged again during World War II bombing and had another major restoration in 1995.
“The castle has been rebuilt so many times, visitors wonder what is authentic, like the Ship of Theseus,” says a British-educated friend, local businessman Hiromi Tanaka. “We see no contradiction as its essence remains the same. A ruined castle is the European Romantic ideal, not a Japanese one. And Osaka is a business-like place. Unlike Tokyo, we like to get things done.” He laughs.
You do not have to be very long in Osaka before the characteristics that supposedly distinguish it from the capital come up. The sense of humor is a major one – manzai, Japan’s popular style of double-act stand-up comedy originates here and the musical local Osaka-ben dialect now seems almost obligatory for a Japanese comedian. “[Osaka-born] Kitano ‘Beat’ Takeshi started life as half of a manzai act,” says Hiromi. “After films like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Sonatine, he is considered a serious actor and director abroad, but he is still remembered as a great, and often very crude, comic here.”
Takeshi’s now-presumed wealth is another characteristic that people from Osaka are labelled with. “We are thought to be very money-minded and practical,” says Hiromi. “Osaka has a better climate than Tokyo, so it is a farming region and farmers are practical people. But people from Tokyo say we greet each other here with ‘Mokkari-makka (Are you making money)?’ – which is nonsense. We say ‘How are you?’ like anywhere else.”
One other difference is very real: in Tokyo people stand on the left on escalators; in Osaka it is on the right, with people walking on the left. No one really knows why but, since people in crowded Japan tend to keep to their left on the sidewalks, the abrupt change on the Tokyo escalators is the oddity. “Maybe it reflects that keeping walking is the norm in Osaka, while standing still is the Tokyo preference,” says Hiromi. “I told you we like to get things done.” He laughs again.
Osaka is a sprawling city, Japan’s second largest metropolitan area with a population of 19 million people. Even though I have visited before, it always takes a while to get my bearings, although the vast public rail and subway network makes travel quick and efficient. In the metro, people are all well dressed with little sign of split between rich and poor. We face each other on spotless benches that run the length of the train, with most engrossed in smart phones. Many wear headphones, perhaps to drown out the constant station announcements. An announcement about chikans (gropers), warns that it is a crime. Station names are called out in English and a screen over each door further helps navigation around the complex system. Paper adverts – I cannot help thinking they would soon be vandalized back home in London – and hanging straps swing from the roof at a height that I have to duck under as I exit.
My first stop is the pedestrianized Ebisubashi (Ebisu Bridge), Osaka’s equivalent of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Known as Hikkake-bashi (Pulling Bridge) locally, it earns its reputation for the neatly dressed young men trying to impress passing women. “They are not looking for romance,” says Hiromi. “They want them to come to their clubs or restaurants and spend money.” Known as nampa, and strictly speaking illegal on the street, chatting-up women is a Japanese art form that has sparked, naturally enough, a series of cell-phone games.
The bridge stands under the Glico Man billboard, a symbol of the city after it became the first large neon sign erected after the destruction of World War II. This vast advert for a confectionary company, showing a runner about to breast the winning tape, is merely the best-known of a permanent light show of advertising signs in the heart of the Dōtonbori shopping district. Ebisubashi links two large shopping areas and is criss-crossed by a constant stream of shoppers bearing logo-heavy bags.
Nearby is another Osaka landmark, the massive red arm-waving crab atop the Kani-Doraku restaurant. It illustrates another Osaka obsession: food. The city is known as the kitchen of Japan. “We say people in Kobe spend all their money on shoes, people in Kyoto like clothes, and in Osaka we prefer food,” says Hiromi. “But it is also about sharing a meal with friends and enjoying good conversation. Hospitality, in other words, which was always good for business.”
