Travel Log: One Night in Osaka

After living in Kyoto for nearly a month and a half, there is a certain comfort about the place. Much of the city remains unexplored, and language barriers allow for only so much intimacy with my temporary home, but a rhythm has developed. To keep the adventure strong, I headed to nearby Osaka for a night and was pleasantly blown away.

With a population of around 2.7 million compared to Kyoto’s 1.4, I was expecting more of a city vibe. Kyoto is also smack in the center of Japan while Osaka is a port city. What I was not expecting was the drastic cultural differences that an hour and half train ride would expose.

A Kyoto University student had told me last month that Osaka women wore animal-print clothing, and the women from southern Osaka were very outspoken. I was contemplating this as the train arrived at Kitahama Station when I noticed the woman across from me had leopard print boots… coincidence?

Climbing the stairs up and out of the train station, I emerged onto a busy intersection towered over by skyscrapers. Taxis drove bumper-to-bumper, nearly pushing each other down the road. Big fancy cars, enormous advertisements, and flocks of humans crowded my line of sight.

The contrast between Osaka and Kyoto was immediate and continuous. Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and is absolutely rich with cultural heritage and tradition. A modern city of automobiles and cement has grown up around these vestiges, but temples and shrines, wooden buildings and stone lanterns are everywhere. When night falls, a quiet descends with it as many shops and restaurants close until tomorrow.

Entering Osaka’s entertainment district was all but overwhelming. Hordes of people, looking painfully stylish, filled the narrow streets with a drone of chatter and laughter from mid-afternoon till after midnight, which is when I left them for my hotel room.

Every business appeared to be in competition to outdo all those around it; some had huge crab sculptures that slowly moved, the Kobe beef shop had a huge cow above the door, while one restaurant had a dragon wrapping around and through the walls. If these features were lacking, people stood in doorways shouting, handing out samples, and doing anything they could think to get your attention.

The more subtle businesses often revealed pictures of women in sexy-ware or sleek, young men before a staircase that descended into the shadows. I didn’t enter any of those, but as I understand it, one could find anything from a happy ending to a mere date for the evening. Perhaps Kyoto has some of these tucked away in basements I have overlooked, but so far, I have seen nothing like that.

After catching an amazing concert by the UK based artist Bonobo on the fourth floor of the Big Step building, the city had turned on the night-lights. Parallel streets were connected by perpendicular tunnels, brightly lit and filled with arcades, clothing stores, and all manner of food shops.

Street performers on the corners had hats and boxes filled with tips – some played guitar and sang, some juggled or played drums, there was even a Rastaman playing a steel hang. I have not seen a single street artist in Kyoto nor anyone accepting tips or donations.

As midnight hour approached, the pace began slow somewhat, and the frequency of encountering emboldened drunk folks increased. On this point, one similarity between Osaka and Kyoto became evident: even in the darker, sparsely populated alleys, I never wondered ‘should I be here right now?’

Overall, Osaka was a wonderful city requiring much more than one night to explore. I look forward to coming back and trying more of its food and arcades. That said, all the noise, the pervasive lights, the masses of people and traffic brought the reflective charm of Kyoto into perspective. You may not be able to get an American burger and play Tekken 8 past 9 p.m., but the aesthetic atmosphere calms the spirit. 

By Anthony Vitale