We touch down at Kansai International Airport at daybreak. Wreathed in a gossamer shroud, the city beckons. Kansai is located on a man-made island, 50 km outside Osaka. To overcome the high risks of earthquakes and typhoons, it was constructed at a staggering $20 billion. Osaka is the third largest city in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama, and has always been overshadowed by its straight-laced cousin, Tokyo, but represents the industrious spirit of Japan.

During the 7th century, the first capital of Japan was established in Osaka. Thereafter it was moved to nearby Kyoto and Nara, but Osaka continued to be a focus for commerce. The Second World War levelled almost one-third of Osaka, but the citizens restored the city to economic prosperity again. Though often considered to be an ‘ugly city', Osaka wears its heart on its sleeve — it's boisterous, down to earth and the city to visit if you want a glimpse into contemporary Japan and understand what drives this country today. It has its own unique culture, and even its own dialect.

Touring Osaka

Osaka used to be an exotic maze of canals with over 1,700 bridges. Before the introduction of the railways, its waterways were used to transport goods to all the markets. Today, very little of the canals remain, but we decided to start our Osakan odyssey with an aqua-liner boat cruise to get an inside-out view of the city. We passed parks, post-War grey buildings and the distinctive, blue plastic-roofed shacks of the homeless.

At the historical centre of this metropolis lies the Osaka Jo castle. Japanese castles are accurate emblems of history, built to withstand repeated assaults, earthquakes. The grand gates and turrets are imposing and make Osaka Jo one of Japan's best castles.

Originally built in 1586 (employing a staggering six lakh workers) by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it was ravaged several times, and rebuilt. It has eight floors and was most recently renovated in 1993. Inside the castle is a museum that documents the history of the castle. On the second floor, one can relive the days of the Samurai and wear replicas of their helmets and coats for a fee of course!

It's a strange contrast — the façade looks medieval, but from inside it has been thoughtfully provided with elevators and state-of-the-art technology. The top floor offers panoramic views of the city. There are some figures on the roof — gilded and exquisite, and I realise they are dolphins. The castle is surrounded by a large park famous for its cherry blossom trees, full of picnicking families. During the weekends, the road leading to the Castle is packed with performing musicians and teeming with life.

Traditional and the modern

The Tenmangu Shrine is special. Dedicated to Sugawara no Michizana — God of arts and scholarships, it's a popular praying place for academic achievement; students can be seen everywhere. This is the site for the Tenjin Matsuri, one of the most famous Japanese festivals held every July.

We also decide to visit one more shrine recommended by the guide book — the Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine. This is an ancient Shinto ‘franchise' with over 2,000 branches across Japan. The temple devoted to the deities associated with sea-travel. The bright orange shrine glows in the sun, there is verdant greenery, water and the signature red Taiko Bashi or the Drum Bridge which this shrine is famous for.

The Tempozan harbour area is home to an IMAX theatre, Ferris wheel, several restaurants and an aquarium. The Osaka Kaiyukan is one of the finest aquariums with species ranging from jellyfish to a pair of whale sharks. The exhibits are arranged according to the 15 regions along the Ring of Fire. There are a lot of activities in this area to choose from and we see families spending the day here.

Osaka's most impressive piece of architecture, the Umeda Sky building is a spectacular high-rise in the Kita district of Osaka. The 173-metre-tall building has two towers connected by a floating observatory on the 39th floor! For a 700-yen admission, we take the glass elevator to the observation deck (not for the faint-hearted) and get a grand 360-degree view of the Osaka bay, the mountains and the sprawling metropolis. There is a restaurant at the top with a bar and obviously sky-high prices.

Lunch is in the famous Dotombori area, which started as a theatre district and even today has many cinema houses and theatres. There's a Japanese proverb that says, ‘Dress till you drop in Kyoto and eat till you drop in Osaka!' The Osakans take great pride in their culinary skills and many culinary masterpieces of Japan can trace their origin to Osaka, such as Tako yaki (octopus Dumplings), Okonomi-yaki, etc. The Osakans love their food fried, topped with thick sauces. There is an extravagance of restaurants lining the river and we see the world-famous image of the Kani Doraku, the crab restaurant — a giant billboard that shows the crab with moving limbs! We see lines of people in front of the famous tako-yaki stalls and settle down for a vegetarian Ramen meal.

Osaka's American corner

From Dotombori, we walk to Amerika Mura or ‘Ame mura', the thumping pulse of the city, with huge shops selling kitschy paraphernalia and fashionable clothes. Music spills out of shops, filling the air with hip-hop, reggae and J-pop. Grabbing an iced green tea from a ubiquitous vending machine, I sit in the Sankaku Koen at the centre of this area, and watch a gaudy parade of fashion victims.

This is the place where the Japanese teens live out the American dream. There is a giant American-style artwork and graffiti on the walls and the youth here range from spiky-haired blondes to purple-haired youth sporting famous brands. Fads and trends here are short-lived. We watch the impromptu catwalk by some girls with bleached hair and platform boots, and some Mohawks on skateboards. Even the human-like street lamps are funky — their facial expressions can be manipulated. This is the youth capital of the city and one of the best ways to spend an afternoon in Osaka.

We wind up the day on Marble Beach, an artificial beach with millions of pebbles along the shore-line of Rinku town, enjoying the contrast of a white beach lined with pines, and the lights of the Kansai International Airport in the distance.

Published in Business Line , 2010