OSAKA, JAPAN — The cities of Kyoto and Osaka are separated by about 50 kilometers, thousands of years of history and about a billion blinking neon lights.
Despite their proximity, these two prefectural heavyweights could not be more different. Whereas Kyoto has stubbornly held onto its pre-Edo roots, Osaka has fully bought into the wave of modernization that defines post-war Japan.
Ironically, one of the only protected historical sites in Osaka is also its most famous. Osaka castle has stood in one form or another for nearly 600 years and was the center of power for a host of Japan’s most famous Shoguns.
The impressive granite structure is ringed by two massive moats, a series of nearly impenetrable walls and miles of skyscrapers that stretch to the horizon. It makes for a picturesque photo in this otherwise uber-modern metropolis.
The contemporary face of Osaka, however, is centered around Dotombori Arcade — a mile long stretch of Izakaya pubs, Pachinko parlors and karaoke halls that are nearly drowning in the flood of neon from every angle.
Expect for all of your senses to be accosted here: from the smell of frying Takoyaki (battered octopus balls), the unending din of Pachinko machines and the theatrics of the giant moving signage trying to out-do one another.
Follow your way past the big crab, take a left at the big hand holding sushi, skirt by the big pufferfish and you’ll find Dotombori’s most lasting symbol, the Glico running man: ten stories of neon lights that set the stage for this ever-joggin Marathoner as he passes various backgrounds. This is the place to grab a tall Suntory and soda and watch the world — both neon and flesh — pass by.
The next day it was time to leave the neon behind and find Japan’s most beloved pastime: baseball. The local Osaka Buffaloes were battling the Rakuten Golden Eagles in the neighboring city of Kobe. Forget what you know about American baseball; things go a little differently here. For one, the action in the stands almost outdoes that on the field. While the players are efficiently working on a string of unassuming singles, the fans in the bleachers complete a highly rehearsed series of songs, pantomimes and dances to cheer on their favorite team.
In fact, each player has their own chant and the home fans recite it religiously the entire time the batter is in the box. That is until you come to the seventh inning. There’s no “Take me out to the ballgame” here. Instead, EVERYONE in the stands blows up curiously shaped balloons, sings a song in perfect unison and then releases the screaming balloons to shoot through the sky and onto the field. Finally, a place where the fandom outweighs the actual sport being played.
The lack of traditional baseball food (who wants to snack on rice and edamame at a baseball game?) in the stadium led us to seek out Kobe’s most famous dish. We wandered through the pretty downtown streets before finding a perfect little pub to sample the massaged, Sake-fed beef — sumptuous, marbled and so flavorful.
What an amazing juxtaposition from the regal and quiet Kyoto. In fact, these dueling city sisters are where you truly feel the heart of Japan. At nearly the same time, these cities show you the ancient and the modern, humility and bombast, subtlety and the extremes of flavor, song and light. We soaked it in and asked for seconds.