Osaka is a paradise for those fascinated by culture, fashion and lots of shopping

The heartbeat of Japan’s Honshu island is worth your money, energy, admiration and more.

Be sure to allocate enough days in Osaka to discover and appreciate it (All photos: Aireena Azni/ The Edge Malaysia)

Anyone going to Osaka for the first time will be eager to know the difference between it and Tokyo. The responses are usually consistent, citing how Osaka, although bustling, is generally more laid-back than Bladerunner-like Tokyo. Curious to find out if the locals agree with this impression, we direct the question to a tourist guide, who hails from Kobe but has travelled enough between the two destinations, to tell us the general perception is not merely speculation but indeed the truth. “This city is lively and the people are easy-going,” he says.

People do go to Osaka to let loose and have fun — and for good reason. Historical and full of charm, it leaves travellers enthralled after immersing themselves in its relaxed, yet vibrant atmosphere. As it reinvented itself as an economic and industrial powerhouse after WWII, a unique culture developed, making it stand out from popular places in Japan.

Idealism was taken over by pragmatism, and the people were driven by entrepreneurial spirit, a sense of independence and self-reliance that eventually allowed creativity and innovation to flourish in this capital city of Western Japan.

Its cool and calm setting means you will probably not have to be in fight-or-flight mode here. Although the residents are friendlier than Tokyo-ites, you are not likely to find anyone poking their nose into your business. But your stamina and endurance will certainly be challenged throughout your visit as a lot of energy will be expended in order to discover Osaka’s gems, be they known tourist destinations or local recommendations.

While the culturally-curious will be spoilt with so much facts and figures about Osaka, shopaholics will practically go crazy over its underground shopping malls that seem neverending or the quaint high street boutiques. From newly manufactured items that won’t break the bank to high-end products that are part of the circular fashion industry, there are a plethora of options for all budgets. If you are planning a trip soon, here are the streets and areas worth keeping on your radar for a dose of retail therapy.


The 600m Shinsaibashi-suji stretch is a must-visit shopping destination for tourists and local shoppers alike

The beating heart of the Osaka shopping scene, Shinsaibashi-suji is a paradise for fashion, cosmetics and food lovers. A symbolic spot in the city, it was established as a shopping area long ago, dating back to the Edo Period. Today, it remains a must-visit destination for tourists and locals looking for essentials, souvenirs or even frivolous purchases. The street welcomes approximately 60,000 visitors on weekdays and this number doubles on weekends. It can go higher during peak seasons from June to August.

Shops occupying the whole 600m stretch were conceptualised and realised with contemporary as well as traditional touches. So it is actually quite easy to experience architecture of a bygone era, especially in restaurants that maintain the old-style concepts. Bonus point: Most of them also serve authentic Japanese food and snacks. The only setback is finding one that can accommodate walk-in customers.

Hanahana, in particular, specialises in Osaka’s iconic soul food okonomiyaki. Often referred to as Japanese pizza, this dish consists of batter and cabbage — a non-negotiable ingredient — mixed with your choice of protein. It is commonly topped with sweet, savoury and tangy okonomiyaki sauce, aonori, mayonnaise and katsuobushi, the paper-thin skipjack tuna flakes that add smoky and umami flavour to the mix. Hanahana is a small eatery, with four tables on the ground floor and another four upstairs, but it warrants a visit for its perfectly cooked and tasty okonomiyaki, excellent service and classic interior.

When you are all fuelled and ready to shop again, take a short walk to the expansive Daimaru Shinsaibashi. A high-end department store, its building has been around for over a century and was restored by American architect William Merrell Vories in 1920 before further refurbishment in 2019. Unlike its Tokyo branch, which boasts a modern look and feel, the Shinsaibashi outlet is a neo-Gothic masterpiece. Its facade is a marvel to behold and this design concept extends well into its interior.

Daimaru Shinsaibashi houses a wide array of fashion and cosmetic brands from Japan and around the world, including thoughtfully selected luxury labels such as Tasaki, Nakagawa Masashichi, Daimaru Gold Salon, Cartier, Chanel, Hermès, Gucci and Ermanno Scervino. It also has a slew of restaurants offering local, Korean, Italian, Chinese and Western cuisine to accommodate the throngs of international visitors.


