I don’t know why I liked Osaka so much, but I really did. I was advised to skip it completely, that it was industrial and there was nothing to see there .Nonetheless, I felt comfortable there. Whereas Tokyo was big and intimidating, Japan’s second largest city was much more accessible.
Maybe part of the reason I enjoyed myself there was that I completely eschewed sightseeing and spent most of my time wandering the streets, imagining what it would be like to live there. It seemed almost familiar, it seemed a lot like New York. Well, a cleaner, more organized New York. And like New York, Osaka is a financial center, one where people come to spend LOTS of money.
So I spent my time in Osaka poking through malls, shops and arcades. Being but a poor backpacker I didn’t buy anything, but I did learn a lot about the many ways to embrace consumerism in Osaka:
The Department Store
The Japanese department store is a totally unique experience. They are entrancing mazes of loud music, candy colored clothing and giggling Japanese girls in stiletto boots. You can wonder in amazement in one of these shopping meccas anywhere in Japan, but there is a huge concentration in Osaka- some of the largest I have seen.
One of the most famous is the Hep 5 Department store in the Umeda neighborhood. Hep 5 is distinctive for the giant red Ferris wheel on the roof and the giant red sperm whale (and baby whale) in the atrium. Not really sure what giant sperm whales have to do with shopping, but I’m not going to think too hard about it.
Department stores in Japan are really more like malls, with dozens of small boutiques crammed together, each blaring it’s a different American pop song at top volume. Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and Beyonce clash for aural dominance. Each area hawks a unique style and it’s overwhelming to see the various looks and ideas that fall under the umbrella of Japanese Fashion. Some stuff makes total sense to me, other things, like these super popular small balls of fur, are totally befuddling:
The Food Court
My favorite thing about the department stores are actually their food courts. The Japanese love love love to eat. Below the streets of Umeda are practically acres of restaurants, sweets counters and bakeries. Most stores will also have a top level full of fancier restaurants, but to get a better bargain on your meal, you need to go underground.
Here you will find every conceivable variation of a casual Japanese restaurant. Traditional things like sushi, yakitori, ramen, and teriyaki, as well as Italian food, ice cream and the ever present McDonald’s.
This is also a great place to observe the peculiar Japanese phenomenon of fake food. Almost all restaurant display counters of plastic food models outside their doors. Many are shockingly realistic and a great preview of what you can expect should you order in that restaurant. Walking through the “food gallery” underneath Umeda station I observed fake meat, fake soups, fake pasta, even fake sushi.
While some areas are unmistakably upscale, Osaka also has it’s share of small boutiques and unique shops. For something entirely different, I headed down to Amerika-Mura.
You know how you sometimes wonder how people in different countries perceive your home? I got a bizarre taste of an answer in this several block fashion district. Amerika-Mura is American fashion through Japanese eyes. As far as I can tell, this involved a lot of hip hop music, baggy jeans and baseball caps- which isn’t all that far off in some cases I guess. I had a great time wandering the crowded boutiques and observing the sometimes bizarre interpretations of the American Dream.
Sightseeing is a big part of travel, and it’s a great way to learn about the history and beauty of a city. Sometime though, you can learn a lot more about a culture by not sightseeing at all.