Osaka Bay opens out on the Pacific Ocean, while the surrounding mountains shelter a large fertile plain. This geographical position brings a wealth of ingredients, either grown locally or shipped in, and the rich merchant classes of past centuries added to the demand for fine cuisine. Risk-taking entrepreneurs no doubt have always enjoyed eating the toxic fugu pufferfish, sold in restaurants where the chefs need special licenses. “The qualification involves three years of training, and they graduate by eating a fish they have prepared themselves,” says Hiromi. “A very few die and only a third pass. The Emperor is still banned from eating it, as a safety precaution.” The cost of training makes fugu expensive but, reassured by the Japanese obsession with doing things properly, I try some. I eat it first raw as sashimi, cut into transparent slices, and then in a salad before finishing with a cup of hot sake in which its dried fins float.
Outside, crowds of tourists pose happily under the large paper lanterns in the form of the fish that hang over the doorway, seeming unaware of my brave brush with potential paralysis and death. I walk around taking in the sights that are so distinctly Japanese: street corner lockers where shoppers stash wheeled suitcases to take their purchases home at the end of the day; Pachinko parlors whose opening doors unleash a wall of sound and cigarette smoke; vending machines selling everything from hot drinks to beer, and the gashapon dispensing plastic balls full of $2 collectables.
While Dōtonbori is tourist central, the northern Umeda district shows off Osaka’s working face. Centred on the JR Osaka/Umeda station complex, the world’s third busiest, are a series of soaring modern glass and steel buildings. A bright contrast is the red HEP Five Ferris Wheel sitting atop a department store and offering great views over the skyline. Down below, I can see tiny figures rushing to catch one of the many trains that snake away toward the massive tunnel mouths taking them under the city.
The HEP Five shopping mall – HEP is the Hankyu Entertainment Park – is a hangout for those obsessed with designer labels, which can seem to be most of Osaka. Standing outside, I can see an endless stream of cars dropping off or collecting young women dressed and manicured impeccably. Inside, the interior is dominated by a life-size red whale, 20 meters long, with her baby alongside – both the work of pop singer and artist Tatsuya Ishii. As I ride the escalator upwards (standing on the left) I note their tops are covered in dust, a pleasing sign of imperfection in this detail-obsessed society.
There is a very different fashion scene back near Dōtonbori in the Amerikamura area – called Ame-mura by locals. As its names implies, it was once the center of shops selling clothes from the U.S. but has now broadened into general edginess. That is Japanese edginess, meaning hip cafés, tattoo parlors, bike shops and shops selling Goth Lolita clothing. I am fascinated by the Lolita style and ask one woman dressed head to foot in the expensive fashion what the appeal is. The people of Osaka have a well-deserved reputation for being friendly but an immediate difficulty is that she is also extremely shy and reticent. That is part of the Lolita image but which came first, of course, is an interesting point: whether natural shyness attracted her to the style, or has she cultivated the mannerism?
“I have been dressing like this for three or four years. I do it every day,” says Lin, who is wearing a white dress with lots of lace. “Sometimes I also dress as a Gothic Lolita – when I feel dark – and sometimes a Punk Lolita. I can afford to buy one dress a month and I wear the older ones when I am working around the house. It is not about being cute, it is a feeling that comes from listening to music and medieval Europe.”
The importance of distinctive dress to Japanese people is not a new thing. At Yamamoto Noh Theater, I enjoy a demonstration of the complicated process involved on putting on one of the costumes. Central is a heavy, elaborately embroidered kimono that weighs many kilos. But first there is the matter of covering the hair in a cotton cap, then a heavy horsehair wig of long black tresses. A skilled dresser – in this case actor Maeda Kazuko – is essential to sort out details such as the exact way the kimono falls open at the front, one of the many clues to the social status of the character portrayed. The red kimono itself is a color that would only be worn by a young woman – although Noh actors are traditionally all men. Hidden behind masks, the actors have to rely on such visual cues and formalized movements to help carry the story.
Maeda talks me through some of the Noh gestures. “Bow your head and look at the raised palm of your right hand,” she says. “This shows you are sad. Lowering your head also creates shadows on the mask, showing a darker mood. Noh has a reputation for being non-expressive but you can understand a lot from the tone of voice, the angle of the mask, and the use of the fan – even if you do not understand the language.”
