I am often asked what I like about living in Osaka. And because I have also lived in Tokyo, I am also asked whether I prefer Osaka or Tokyo. Besides the fact that my job and life are here, there are four primary reasons I prefer to live in Osaka over any other place in Japan:
1. The People
This is the number one reason Osaka is the most livable place I have found in Japan. People here are the most open-minded (including their attitudes toward foreign residents), are willing to help out strangers, and are basically warm and approachable. It is easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger almost anywhere you go, and if you need help because you are lost or unsure of something, just ask someone nearby and you will almost never be ignored. The “people” factor is not only my top reason for staying here; ask anyone here and you will likely hear the same thing.
With a metropolitan population of approximately 3 million, Osaka City is big but not too big, and despite the tri-city metro area population of approximately 20 million, it does not (for the most part) have the hellish commutes, snail-like traffic and infuriating crowds of cities like Tokyo or Seoul. There are many of small shops and businesses mixed in with department stores and chain stores, so you can easily find something that suites your tastes — the inexhaustible number of hidden places to explore is one of the city’s best features. Unlike its historical rival, Tokyo, Osaka is planned well, so you won’t get lost wondering the streets (I dare you to try explaining the order behind the urban planning and subway system of the capital). The cost of living is also more than reasonable in comparison. Finally, Osaka has many well-designed parks and waterfront spots, making for a pleasant urban environment. Despite its past reputation as a dirty, industrial city, Osaka has become a massive commercial center and one of the cleanest and most livable cities you will find.
3. Rich Culture and History
Osaka has played many roles throughout its history, including that of the imperial capital (as Naniwa-kyo), an important trade port and point for importing cultural innovations, a diplomatic host for Chinese and Korean visitors when the capital moved first to Nara and then Kyoto, the base of Toyotomi military power, the prime economic center and site of the world’s first futures market during the Edo Period, a major manufacturing center during the early modern period and period of high-speed growth, a temporary capital when Tokyo was burned to the ground in the fires of the 1923 earthquake, a primary commercial and trade center since the postwar period, and now an increasingly international city and central hub for Japan and East Asia. This rich history has given rise to a unique culture and a number of rich, deep-rooted traditions. Osaka is also the transportation hub of Kansai, the cultural center and birthplace of Japanese civilization, so you can reach places such as Nara, Kyoto, and Himeji in no time.
4. The Food
Osaka is historically known as “the nation’s kitchen” for its role in supplying and acting as a hub for the food industry. It is also famous for its cuisine — not luxury cuisine, mind you, but “B-level” (B-kyu) cuisine. The quality of okonomiyaki, takoyaki, ramen, soba, kushikatsu, sushi, and other foods people eat on a regular basis is outstanding. In addition, the large number of non-Japanese living in the city means there is a huge selection of international cuisine, too — Korean food in Tsuruhashi, for example. Delicious food at surprisingly low prices is definitely one of the city’s strongest points.
Recently, I have been spending a lot of time going around Osaka Prefecture to places I haven’t visited in order to evaluate and collect information for my upcoming website, Osaka Insider. One of the places I visited was Tondabayashi City’s jinaimachi (寺内町). For you non-Japanese-speakers out there, that means “temple town,” and that describes the historical origins of this site. Its development centered on Koshoji Betsuin, the temple partially pictured above, which was established in the 16th century. From the 17th century (the Edo Period) onward, it developed into a rural trade town and lost much of its religious character, instead taking on the merchant culture seen most clearly in Osaka at the time. Many of the mansions are preserved today, and the jinaimachi’s urban landscape has changed little since that time, making it a truly valuable cultural asset to Osaka Prefecture.
While there, I was able to tour two merchant residences, the huge Sugiyama residence and the somewhat more modest Katsuma residence. The Katsuma residence was actually my favorite, as it still had people living inside and retained a more homey atmosphere–sitting in the guest room drinking tea while looking out at the garden on a hot summer day was quite pleasant. The impressive Sugiyama residence, on the other hand, was set up more like a museum (and rightly so). Both residences are very close to each other, and both deserve a visit.
Very few people were interested in visiting Tondabayashi, despite it being relatively good weather and a Saturday. It is one of my goals to provide tourist information for truly unique places like this, with its Edo-period cityscape and feel, and its friendly little shops scattered here and there amongst the old wooden buildings. I want to promote Osaka, which until recently has received very little attention as a tourism destination (even now, most focus lies on Osaka City itself, rather than the relatively poorer prefectural towns like Tondabayashi). However, I am a bit worried that, someday, peaceful little places like this may become stifled by tourists as is often the case in destinations such as nearby Kyoto and Nara. I suppose the selfish part of me wants to have the streets of this charming little temple town all to myself.
At any rate, I hope all readers will visit Tondabayashi once. While you are there, I also recommend (especially for the ladies) you visit “Jinaimachi terra,” a little family-run shop near the jinaimachi’s information center.