In all the years I lived in Japan, and to my great shame, I never once visited Osaka. In my mind, it would just be a slightly smaller version of Tokyo. With a few days off within my schedule, my thinking was that my free time would be better spent in the countryside or overseas, at least for a change of scenery if not a change of pace. When I did finally get to Osaka, the city I discovered was as different from Tokyo as New York is from L.A.
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1 Nov 2013 - 9:49 AM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2013 - 3:18 PM

There’s an ease about Osaka that’s very different from Tokyo. Both cities move fast and work hard, but where Tokyo can at times appear anxious and formal, Osaka just always seems to be smiling.

It comes down to the people. Osakans have a reputation for being friendly and boisterous, but also for having a keen business sense. The standard Osakan daily greeting even translates in English as, “Are you making lots of money?”

They say that when the cities first sprung up, the people of Tokyo were samurai and the people of Osaka were merchants, and that accounts for why Tokyoites stick left on stairs and escalators (to allow them to draw their swords with their right hands) while Osakans travel on the right (to protect their wallets). Whether you believe that story or not, there’s no doubt that the people of Osaka are a very different breed from their Tokyo cousins.

The Osakan dialect is used by comedians on Japanese TV to convey a relaxed and convivial air, and they use that dialect whether they’re from Osaka or not. Probably the best way to describe the differences between the people of Tokyo and Osaka is to point out that in the dubbed versions of the Harry Potter movies, the only character that speaks in the Osakan dialect is Hagrid.

The unique character of Osaka is, of course, immediately apparent in the food. You might describe Osakan cuisine as the food of good times. Simple, inexpensive, made to be shared, and about as delicate as a sledgehammer to the head.

There’s okonomiyaki, the famous “Japanese pancake”, which a friend of mine from Texas described more appropriately as “a pizza with barbecue sauce”. There’s also kushikatsu: deep-fried skewers of anything from cheese to pork belly, again with a sticky, sweet sauce. Takoyaki are little fried balls of octopus and pickled ginger, most often smothered in a thick layer of Japanese mayonnaise. Even Osakan hakozushi is sushi of strongly vinegared fish pressed into box molds with sushi rice, a world apart from the delicate nigiri (or “Edo-mae”) sushi you get in Tokyo.

If more visitors landed in Osaka first instead of Tokyo, Japan’s reputation abroad might be very different.