Yosie Yamamoto’s grandfather on her husband’s side started the theater in 1927 and she now manages it. It has just been refurbished, and the cypresswood walls and stage give off a lovely aroma. “Everything, from the mask to the kimono and the theatre itself, is made of the very finest materials and that is part of the aesthetic,” she says. “Noh was originally an aristocratic art but as time passed it became more democratic. I want to be open to the public and even attract foreigners, as I really believe Noh’s survival depends on having more people understand its beauty. It is the eldest masked theater in the world but it has not changed in 700 years. Noh is an encounter between the present and the past and it reveals the universality of the human condition.”
Mrs Yamamoto wears a kimono on alternate days and I ask her the good and bad about this traditional form of dress. “The good is when foreigner visitors stop me in the street to ask for a photograph,” she says, laughing. “The bad is if I have to try and work at the computer while I am wearing it. But it is an important part of Japanese culture and I really enjoy it. For example, now it is autumn, I am wearing an autumn fabric and an autumn pattern. I like being able to live in touch with the four seasons.”
Osaka’s most famous form of theater is Bunraku, a puppet show where the puppeteers appear on stage, rather than behind a curtain, but dressed in black. “It is accepted code for stagehands (kuroko), who are then also considered invisible,” says Hiromi. “That’s probably the reason ninjas are now shown wearing black in films.”
At a farming village outside the town of Nose, a two-hour drive from Osaka, I watch an after-dark performance of Ningyo Joruri, the folk art from which Bunraku evolved. It is held on the field of a school, one of many closed as Japan’s birth rate falls, and the audience is mostly middle-aged or elderly, as are those onstage and in the line of shimasen players who accompany the show. This area was once on the procession route from Kyoto to the Japan Sea but has been bypassed by modern development. However, it has a 200-year-old tradition of teaching Joruri, the art of Bunraku narration and music.
While Bunraku has developed into a sophisticated art form performed by professionals, Ningyo Joruri remains rooted in the village life. “In this village the theater was done without puppets for 200 years,” says Matsuda Masahiro, who runs a Joruri Theater. “About 20 years ago, we created puppets appropriate to the words and songs. It is a mystery why we had no puppets before that. It is my quest to find out.”
The show may be amateur but it is hard to tell from the quality of the costumes and the performances, a tribute to the support of the community and its passion for this folk art. Plays featuring puppets – each manipulated by three puppeteers – alternate with those without, the narrators throwing themselves into proclaiming and singing their lines. It looks like very hard work, as they switch voices depending on the character speaking.
Back in Osaka, my next evening could not be more of a contrast. Shinsekai has a reputation as Japan’s seediest neighbourhood, an amusing concept for those used to the darker corners of London, New York or Rio. Built after World War II on the site of 1903 Expo, it is dominated by a model of the Eiffel Tower and its bright, neon-lit alleys are filled with young people and families. Most are tucking into the kushikatsu for which the area is famous: skewers of battered and deep-fried food ranging from fish and chicken to bananas and ice cream. I can see rooms full of older men playing shogi, a form of chess, and budget tachinomiya bars at which patrons stand to eat and drink. But the whole is as clean and quiet as anywhere else in Osaka: no loud cell-phone calls, no sirens, no bicycle bells and no drunks. Shinsekai may be stuck in the past but its most serious danger seems to be the threat of becoming trendily retro.
On my last night, I visit the Kita-Shinchi area where I enjoy one of the city’s famous izakaya pubs. I pick it simply because it is the first one of the many I look into that has an empty seat. The tiny bar is already packed out with another half-dozen patrons and it does not take long before they pass me some food to try out. I am soon eating maki rolls, pork dumplings and octopus crackers among other delicious dishes I cannot always identify. My new friends start laughing and joking with me, shyly trying out their English. It seems they too have heard about Osaka’s reputation for food, humor and warm hospitality.