A Tale of Two Cities: Kyoto vs Osaka

Photo: ken H on Flickr

A Tale of Two Cities: Kyoto vs Osaka

Liam Carrigan

As of next week, I will have been living in the Kansai area for 3 years. In that time, I’ve had the honour and pleasure of seeing the sights, sounds, fun and festivities of this great region.

Amongst all the various highlights, the two undoubted gems in the gleaming crown that is Kansai are Kyoto and Osaka. These two magnificent cities are frequently top of the travel list for those tourists brave enough to venture beyond the old favourites of Tokyo and Yokohama.

They sit almost smack bang in the centre of Japan separated only by around 35 kilometres or a 40 minute train ride.

Both cities also enjoy a proud history as major players in Japan’s evolution down the years from a loosely connected chain of feudal fiefdoms to a modern day technological and economic powerhouse.

Kyoto Golden Pavilion

Kyoto Golden Pavilion
Photo: mariusz kluzniak on Flickr
And yet, in spite of their close proximity and their shared history, in a local context these cities are often characterized by their differences rather than their shared common traits.

In many ways, I find the perceived “rivalry” between Osaka and Kyoto to be quite analogous with the similar “love-hate” relationship between my hometown Glasgow, in Scotland and our “friends” in Edinburgh, some 50 kilometres to the east.

Much like Kyoto and Osaka, Glasgow and Edinburgh are two cities very close to each other (a mere 45 minutes by train) but each embodying very different characteristics.

Osaka skyline

Osaka skyline
Photo: Yoshikazu TAKADA on Flickr
As with Osaka, Glasgow is very much an industrial and business hub. The huge port in Osaka’s Minato Ward, where I currently live does in many ways evoke memories of the Clydeside in its shipbuilding heyday, when Glasgow was known as the “Second city of the Empire”.

Kyoto conversely, has much more in common with Edinburgh. The splendid view one can enjoy overlooking all of Kyoto City from atop the magnificent Kiyomizu Temple is truly a sight to behold and is in many ways reminiscent of a similar cityscape view that one can enjoy from atop the famous Edinburgh Castle.

So, in short Osaka is more a place of industrial slog and, at time, equally industrial language! Kyoto on the other hand, is viewed as a place of culture, refinement and history.

Osaka's Minato waterfront

Osaka's Minato waterfront
Photo: Jeff on Flickr
The people of these two cities are also remarkably different, considering their close proximity.

Osakans tend to be laid back, almost to the point of seeming surly. And although they may seem a bit rough around the edges, once you get to know them they are wonderful people.

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto.

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto.
Photo: John Weiss on Flickr
In Kyoto, sometimes the people can seem a little aloof, arrogant, almost condescending, but again these are just stereotypes and once you get beneath the surface you will find that they are warm, friendly and loving people.

So, which is better?

For tourists, Kyoto certainly offers far more sightseeing potential. However, as the home to most of Japan’s best foods and best comedians, Osaka has a unique character that must also be experienced. There’s a reason why they call Osaka as “Japan’s Kitchen”.

But then again Kyoto is certainly no stranger to delicious food, having some delightful dishes of its own. I particularly recommend the Tofu Donuts!

Tofu Doughnuts, Kyoto

Tofu Doughnuts, Kyoto
Photo: erysimum9 on Flickr
Osaka of course is famous for its Takoyaki, its Okonomiyaki not to mention the excellent range of local sakes and craft beers as the perfect accompaniment.

In terms of food, Osaka probably just about edges it, however in terms of service, presentation and sheer classiness, one must give Kyoto the nod.

Takoyaki, Osaka.

Takoyaki, Osaka.
Photo: keepon i on Flickr
When it comes to the weather, one also has to give a bit more credit to Kyoto. The summer in Osaka is a stifling sauna of seemingly endless heat and humidity. Kyoto, with the slightly higher altitude, less pollution and more open spaces and less tall buildings is undoubtedly cooler in summer, making walking around decidedly easier.

Likewise the snowfall in winter tends to be a lot heavier in Kyoto than in Osaka. Whilst I’ve never been a fan of cold weather, there’s definitely something to be said for the sheer romantic beauty of Kinkakuji, in all its golden splendour, decorated with soft white dusting of snow.

For romantic winter snowscapes, we’d have to go with Kyoto.

Kinkakuji covered in snow.

Kinkakuji covered in snow.
Photo: YuZou Huang on Flickr
Ok, so Osaka seems to be taking a bit of a bashing here at the moment, but there’s plenty of good things to say about this place too.

For starters Osaka definitely has the edge when it comes to shopping. Whilst the high class charms of Osaka Grand Front and the accompanying high end department stores that dot the Umeda and Namba skyline are undeniable, there’s also a lot to be said for some of Osaka’s more unique shopping areas, such as the cosplay, video gaming and general weirdness paradise that is Nipponbashi. Kyoto has the quality, but in this regard, maybe it lacks the charm, so that’s a point back for Osaka for sure.

Ōsaka - Namba: Dōtonbori

Ōsaka - Namba: Dōtonbori
Photo: Wally Gobetz on Flickr
There’s also the issue of safety. Now of course Japan in general is one of the safest countries on Earth, to the point that any kind of violent crime here still garners national news headlines.

However, if we are going to be picky about this, then it needs to be said that Osaka is still considered Japan’s most dangerous city, in terms of crime numbers per head of population. That being said, I can go for a walk anytime, day or night in this city and never feel in any danger. But then again, I am from Glasgow!

Overall, I would have to call this contest a tie. I live in Osaka, but Kyoto is somewhere I have always found charming and I may well end up living there in the future at some point. In the meantime, it remains a popular weekend retreat for me, whenever the hustle and bustle of Osaka becomes a little too much.