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Osaka - Japan

The idiosyncratic mood of this metropolis is perhaps best reflected in its nationally-televised manzai teams: duos who put on bawdy performances in the manner of Abbot and Costello that rock the rest of straight-laced Japan.

The flip side is the city's reputation for aggression, although Osaka is very safe compared to other world cities of the same size. To think of it as little more than colorfully rough and ready, though, is to do it a disservice. It is a source of bubbling cultural energy, beauty and historical richness.

Umeda

The central business district is at the northern hub of Umeda, just three stops south on the Midosuji subway line from the bullet-train station of Shin-Osaka. A conglomeration of businesses, deluxe hotels, retail high-rises and, at night, countless karaoke bars full of red-nosed "salary men," Umeda is as close as the city gets to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The numerous international hotels that have sprung up over the past few years make Umeda the natural choice for the business traveller or adventure-seeking tourist travelling in comfort. The district is also served by several train and subway lines.

Inside Hankyu Station is the mammoth bookstore Kinokuniya, well stocked with English titles, as well as magazines and newspapers. Check out Hankyu's new Hep Five shopping, restaurant and cinema complex with its built-in Hep Five Ferris Wheel. Behind HEP Five, you will find yourself in the nightlife district of Doyama-cho, which is full of restaurants, love hotels and gay bars.

Shinsaibashi

Three stops south, the Midosuji subway line will bring you to Shinsaibashi, the centre of Osaka's youth scene. Be sure to stop by Triangle Park in the centre of Ame-mura (American Village). The park itself is unremarkable, but it is the starting point for exploring the clothing stores, the record shops, the cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs, the knick-knack stores and, of course, the hip youth that give this area its special colour.

Go a little further west to Yotsubashi-suji Street and Naniwa-suji Street, two boulevards running parallel to Midosuji (all suji run north-south and all dori run east to west). On and between these thoroughfares and running north up to Minami Semba you will find an array of newly established boutiques, jewelery stores, health shops, ethnic shops and bars, cafes and restaurants that cater to a more chic and yuppie crowd.

The east side of the tree-lined main boulevard of Midosuji is dominated by Daimaru department store. Behind Daimaru is the famous Dotombori Bridge, also known as Nampa-bashi or Hikkake-bashi (that is, "Pick-Up Bridge") in reference to its reputation as a place for liaisons. You will recognise it by the legendary Glico Man neon sign, and the equally well-known crab shop Kanidoraku Honten located at its southern end. Almost in front of you, at the bridge, you will see another famous landmark, Shin Kabukiza, Osaka's main kabuki theatre.

Dotombori

Dotombori runs from east to west from here and is worth a walk down for a look at its restaurants and bars. Here you will get a feel of Osaka's earthy, racy air which can border on the squalid, especially after sundown. The canal running alongside is a remnant of the network of waterways that once laced the city. Sightseeing cruises are widely available.

Then, back on Midosuji, check out the Peace Cafe for a quiet drink and a wonderful view of the street. West of Midosuji the street loses its seedy aspect completely and is a good place to visit if you are in the mood for some nice dining.

Namba

Namba is the next subway stop south, and by walking just a couple of minutes further down, you will get to Nankai Railway's Namba Station with its gigantic, brown, modern Swissotel Nankai. The Nankai Line heading south of here runs on top of a long shopping mall that offers a staggering array of goods and services. Also, behind the station on the next east-west road to the south is the Hard Rock Cafe Osaka, and a little further south is the grunge nightclub Club Rockets.

If you walk southeast from Namba to Sakai-suji, or take the Sennichimae subway line one stop to Nipponbashi, you will arrive at Osaka's discount electronics mile, the place for cameras, computers, stereos and electrical appliances. At the end of Sakai-suji is Osaka's rather clumsy but nationally famous answer to the Eiffel Tower, Tsutenkaku Tower, reportedly the tallest structure in Asia at the time of its construction in 1912. The surrounding area of Shinsekai ("New World") is about as unsophisticated as you can get, but it is pleasantly punctuated by the snazzy amusement complex Festivalgate and the adjoining Spa World.

Tennoji

The next stop south is Osaka's southernmost hub, Tennoji, a large concentration of places to shop, eat and drink, both ancient and modern. These include Kintetsu Department Store, Mio shopping building, the Apollo Building, Lucius, Avetica underground shopping/dining complex and the shops that line Abeno-suji, a street that boasts the city's last remaining tram line. For high-class Japanese dining there is Kai, and for a cheap, friendly neighbourhood pub try Tin's Hall.

Nearby are Tennoji Park, the city's newly refurbished Zoological Gardens and the National Art Museum. On the slope between Matsuyamachi-suji (think motorbike shops) and Tanimachi-suji is the main concentration of shrines and temples. Do not miss the avant-garde Isshinji Temple and the grand Shitenno-ji Temple, reputedly the nation's oldest. Mixed amongst these you will not be able to ignore the scores of love hotels, often notable for their far-fetched and wacky decor.

For some more ancient history, visit Osaka Castle, the seat of Japan's unifying lord, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Nearby is Kyobashi, home to Osaka Business Park. A walk around the river between Kyobashi and Tenma is worth it for the peaceful riverside paths and the elegant old buildings.

Finally, for a day of fun with a bit of sea air there is the newly developing harbour area of Nanko, where the main attraction is a very modern aquarium.
 
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