Tourists swarm the famous Ebisu Bridge any time of the day to pose with the city’s iconic Glico Man

Another roofed arcade to look out for in the vicinity is Ebisubashi-suji. Slightly shorter than the Shinsaibashi-suji stretch, it extends from the north of Kita at the famous Ebisu Bridge to Takashimaya Osaka in south Minami and houses significant attractions such as the Glico Man. Before you make your way into the strip mall, make sure to stop by the bridge and pose with the sprinter on a blue race track. It is Osaka’s signature landmark so it would be a missed opportunity to pass it on.

This street that used to primarily welcome pilgrims coming to Imamiya Ebisu Shrine with udon noodle shops and tea houses now boasts everything from historic establishments to boutiques championing cutting-edge fashion. The place is always jam-packed with lively town-goers at any time of the day, so strolling around aimlessly and people-watching are fun activities to add to your itinerary, especially if you wish to observe a slice of local life. Maybe draw inspiration from their style before you start shopping? The Osakans are famed for their flashy and bold fashion sense, after all.

While you are in the area, check out the street food vendors in bustling Dotonbori. One of Osaka’s staple dishes is takoyaki and here you can find many stalls, each with a distinctive (and massive) octopus mascot, selling the snack. Before anything else, though, be sure to have enough cash in hand as some shops only accept notes. You do not want to leave the long queue and have to  start again from the beginning.

Takoyaki is the city’s staple, cooked by combining savoury batter and small chunks of octopus on specially made griddle pans. The crispy and golden brown balls are covered with a special sauce and mayonnaise before seaweed powder and dried bonito flakes are added for final touches. They are best eaten hot and fresh, so whether you go to Takoyaki Juhachiban Dotonbori, Takoyaki Wanaka Dotonbori, Takoyaki Creo-ru Junk or other stalls, find a nearby bench at which to park yourself. Some vendors do not provide tables and chairs for dining-in and the snacks really are best savoured posthaste.


There are many vendors selling Osaka’s soul street food of takoyaki in Dotonbori

If you feel like something sweet, local dessert chain Pablo can be found in the Shinsaibashi and Ebisubashi districts. Pablo is known for its delicious cheese tarts, available in three flavours — original, matcha and chocolate cheese. We have to warn you, though; there is always a long queue. But don’t let it stop you from patiently waiting to sample the fluffy treats.

To the west of Shinsaibashi shopping district is Amerika-mura, widely known as a Japanese youth culture centre. Dubbed the “America Town” of Osaka and nicknamed AmeMura, the area has more than 2,000 stores comprising local and imported fashion companies, cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs. Back in the day, business owners here used to import goods from the US. Now, the site is famous among the Japanese and travellers alike who want to explore American culture.

At the centre of Amerika-mura is Sankaku Koen Park, a triangular concrete plaza which has evolved into a popular meeting spot for the young to gather and flaunt their unique styles and talents. Some days, you can catch comedians practising their acts. And on weekends, the venue will be flooded with flea market stalls, street concerts and fashion shows.


Osaka is vibrant come day or night

Running parallel to the Dotonbori River and a three-minute walk from the south of Sankaku Koen Park is Orange Street, also known as the “vogue” street of Osaka. Formerly called Tachibana-touri (tachibana is a type of citrus), it existed as a furniture trading sphere during the Edo Period and became the go-to furniture shopping spot post-WWII. The place has evolved and its 800m alley is now full of attractive businesses including cafes, fashion boutiques, craft ateliers, general merchandise stores and interior goods shops.

If Shinsaibashi, Ebisubashi and Amerika-mura are too loud and crowded, you will find that Orange Street is much more peaceful and quiet. Fashionistas flock here to browse around curated retailers — some founded by up-and-coming Japanese designers — that sell a wide variety of clothing and accessories with influences from around the world. If you are not looking to cause your wallet some grief, there are also plenty of second-hand stores offering high-end and vintage products.

Osaka is indeed a haven for shopaholics. Next time you make a trip to Japan, consider including the fascinating metropolis in your itinerary and be sure to allocate enough days to discover and appreciate it. Whether you are there for shopping or simply sightseeing, it is worth your money, energy, admiration and more.


This article first appeared on Apr 15, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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