Osaka is Japan’s third largest city by population. While the #1 Tokyo is known for its iconic modernization and the #2 Kyoto for its classic beauty, Osaka is known for neither, which is why it is often disparaged by those from Tokyo and Kyoto. But what Osaka lacks in modernization and beauty, it more than makes up in its wacky, weird and wonderful personality! I (Merge) had heard this about Osaka, and immediately feeling a kindred spirit, I went looking for the quirky, madcap and bizarre. Much to my delight, I found it.
My first evening in Osaka, I made my way to the Shinsekai neighbourhood. The name means “New World”; it is anything but! The narrow storefronts, the bright neon signs, the plethora of bars gives it a distinctly retro atmosphere, if not even a somewhat seedy vibe. Several pachinko parlours rounded out the look. A pachinko parlour, if you don’t know, is a room full of arcade games that are a form of low-stakes, low-strategy gambling, very popular in Japan. These parlours are similar to the low-value slot machine casinos that you can find in North America. Perhaps most notable though was that all three pachinko parlours I saw were packed with people enjoying the machines.
And you simply cannot miss seeing the blue neon Tsutenkaku Tower, the neighbourhood’s most iconic landmark, rising above the neighbourhood. Apparently the original tower, first built in 1912, was a combination of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. However, after severe damage from a fire in 1943, it was disassembled and the steel used for the war effort. The current tower was rebuilt in 1956. Even though is not quite as odd-looking as the original version, the newer version still qualifies as weird and wacky!
The next morning, I decided to visit Universal Studios Citywalk. Not because I wanted to go into the Universal Studios theme park (complete with Harry Potter World), but more because I wanted to explore and people-watch in Universal Citywalk, the sprawling mall right next door. Our ship, the MS Westerdam, had docked at the Tempozan pier, and conveniently, the Capt. Line operates a ferry that takes you directly from the pier to the Universal City Port across the water in less than 15 minutes. An easy ticket purchase from the booth, and I was on my way!
The quirkiness continued. The sheer number of shops selling Universal Studios branded-merchandise was mind-boggling, as were the variety of products. Harry Potter, Minions, Sesame Street, Snoopy, Mario Brothers costumes, headgear, chocolates, cookies, and other products were just the beginning! Many people in the mall, young and old, were in full character costume, and it was clear that they weren’t employees, they were visitors to the park.
On the top floor of Universal Citywalk is a food area called Takopa, the Takoyaki Park, where you are encouraged to take the Takoyaki tasting tour at six different vendors. Takoyaki is a popular Japanese street food of wheat flour-based batter balls filled with savoury octopus, and cooked in a special molded pan. They are often topped with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes, and bonito flakes.
I returned from Universal Studios CityWalk in the early afternoon, and since I had plenty of time, I decided to stop in at the Tempozan Marketplace shopping complex which is attached to the pier. The wackiness continued! The first thing you cannot miss is the giant ferris wheel outside. I decided to give it a skip and headed towards the front doors. On the front plaza is a tall full-sized giraffe built entirely from Lego, a giant-sized advertisement for the Legoland Discovery Centre inside the mall.
I wandered the mall expecting to find the usual selection of shops and services. But I was thrilled to discover another oddity – an unusual shop I have never seen before. It’s called the “Fake Food Factory”, and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like! It has display walls of fake food of all types, all available for sale. Apparently there is a market for this in Japan. And if you can’t find the fake food you want, then you are invited to make some for yourself. I watched while a young girl and her mother created a fake made-to-order sundae!
As I left the Tempozan Marketplace, I saw that the Kaiyukan Aquarium is in this complex. It is one of the world’s largest, and I’ve heard that it lives up to it positive reputation, so since I still had some time, I thought of stopping in. But the crowds and queue was daunting, so I kept walking. I sauntered my way back to the ship, very content with my discoveries in Osaka.