Destination Insight: Osaka
Osaka for Business
While not as famous as Tokyo or Kyoto, Osaka is an important and thriving business hub with a lot of heavy industry, and many manufacturing, life sciences and technology companies. The city is renowned for its outstanding food scene and its down-to-earth, spirit. It's also near to several prominent spiritual sites associated with the Shinto religion and for that reason is sometimes described as 'the soul of Japan.'
Once you've conducted your business, you'll find no shortage of ways to spend a few days at leisure in and around Osaka. Here are just a handful of suggestions.
Dotonbori by Night
If you only have limited time to explore Osaka, head first to the lively area of Dotonbori in the southern part of downtown Osaka. But do so after dark to best experience this full-on sensory overload experience. Prepare to be dazzled by the masses of neon signs, including the famous Running Man and the Giant Moving Crab, among others.
Pop into a Pachinko and hear the banks of amusement machines roar and clatter, browse the many fun shops selling all manner of cute (or 'Kawaii') souvenirs and treat yourself to a late night street food snack such as a giant scallop broiled on a little griddle. Top off the evening with a flask of sake from one of the many Izakaya, cosy local inns selling food and often packed with sozzled salarymen. You can also take a river cruise along the to take in all of the city illuminations and stop off for food along the way.
Conquer Osaka Castle
One of the city's most striking historical landmarks is actually a 19th century reconstruction, as the original castle brunt down after a lightning strike in 1665. It's an impressive structure set in expansive grounds and behind a vast, moss-clad moat with an interesting range of artifacts, military costumes and interactive displays (including some very cleverly composed mini video dioramas depicting various historical scenes) spread out over 8 floors, so allow plenty of time to explore it.
The top floor has an observation gallery giving fine views over the sprawling cityscape including the domed Aquarium, which despite being no longer open to the public is still a major Osaka landmark. If you can go in spring time you can see it in all its glory, when the grounds are be-decked in vivid pink cherry blossoms.
Visit a Traditional Noh Theatre
Noh Theatre is a highly stylised classical Japanese performance art form which tells historical and mythical stories using minimal staging, a type of narrative signing sung in an older form of the Japanese language, century old masks and elaborate costumes, performed with very deliberate and slow movements. A Noh performance is often quite eerie and mournful, a little like Portuguese Fado.
The word Noh literally means skill or craft and reflects the fact that the form draws heavily on tradition and dates back to the 14th century. Visit a theatre such as the Yamamoto Theatre in Osaka to get an excellent interpretation of the form and fully immerse yourself in this fascinating cultural medium.
Walk the Kumano Kodo
The Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage route and is one of only two walks in the world to have been granted UNESCO status, an accolade it shares with Spain's Camino de Santiago. There are various routes you can tackle, but for an easy immersion you can do in a day, consider the 7km stretch between Hoshinomon-oji and the Kumano Hongu Taisha. This easy hike will take you past charming little farms where monkeys pinch the fruit and through dense forests of tall cedars and cypress trees.
Look out for the many small Jizo shrines dotted along the trail too, all of which were created for visitors to leave a small offering and pray for specific things like curing toothache or improving academic prowess, and there are also 'honesty shops' where you can purchase locally-made craft items or punnets of pickled plums.
You'll wind up at the Hongu Grand Shrine Shrine, a beautiful spot garlanded in iconic Japanese scenery of lily ponds and Japanese maple trees, for some reflection where you can perform a ritualised prayer bow and O-Yunohara, Japan's largest Tori Gate.
Ride the Shimakaze Train to Ise
Japan has some of the world's most advanced trains of course including the famous Shinkhansen bullet trains, and this less well known service, the Shimakze Express run by the privately operated Kinetsu Rail Company is equally impressive. Take the train from Osaka'a Namba Station for a 2 hour journey to Ise.
Ise is one of Japan's most scared spots associated with the Shinto religion. Here you can visit the Ise Gingu Shrine, before then checking out the charming shopping and street food area of Okage Yokocho Street nearby.
On board you can expect super-comfy seats, in spacious cars with a massage function, a three-tier buffet car serving delicious bento boxes and impressive cakes and picture windows giving wonderful views of the scrolling farmland and mountain scenery. It will be over before you've had time to fully enjoy it!
Immerse yourself in Onsen at Shirahama
If you're spending at least a few days in Japan you must experience the essential ritual of an onsen, a traditional, communal hot spring steam bath. Many Japanese resort towns offer onsen of all kinds and they're a popular feature of many hotels in this region. The charming beach resort of Shirahama has many such hotels and ryokans (more traditional Japanese inns with tatami mats and futons, instead of beds and low tables for the all-important green tea ritual). Make sure you head down to the white sands of Sunset Bay for that sunset picture framed between the the naturally arched rocks of Engetsuto Island (pictured above).
There is a fairly specific code of etiquette around visiting an onsen. Firstly they are divided by gender and you are expected to bathe naked, after taking a rigorous 'sit down shower' of course. You'll be given a small modesty towel (which you can wear around the changing room area but not in the baths themselves) a locker key, some slippers ,and of course a yakuta - basically a lightweight kimono. You must tie this from left to right. Tying it the other way is reserved only for burials so you don't want to get that wrong! Guests often wear these down to dinner and around the hotels,
For those too shy to plump for totally nude bathing, there's always the foot onsen. At the top of the Ise-Shima Skyine Observatory there is a natural foot onsen where after a day's hard hiking you can revive your tired soles with a good soak in the natural hot spring water while taking in the spectacular views.
You can reach Osaka Kansai Aiport with a daily direct, 10 hour flight from Helsinki with Finnair. Why not make the most of Finnair's stopover service via Helsinki from London, Edinburgh and Manchester airports and spend a night in Finland's capital too? And don't forget to read our guide to Helsinki before you do.
Osaka is a vast city with excellent, reliable transportation, though the extensive network there can be a little overwhelming especially to first timer visitors. It helps to get a map of the main network. Most stations have signs in English. The JR Osaka Loop Line runs around the central districts. There are also water transportation options in around Osaka, including water buses and cruises.