Photo: すしぱく on Pakutaso

The Highlights & Distinctions of Osaka – Tokyo's Younger Sibling

Osaka is a well-known metropolis with a population of around 2.691 million but how does it compare to its bigger brother, Tokyo? Just hours apart by Shinkansen (bullet train), both these cities have unique differences. While Tokyo, the capital, is considered symbolic of modern Japanese society, Osaka boasts its own oneness that visitors often find captivating.

1. Dialect

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Most people are aware that standard Japanese is used in and around Japan's capital, Tokyo. However, visitors to the city of Osaka are soon introduced to the dialect that adds to the uniqueness of the city and its satellite municipalities. Known as Osaka-ben or Kansai-ben, it is a colloquial form of Japanese which is widely used.

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso

It is not a way of speaking that can be easily copied by Japanese people from other parts of the country. Indeed, people from other towns, cities or prefectures often fail to master its intonation and/or pronunciation. It could, in fact, be compared, in some ways, to London’s famous Cockney Rhyming Slang, although not as vague or misleading as that particular communication tool. Most Osaka people are amused when a person from another part of Japan tries to use Osaka-ben – it just doesn’t sound right. Mr. Makoto Sakai, a businessman who transferred from Panasonic’s Tokyo office to the company’s headquarters in Osaka, explained, “I would love to be able to speak Osaka-ben, but it is just too difficult to learn correctly.

Osaka's unparalleled vernacular is not only used by most of the population of Kansai but by Tokyo-based Japanese comedians in the entertainment industry. Most of Japan’s top comedians hail from Osaka or the Kansai area.

2. Cuisine

Takoyaki. Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Osaka is also known for its distinct cuisine. There is, for example, Osaka’s own and famous okonomiyaki which is basically Japan’s version of pizza. Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) is another favorite with both visitors and residents; although these two food choices can also be found in Japan’s capital, it is Osaka’s unique taste which sets it apart from Tokyo. Kitsune udon is another fare that is readily available in both major cities, however, in Osaka, the soup is quite a different look and taste – Tokyo has a dark; almost black soup while Osaka’s is a light-brown color. According to the aforementioned, Makoto Sakai, “Tokyo’s udon has a dark color because there is more soy sauce used.” It is generally accepted, in both cities, that Osaka has the better tasting udon.

Udon noodles. Photo by Rene on Flickr.
Okonomiyaki. Photo by つるたま on Pakutaso.

Tokyo is Japan’s capital city, however, that has cornered the culinary tastes of sushi connoisseurs. This is not to suggest that sushi dishes in Osaka are not delicious, but if you ask a Japanese person which city has the best tasting sushi and he or she will more than likely choose Tokyo. Mr. Toshi Okahara, an Osaka restaurant owner, explained, “I think sushi is slightly better in Tokyo because Tokyo is the capital city of Japan and main port of entry for tourists so, restaurants want to ensure foreign customers as well as Japanese people from other parts of the country, are not disappointed.” Mr. Okahara stresses, however, that “Osaka’s sushi is still tasty.” There is one significant difference between dining out in Osaka to dining out in Tokyo, and that is the prices. Osaka is much cheaper.

3. Sightseeing

 Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Probably the most iconic symbols of Osaka are either the giant neon “Glico Man” sign on Dotonburi or the city’s own tower - the Tsutenkaku in Shinimamiya. In contrast, Tokyo has its own famous places like Tokyo Tower, The Emperor’s Palace, Meiji Jingu, and more recently, Skytree. Visitors to the city also have night spots like Roppongi, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and Kabukicho - just a short walk from Shinjuku Station's East Exit.

Dontonbori. Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Osaka also has its lesser-known but popular nightspots. There’s Namba in the south and in the north, the more expensive, Umeda in the center of the city. Both areas offer a slew of restaurants and entertainment spots. Visitors can check out the countless bars and eateries in Shinsaibashi’s neon-lit American Mura (village), or Namba’s famous “Big Crab” and “Big Ebi” (shrimp) on Dotonbori. Near Osaka Station, there are the equally neon-lit narrow alleyways Kitashinshi, and Higashi-Dori where restaurants, bars, and karaoke boxes are again, ubiquitous.

If it is Japan’s long history that interests you, there’s Osaka Castle, Sumiyoshi Taisha (shrine), Osaka’s Art Museum in Tennoji and other places of historical significance. There is also the option, of an easy and quick trip to either Nara (Japan’s original capital) to view the Daibutsu (giant Buddha) and feed the deer wandering in Nara Park. Kyoto - which was also once the ancient capital – is just 40 minutes from downtown Osaka. This city is abound with Japanese history, from maiko-san (trainee geisha) to ancient shrines like Kinkakuji (the golden temple) and Kiyomizudera. Annually there are traditional festivals like Gion Matsuri, that give a visitor a peek into Japan's past.

Osaka Castle. Photo by Perry Li on Flickr.

Both of these satellite cities are less than an hour from downtown Osaka.

Anyone who has been living in Japan for any length of time knows of the friendly, decades-old, rivalry between Tokyo and Osaka – Tokyo built Tokyo Dome for baseball games and as a concert venue. A few years later Osaka Dome opened to great fanfare. Tokyo negotiated with the Disney Corporation and opened Tokyo Disneyland. Not wanting to be outdone, Osaka brought Universal Studios to Japan. 

Photo by Rebirth10 on Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s an interesting fact, initially, Universal Studios in Osaka was to be named “Universal Studio, Osaka” but the initialism would have spelled out USO which means, untrue or lie in Japanese. Needless to say, Universal Studios, Japan or USJ was the initialism adopted.

4. The People

 Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

There are subtle differences between the people of Tokyo and Osaka. Generally, people living in Japan’s capital are considered more stoic and taciturn than their Osaka counterparts. Indeed, the average born-in-Osaka person is, in no way, reserved or stoic. Many are quite willing to voice their opinions and can get emotional about things. This is probably why most of Japan’s best comedians hail from the country’s second-largest metropolis. As mentioned earlier, Osaka dialect is the perfect comedy communication tool for these men and women. 

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

So, the question that begs to be asked is why the people are different? According to the aforementioned, Mr. Sakai, “Tokyo is a city comprised of people from different parts of Japan. Different areas mean different customs – ways of thinking, etc. therefore to maintain harmony and work well with others, folks are unassuming or demure and less forthcoming."

On the other hand, Mr. Toshi Okahara explains, “Osaka has a large percentage of its population born and raised, either in the city or one of its satellite cities. In fact, during Japan’s Edo and Meiji eras, Osaka was considered Japan’s merchant city – a city of business owners rather than farmers. This is why people are much more boisterous than those in Tokyo.”.

Photo by Type specimen on Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that Osaka was - and still is thought by many – as the business center of Japan is probably why Osaka people are not shy or embarrassed to ask for discounts when shopping for luxury items. Folks in Tokyo, however, are not renown for their haggling skills. 

There is one quirk between the people of these two Japanese cities which needs to be mentioned and occurs when taking an escalator. In Tokyo, people automatically stand on the left as they ride up to the next level of a station or in a building. Osaka, however, people are expected to stand on the right. No one interviewed for this article in Osaka can explain why. What is even more intriguing is the fact if you travel 40 minutes from Osaka to Kyoto you'll be surprised to find that Kyoto people stand on the left the same as in Tokyo. So, why do Osaka people stand on the right? Perhaps someday, this mystery will be solved.

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