Osaka is Japan’s third largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama and is a short train ride from Kyoto. The city has the feel of an industrial office park with the exception of Osaka Castle, Osaka-jo, that dominates Osaka’s heart just as it did centuries ago, while the venerable Shitenno-ji and Sumiyoshi Taisha hark back to the city’s past importance as a religious centre. In contrast, bizarre modern buildings, such as the spaceship-like Osaka Dome sports stadium and the fantastic aquarium at the Tempozan Harbour Village, are prominent as is the large-scale theme park, Universal Studios Japan, and the Osaka Aquarium.
However, all of the guide books seem to omit two Osaka inventions that warrant further investigation: Cup Noodles and plastic food. The former needs no introduction for anyone who went through college on a limited budget. The latter was invented in Osaka as a way for Japanese people to order Western food at the turn of the 20th century. Today they are ubiquitous as they are seen wherever there is a Japanese restaurant in the world.
There are some interesting things to see in Osaka but in general I have found Kyoto to be a much more culturally interesting city. Unless you have ample time, I’d suggest Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto.
Osaka Castle is the symbol of Osaka and is synonymous with its creator, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. In 1583, Hideyoshi began construction at the former site of Honganji Temple and completed the magnificent castle, which was reputed as being unparalleled in the country. After Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who worked for Hideyoshi as his chief retainer, was appointed to the Shogun and he established the shogunate (government) in Edo (Tokyo). In 1615, Ieyasu ruined the Toyotomi family and destroyed Osaka Castle (in the Summer War of Osaka). Thereafter, the Tokugawa shogunate reconstructed Osaka Castle. It held the castle under its direct control until 1868, when the Tokugawa shogunate lost power and the castle fell. In 1931, the Main Tower of the Castle was reconstructed in the center of Osaka Castle, which was used as a military base, with funds raised by the citizens. The present-day Main Tower is the third generation. It follows the Main Tower from the Toyotomi period, which was destroyed by fire during the Summer War, and the tower from the Tokugawa period, which was struck by lightning and was burned down. Since its construction, Osaka Castle repeatedly featured as the battleground of the major wars in Japanese history.
The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum
Momofuku Ando (安藤 百福), was the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman-emeritus of Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd., and the inventor of instant noodles and cup noodles. On August 25, 1958, at the age of 48, and after months of trial and error experimentation to perfect his flash-frying method, Ando marketed the first package of precooked instant noodles. Called Chikin Ramen (チキンラーメン), after the original chicken flavour, it was originally considered a luxury item with a price of ¥35 around six times that of traditional udon and soba noodles at the time. Ando began the sales of his most famous product, Cup Noodles on September 18, 1971 with the masterstroke of providing a waterproof polystyrene container. As prices dropped, ramen soon became a booming business. Worldwide demand reached 98 billion servings in 2007. As of 2007, Chikin Ramen is still sold in Japan and now retails for around ¥60, or approximately one third the price of the cheapest bowl of noodles in a Japanese restaurant.
Here is a video of our visit in August 2009: