Also, the Osaka Insider guidebook will be up for sale shortly, so keep an eye on this site for information soon! Meanwhile, check out the Guidebook Maps page, to be used in conjunction with the book itself.
Blow Bar is a reggae bar tucked away in the heart of Minami。 It’s ideal for going out with friends in groups of any size, and also for parties. The laid-back island atmosphere will put you at ease, and the reasonably priced food and drinks won’t empty your wallet. Blow’s only disadvantage is that it doesn’t provide a good atmosphere for solo bar-hoppers, at least on non-event days. Keep an eye out for DJ events, live music and seasonal parties, which are held often at Blow. If you are thinking of dropping by for the first time, check out their 16th anniversary party this coming weekend (April 2-4, 2010).
Blow Bar is a 5 min. walk north from exit 25 of Namba Station (subway), or a 5 min. walk south from exit 7 of Shinsaibashi Station: walk along Midosuji until you reach the Midosuji-Mitsuderacho intersection, walk one block west, turn left, and the bar will be right in front of you. My Google Maps directions are here. Blow is open 6 pm to 5 am every day, and their phone number is 06-6211-4300. You can also view their website here (some parts, including the menu, are in English).
Bar Zerro (map here) is a sure place to go on a Saturday night (or Friday, if it’s late enough) to find drunken fun in Osaka’s Minami district. It advertises itself as falling somewhere between a bar and club, but I would call it more of a bar that knows how to cut loose. They host DJ events every Saturday night, as well as a number of other events and parties. They also have a Fussball table (no longer for free, unfortunately) and celebrate foreign holidays such as Halloween…speaking of which, Zerro offers “roast dinners” (turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, etc.) on Sunday nights, so if you are an expat sad about missing your Thanksgiving eats this year, drop by next weekend! The drinks are not cheap here, but the customers are always varied and friendly, and the bilingual bartenders help create a great atmosphere.
Zerro is conveniently located near Dotombori, Shinsaibashi, Minami’s Hub Pubs, and other bars such as Blow and Balabushka. The closest stations are Shinsaibashi and Namba subway stations. Zerro can be contacted by phone at 06-6211-0439.
Hub British Pub (英国風ハブ) is a chain of friendly bars where you can meet people, whether you are from Japan or abroad. I have met more people from other countries at the Hub than anywhere else. There is fairly tasty food, as would be expected of a pub, especially the Hub Premium Cheeseburger (comes with fries) and the spinach gnocchi. But most of all, the drinks are good, and they don’t rip you off by using cheap liquor. The long island iced teas are delicious and perfectly balanced, and the original cocktails are superb–I personally like the “Tarantula,” which has quite a kick despite its smooth taste, and the one-liter tower of beer is always fun. Happy hour, which goes until 7:00 pm every day, means cocktails as cheap as 190 yen each, which is probably the lowest price I’ve seen outside of Blue Moon Bar. Hub Pubs are generally open until around 1:00 am on weekdays and 2:00 am on weekends. They can be reserved for private parties, and they often show sports events involving local or Japanese national teams (with soccer being shown most often). Most of all, the atmosphere is casual and relaxed.
Despite being a large chain, the Hub provides consistent quality and good times, and whether you are new in town, looking to meet new people, or just searching to a place to kick back after work, check out on of Osaka’s four branches (two in Namba, one near Shinsaibashi, and one in Umeda’s Chayamachi district).
I wrestled with the other travelers boarding at Osaka Station, knowing as they did that if I didn’t get a seat now I would be standing for the next hour and a half. It was a rare five-day weekend, and everybody in Japan was off to their own destination, mad with travel fever. As the train rushed out of Osaka, through Kyoto, and into the mountain tunnel leading to Shiga Prefecture, I felt the tension built up over a week of overtime work go out of my body and a smile float to my lips. I had this trip all planned out–or so I thought.
This was not my first time in the Lake Biwa area. I had previously spent a night in Omi-Hachiman and toured the area, including the beautiful canal district, and the mountaintop temple called Chomeiji (lit. long life temple). These are two truly wonderful places–the canal district for its beautiful old townscape that puts Kyoto’s Gion district to shame, and Chomeiji for its grand old buildings dotting the slopes surrounding serene Lake Biwa. Omi-Hachiman was truly an amazing experience, and I ended up spending the whole day there rather than continuing on to Azuchi as I had originally planned. My pleasant surprise at Omi-Hachiman and my unfulfilled goal of visiting Nobunaga’s former stronghold in Azuchi was my inspiration to spend the long holiday making a full loop around Lake Biwa.
Azuchi is the place where Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of medieval Japan, built his lavish castle to display his power and wealth. It was covered in gold and the paintings inside were done by the best artists of the day. Unfortunately, it was mysteriously burnt down just three years after its completion, but it still remains in people’s memories as the symbol of over-the-top, luxurious Momoyama-Azuchi culture. Not much remains of the castle (mostly just some old walls), but the surrounding area and the view of Lake Biwa the site commands are still impressive. I rented a bike near Azuchi station, rode out to the mountain, and proceeded to make the steep climb to the top. Biking around is the best way to see the sights of Azuchi, and after going about five minutes from the train station, I found myself riding through crisp, clean air among bright green rice fields almost ready for harvest. The climb to the castle ruins is quite beautiful, and you can see Nobunaga’s (uncharacteristically) humble mausoleum along the way. Afterward, I swung by a few museums, including the Nobunaga no Yakata museum which has a recreation of the castle itself that was formerly displayed at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain.
The woman working at the tourist information center was a great help when I first arrived in Azuchi, and on the way back, I stopped again at the information center for ice cream and a rest. The two of us chatted for a while in the (mercifully) air-conditioned room, and I learned that they are currently showing a film about Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, which explained why television crew had been filming live at the museums I visited.
