JUMP Blog: A case for Kansai
This blog post was written by Brian Graf, Program Officer for Sasakawa USA and the Japan-US Military Program. Prior to joining Sasakawa USA, Brian worked in the Kansai region for five years as a Language Instructor and Assistant Trainer for ECC Language Institute.
If you have ever watched a Japanese variety show and wondered what would possess a person to go to such lengths to prostrate themselves on national television for the amusement of the nation, the answer undoubtedly lies in Osaka, Japan. Known for its humor, and home to the Yoshimoto School of Comedy, Osaka natives are quick to boast about the blue-collar city’s disproportionate production of comedians. This fact is usually opined between gulps of beer following a twelve-hour work day in any one of the city’s many izakaya (Japanese pub/restaurant). People of Osaka are quick to communicate their pride in their sense of humor, most often by drawing stark comparisons between themselves and their rivals in Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, pointing out that the latter tend to be cold and less personable than someone from the Kansai region.
Herein lies the basis for why anyone planning to visit Japan must make time for Osaka. All too often when we picture this East Asian nation, we picture bamboo forests and the long-heralded traditions of the Samurai, steeped in reverence and mired in admiration by the world abroad. To that point, one of the most appealing features of Osaka is its proximity to the more traditional cities of Kyoto and Nara. A one-hour train ride from Osaka station will land you in the neighborhood of Gion in the city of Kyoto. Here you will find many famous temples and shrines, and the last bastion of a dying Japanese industry, Geisha. Geisha are still highly revered in Japan, but as Japanese culture evolves and newer generations are ushered in, the number of Geisha has decreased. Despite their dwindling numbers, Geisha, along with all the temples and shrines in Kyoto, are products of a Japanese yesteryear. They still attract millions of tourists, but these examples of traditional Japanese culture only provide one piece of the puzzle that is modern Japan.
The working-class city of Osaka offers great insight into the hearts and minds of the modern Japanese. Hard-working and hard-playing Osaka is the all too often overlooked second city of Japan, merely a stop on the bullet train as it swiftly coasts between Tokyo and Hiroshima.
Shopping area by day and bar district by night, the neighborhood of Namba in southern Osaka is known for its many uniquely themed bars. Strategically nestled into dusty corners of skinny, multistory buildings and taking their interior decorating cues from famous animated TV shows like One Piece or Gundam, these establishments offer some of the best karaoke and cocktail bars one can hope to find.
No visit to a bar in Osaka is complete, however, without having some takoyaki. These little, bit-sized, doughy balls with chunks of octopus inside come topped with fish flakes and mayonnaise. They are both a local favorite and an everlasting symbol of Osaka. It is here, late in the evening at a takoyaki stand, where you will encounter friendly and energetic Japanese patrons eager to show off their city and share a beer or two over a late night snack.
Perhaps you’re not one for drinking and prefer to do your exploring during the day. In that case, off the city’s main thoroughfares you will find that Osaka’s neighborhoods are full of small, privately-owned storefronts selling everything from clothing to music. There is a deep entrepreneurial spirit in Osaka that promotes young business owners and encourages creativity. Each store has its own unique personality, and can be considered a refreshing alternative to the cookie cutter brand name stores. Just like the guy at the takoyaki stand the night before, these shop owners are always welcoming and eager to help. Also, the Japanese are honest, so price gouging the unwitting foreigner is quite rare.
Finally, there is Osaka castle. And, if you are lucky enough to be in Japan during the cherry blossom season, the castle is a great place to partake in the long-lasting Japanese tradition of hanami. Translated as flower viewing, this communal pastime involves taking time out of your busy schedule to sit beneath the cherry trees and appreciate the beauty of the cherry blossoms. During this time of year, mini markets like those found at Japanese festivals pop up and the entire country slows down to appreciate the beauty of nature, and in many cases overindulge in drinks in the middle of the day.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, or if you are currently stationed there, Osaka is a great place to visit. Its unique cast of characters along with its proximity to traditional places like Nara and Kyoto, make it the ideal jumping-off point for any traveler looking to experience everything that Japan has to offer.
Image credits: Wall of signboards at Ebisu Bridge on the Dōtonbori Canal, Wikimedia Commons; Takoyaki, Food, Ball, Max Pixel; Osaka Castle in Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, Japan, by Mc681, Wikimedia Commons.