Japan: Insider's guide to Osaka


What's the weather like now?

What's the weather like now?

Really cold; Japan is in the grip of a harsh winter with heavy snowfall bringing chaos to communications across the whole Japanese archipelago in recent weeks. Good news for the northern ski resorts but bad news for visitors. The first signs of cherry blossom, and hence the onset of spring, are still a good couple of months away.

What are the locals complaining about?

The economy is still very much at the forefront of people's minds, especially in Osaka which, since the 15th century, has been renowned for its charismatic people with their keen sense of entrepreneurial spirit. A popular greeting in the local dialect, Osaka-ben, is mo kari makka?, meaning "are you making money?", but Osaka has been in the shadow of Tokyo for many years now. Even the local yakuza gang bosses will tell you that business is slow.

Who's the talk of the town?

It is hoped that the opening of Universal Studios Japan in the spring will provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the local economy. Also, the legacy of former city mayor, Nokku 'Knock' Yokoyama, still looms large. Many citizens still support him despite his conviction last summer for assaulting a 21-year-old student assisting with his re-election campaign. The 68-year-old governor was sentenced to 18 months' prison suspended for three years, for fondling his victim and attempting to buy her silence with a Louis Vuitton bag.

What's the cool drink?

Whisky and water is the salaryman's drink of choice, while office ladies seem to prefer shochu, a distilled grain spirit served with a fruit mixer. Osaka also brews some particularly good brands of saké, Japan's national drink. There is an elaborate etiquette to Japan's drinking culture: don't pour your own beer into the glass - your hosts will do that. You should then return the favour by pouring theirs. The word for cheers is kampai.

What are people eating?

The best local dishes are okonomiyaki (a flat pancake-style dish filled with meat, noodles and vegetables coated in rich sauce) and takoyaki (battered octopus balls). Another popular dish is fugu (blowfish), which is eaten as a winter delicacy. Beware: the insides of the fish can be fatally poisonous. The historic restaurant, Futomasa Sennichimae Honten, in Osaka's Dotombori, brings in fresh blowfish every day from western Japan.

What's the latest outrageous stuff on TV?

We're all familiar with Japan's extreme games shows. One of the most popular shows here is the brainchild of a local comedian turned internationally renowned director and media player, Beat Takeshi. The show is called Koko wa hen da yo Nihon jin ("Strange Japanese Habits") and involves teams of locals and foreigners verbally jousting over a given topic. Takeshi acts as judge, wearing outrageous costumes and holding a giant squeaking hammer.

Where wouldn't the locals dream of going?

Kamagasaki, a district between Shin Imamiya JR station and Tennoji Park is regarded as the homeless capital of Japan and considered a no-go area by locals. Largely populated by "day labourers", it is estimated that 1,500 people sleep rough in Kamagasaki each night. The number of available jobs for casual day labourers has dropped to its lowest level in 10 years, while the number of public construction projects in Osaka Prefecture is down by 20 per cent. Local charities say the decline in work has been matched by an increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets, and record levels of suicides.

Where are locals going that tourists don't know about?

Most visitors to Osaka head for the aquarium and castle, then complain about the dearth of attractions compared with nearby Nara and Kyoto. The locals are more likely to be found in the video room of the Museum of Kamigate Performing Arts in the Namba area. This small but fascinating museum celebrates Osaka's great tradition as the capital of Japanese comedy, tracing its history from its origins to the present day and profiling some of the household names that have made Osaka's comedy tradition legendary. Every Saturday at 2pm there is a manzai comedy show featuring young up-and-coming double acts - straight men bandying words with their stooges.

Where are the chic people doing their shopping?

The streets lining both sides of Mido Suji (Osaka's answer to the Champs-Elysées) around Shinsaibashi subway station are where the beautiful crowd goes to shop and be seen. Quirky teenage fashions, as showcased in boutiques of Osaka's trendy America Mura and trumpeted in the pages of the teen style bible, Egg magazine, are de rigueur. The OPA building acts as a shrine to the latest Japanese fashions - enormous stack heels, Burberry and Louis Vuitton are this season's must-haves. The city's numerous temple markets provide a fertile hunting-ground for knick-knacks at bargain prices. The pick of these is held at Shitenno-ji on the 21st of every month.

Where's the trendy place to escape to for the weekend?

Families regularly take off for weekend breaks to open-air onsen (mineral hot-spring spas), where bathing has developed into a fine art with its own strict rules of etiquette. Here, stressed salarymen like nothing more than soaking away a night of saké and karaoke while taking in a panoramic forest or cherry blossom vista. Some attribute the popularity of onsen to the fact they are bereft of the rules and regulations that make life a minefield of potential social gaffes for the average Japanese citizen. From Osaka, the pick of the bunch is the Arima Onsen, an exclusive hot-spring resort nestling in the Rokko mountains overlooking the port of Kobe.

David Atkinson is a 'Rough Guide' author and is currently working on a non-fiction book about Japan.

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