I stayed the night in nearby Omi-Hachiman, in a business hotel run by an elderly couple that was located between the station and the historic district. Having just come from Osaka, I was shocked at how quiet the city was at night. After taking a short nap, I headed out to find something to eat, but couldn’t find any restaurants except for McDonald’s, Lotteria, a really depressing food court with one restaurant that was closed, and a couple of izakaya. I finally came across as small bar located on a side street, and went in to take a look. It was a reggae bar not unlike something one would encounter in Namba, and there were only two staff members. The food was good and the drinks were standard fare, but unfortunately nobody else was in the place the whole time I was there. Even more odd, the staff never even struck up a conversation with me, but silently watched me eat, which made me more than a little uncomfortable. I have been in empty bars in Osaka, and it’s always been a great chance to get to know the staff better, but this was just awkward. Despite this experience, I had met mostly friendly people that day–something that would change as I moved north into the more rural parts of Lake Biwa.
But I was already thinking about tomorrow and my next destination, the coastal castle town of Nagahama. This was the first moderaly long trip I had taken almost entirely alone, and I was ready to see all that I could see.
Dotombori is one of the three spots most symbolic of and well-known in Osaka–possibly the most famous of them. It is order in chaos, a maddening mix of people and lights and sounds that will assault your senses. Lonely Planet went as far as comparing it to the futuristic cityscape of Blade Runner.* But in my opinion, Dotombori has no comparison, because it is simply the City of Osaka unapologetically being its over-the-top self.
The name comes from the Dotombori River, a canal that runs east to west through the middle of the Dotombori district. A theatre district starting in the 17th century, Dotombori is primarily a nighttime entertainment district today, so there are numerous bars, izakaya, restaurants, food stalls, and entertainments facilities (karaoke, bowling, pool, etc). The city has recently been doing construction work to boost tourism in the area, focusing on beautifying the canal-side boardwalks. Namba’s “love hotel” district can be found on the west end of Dotombori (near Yotsubashi-suji), if that’s what you’re looking for.
Famous landmarks include the giant crab with moving pincers (there are actually three, but the center-most one is the most popular) and the surrounding lights and buildings, the night view of the Glico “running man” billboard, Ebisubashi Bridge (informally known as Hikkakebashi, meaning “pick-up bridge,” as it is a popular spot for hosts who attempt to pick up girls passing by), and the Ferris wheel attached to the side of the Don Kihote shop. There is a Starbucks at the most crowded point in Dotombori, which offers a great view if you like people-watching or just want to take a breather. There are boat tours that go along Dotombori River and connect to other parts of Osaka, as well. And finally, don’t forget to stop at Kinryu, the famous ramen shop that has multiple shops in the district, followed by some cheap and delicious okonomiyaki and takoyaki (fried dumplings with octopus in the middle) from the outdoor food stalls near the river—both of these are Osaka specialties.
The best way to reach the center of Dotombori is from Namba Station (Sennichimae and Midosuji Subway Lines, Kintetsu Lines, Hanshin Namba Line, Nankai Lines), but you can also get to the west part of Dotombori from Namba Station on the Yotsubashi Subway Line, and to the east part from Nipponbashi Station (Sennichimae and Sakaisuji Subway Lines). Dotombori is a 3-5 min. walk from Namba Station on the Midosuji and Sennichimae Subway Lines.
*Lonely Planet: Japan 8th edition, p. 387.
It’s back to the Horie district (Kitahorie, to be precise), this time to a bar called Covent Garden. The main reason I love this place is that it is one of the best places to get burgers in town–and let me make it clear that, as an American (a picky one) in Japan, I rarely say a burger is “good.” Besides burgers, they also serve a variety of Western-style foods including veggie burgers, cheese fries, nachos, pizza, and wraps, as well as a few Japanese dishes. They also offer a good selection of imported beers and other cocktails.
One of the great points about Covent Garden is the atmosphere: there are couches in the lower level; the bar is equipped with darts, foosball, and free Internet; and the staff are friendly and make you feel right at home.
Covent garden is a 5-minute walk from exit 3 of Nishiohashi Station (Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line), and a 7-minute walk from exit 5 of Yotsubashi Station (Yotsubashi Subway Line). It is located within 5 minutes (on foot) of Triangle Park in Amemura. They can be contacted by phone at 06-4391-3177.
For menus, a map, the event schedule (they hold DJ events and live performances), and other information, take a look at Covent Garden’s website.
If you are looking for trendy restaurant and bars and you don’t mind you wallet becoming a bit lighter, check out the Horie neighborhood in Osaka, located within walking distance of Namba, Shinsaibashi and Amemura. Many establishments here offer top-class gourmet cuisine and excellent drinks, and each shop has its own unique style. If you only plan to splurge once when you are in Osaka, come here.
One of my favorite restaurant/bars in the area is Cafe Absinthe. It specializes in Mediterranean fusion cuisine (the cooks here are amazing), and it also sports a wide selection of imported European absinthe. Drinking absinthe here was not my first experience, but Cafe Absinthe’s drinks tasted great and nearly had me out cold after two drinks–one straight, one in cocktail form mixed with Midori–despite my huge dinner and relatively high tolerance. Another great thing about Café Absinthe is the food is up to Horie standards, but the prices are quite reasonable in comparison to many other places nearby. The service is also stupendous.
Cafe Absinthe is open from 11:30 am to 3:00 am, every day except Tuesday. It is located a short distance from Nishiohashi Station (Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line) or Yotsubashi Station (Yotsubashi Subway Line). The Cafe Absinthe website can be found here (directions are listed, you can look at this Google Maps link).You can call them (06-6534-6635) if you get lost walking from the station (they speak both English and Japanese well).