Japan’s 3rd biggest city boasts stunning architecture & unique eats

Traveling from Tokyo to Osaka by bullet train is about three hours and the train ride takes you through Japan’s beautiful countryside. Osaka is a large port city located in the southern center of Japan. It’s Japan’s third most populated city and is a major economic area. Although it was heavily destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt and recovered quickly. Osaka’s nickname is Tenka no Daidokoro (nation’s kitchen) because of its reputation as a foodie’s paradise and its food exports to other countries and to other cities in Japan. Regional dishes include okonomiyaki (pan-fried batter cake), takoyaki (octopus in fried batter), udon (a noodle dish), and oshizushi (pressed sushi).

Osaka’s downtown has awesome architecture, with several unique skyscrapers. Many South Koreans and Chinese visit Osaka each year while many Americans usually just visit Tokyo. Osaka is known for its role in Japan’s wild capital and political power shifts, its Riverwalk, and shopping (an estimated 30,000 retail shops in Osaka) – and its nightlife, especially for the LGBT community.

Osaka’s origins began sometime around the fifth century. Because of its ports and its vast riverways, it became a gateway into Japan for visitors from other parts of Asia. In 645 AD, Emperor Kotoku moved the capital from Asuka (Nara) to Osaka. He built the Naniwanomiya Palace, the oldest in Japan. Even though the Japanese government later moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyo (Kyoto), then to Heijo-kyo (the city of Nara), then Heian-kyo to (Kyoto), then to Kamakura, and finally to Edo (Tokyo), Osaka continued to be the gateway for foreign trade.

During the 14th century, Osaka was devastated by a series of wars. The Muromachi Period (1336-1573) produced Nobunaga Oda, a powerful warlord, who captured Osaka because of its waterways. His successor, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, another warlord, unified Japan from his base in Osaka. As Japan entered the Edo Period (1601-1867), the capital was moved to Edo (Tokyo). No matter how often the power shifted in Japan, Osaka still remained and remains a major economic hub.

Today, the Tonbori Riverwalk is an iconic and bustling riverfront that has over 30 stores, open-air cafes, and restaurants that edge it. The restaurants serve mostly fish and many have minimum purchase requirements, some even charge a seating fee. The walk along the river takes you past several Las Vegas-style billboards with awesome light displays. A popular billboard is Glico, which is close to the historic Ebisubashi Bridge. Glico is one of Japan’s largest food distributors and is known for its Pocky (biscuit sticks covered in chocolate frosting). Across from that famous billboard is the Asahi beer billboard. Its lights change color frequently, capturing the eyes of tourists. The Riverwalk is crowded at nights, especially during the weekends. A romantic waterside scenery stroll would not be recommended on a Friday or Saturday night.

Doyama is the district in Osaka where a vast majority of the gay bars are located. Gram Slam is a popular video gay bar that has regular dance parties and offers strong drinks. It plays the latest music –Asian and North American – with their videos. Explosion is a small basement-style gay dance club that has drag shows and featured DJs. PumpUpBar is a neighborhood gay bar that has several different events each week. It is a great place to meet before clubbing. K’s Hill is a gay bar that has karaoke and has a DJ on several nights. (K’s Hill is also a nonsmoking bar, uncommon in Japan.) Bar Bacchus is a gay bar that offers inexpensive drinks and a cozy atmosphere. Jack in the Box is a stylish gay bar and nightclub that is popular with younger crowds. G Physique Osaka is an international gay bar that is very popular with foreigners. It offers nightly events and a relaxing atmosphere. Cafe de Jumpin’ is a gay bar that is popular for people to go to before they visit the dance clubs. Diva is a new gay bar that is managed by a transgender mama. LuPu is a bar that is owned and operated by a lesbian couple and is a popular for happy hour. Hysterics is a gay bar that has younger crowds, mostly in their 20s. It is known for keeping up with the current trends in music and often has theme nights throughout the week. Kuro is a gay bar that has a more professional crowd. Osaka does not have an LGBT community center, but the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (Hurights.or.jp/english) offers LGBT info on Osaka.

Although many American tourists skip Osaka, it’s a city that should be on everyone’s destination list.