Join us for a time-travelling trip back to Osaka, and visit the central Japanese city in the 19th century as we sample the best sushi in town, experience the wonders of Kabuki theatre and explore the city's bustling markets.
Historical city travel guide: Osaka in the early 19th century
When people visit Osaka, quite a lot end up staying there for a while. For it is a neat and clean city, the people are good-natured, and, on top of that, ample gold and silver circulates. No wonder it is a good place to live.
– Hata Ginkei (1790–1870), Chimata no uwasa (Rumours Around Town), 1835.
Osaka is located in the central part of the Japanese archipelago, neighbouring the cities of Kyoto to the north and Nara to the east, and Kii province to the south. With a secure location and easy access to marine transport, Osaka has always been important. From the mid-seventh to late eighth centuries AD, imperial palaces were built here, and in the 1580s, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98) established this as the site of his grand Osaka Castle.
To the west of the city, Osaka Bay connects to the Japanese inland sea, Seto-naikai. Osaka is a city of water. Many canals and bridges snake through the city, resulting in a distinctive landscape unlike other big Japanese cities. In recent times, the mouths of the rivers entering Osaka Bay have become heavily silted up, making it difficult for ships to moor.
So, the mouth of one of the main rivers, Ajigawa, has been dredged. You'll be surprised to see how much sand this project produced – enough to be officially classed as a good-sized mountain (although at 4.53m above sea level, it's Japan's smallest mountain!) Now called Tenpō-zan, the mountain makes a popular destination for leisurely outings, especially when the cherry trees there are in bloom.
The weather in Osaka is mild enough so you can enjoy a visit in the winter months to catch fabulous theatre performances. The summers can be very hot, but cooling off along the river in the evening is a popular pastime. If you want to catch the beautiful cherry blossoms, visiting in spring is recommended.
If you have already been to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) or Kyoto, you may be familiar with the Eastern Sea Road (Tōkaidō) which connects the two cities. Osaka is about 50km southwest of Kyoto. There is a good road for walking, but you will need to stay overnight at one of the station towns, else your legs will give way! If you're tired, you can hire a sedan chair (kago) for part of the way. Kago are carried by two men, one at the front and one at the back, but be careful not to be caught by rogue carriers, who might demand additional fees at the end of the journey. Alternatively, you can take a boat along the Yodo river, the artery connecting southern Kyoto and Osaka.
A boat trip may be more costly than walking but is much easier. It will take you about half a day. Arriving at the boat terminal, Hachiken'ya, you will already feel the energy of the bustling city.
Osaka is lively and exciting – and walking is a good way to really experience the city. The city centre is easy to navigate as the streets are organised in a grid pattern – suji, the north-south streets, and tōri, the east-west streets – accentuated by canals at regular intervals. As more than 90 per cent of the city's population (about 350,000) are merchants and artisans, the general atmosphere is relaxed and friendly – you're not likely to encounter a samurai on the street.
If you plan to go some distance, you can hire a simple sedan chair in town. You might sometimes see box-shaped, higher-quality kago with a proper roof, wall and a blind-covered window. Those belong exclusively to certain elite or wealthy households, and there are even regulations about which rank and status can ride which type.
Things to do
Dōjima and Nakanoshima
Osaka is Japan's centre of commerce and banking, and many goods, domestic or foreign (the latter entering through Nagasaki), are traded here.
Even prestigious samurai households rely on Osaka's merchants to sell products from their domains - areas of land and governing units entrusted to samurai lords. For a uniquely 'Osaka' experience, head to the north, at the edge of the city along the river, where there are two adjacent islands called Dōjima and Nakanoshima. Here you'll find impressive rows of storehouses.
They belong to daimyo (samurai lord) households from all over Japan intending to store their yearly harvest – mainly rice and other grains – for later sale. When boats carrying a domain's rice arrive, male workers wearing only a loincloth appear as if from nowhere and start swiftly landing the load.
The contents of the straw bags are inspected and in no time they are in storage. It is impressive that the workmen appear to be able to easily carry a couple of full straw bags (weighing about 60kg each) at once!
The bustle during market periods is another impressive sight. From early morning until the afternoon, numerous rice buyers and sellers gather in Dōjima, shouting and competing over what to buy, what to sell, and at what price. As negotiations heat up, many of the traders don't notice that the time is up, so officials will splash water around in order to forcibly disperse the crowd!
The price of rice of course depends on natural conditions each year and fluctuates, sometimes wildly. The Osaka market price determines the nationwide economy, as both the salary of the ruling samurai class and the scale of their property are calculated in the koku unit of rice (1 koku is about 180 litres).
If you like the liveliness of markets, you may want to visit the fish market in Zakoba. It sits towards the western edge of town, where canals pour into the Ajigawa river.
Due to its location, Osaka is blessed with ample sea produce. Itinerant fishmongers generally are high-spirited, robust fellows, but a visitor from Edo mentioned the other day that Osaka fishmongers appear much politer and more 'elegant' than their counterparts in Edo, since they wear an apron over their tucked-up kimono, not leaving their undergarment visible. How customs differ in each city!
The southeast quarter is the temple district, where there are hundreds of Buddhist temples big and small, and also some shrines. In the largest precinct stands Shitennō-ji Temple, one of Japan's oldest temples, believed to have been established at the end of the sixth century by Prince Shōtoku (AD 574–622), an early supporter of the Buddhist faith. You will see the distinctive layout of the buildings, with the southern gates, Five-Storey Pagoda, Golden Hall and Lecture Hall all lined up on the north-south axis in the centre of the precinct, showing a direct influence from the Asian continent. It really is a sight to behold, and you're free to explore the temples as you wish.
If you want to see how the upper echelons of society live, you'll find that samurai of the ruling class reside around Osaka Castle at the northeast edge of the city. You can see the castle's turrets from a distance and, if you approach the area, the impressively tall stone walls surrounding the castle will surely inspire awe. Today, the castle is rarely used by the shogun, but it is still heavily guarded by his trusted subjects. So it is not really advisable to be seen wandering around it.
When in Osaka, you must not miss seeing Bunraku and Kabuki theatre. Bunraku is puppet theatre, accompanied by powerful jōruri chanting and strumming on the three-stringed shamisen .
You may have heard the name of one of Japan's greatest playwrights, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725). He wrote many Bunraku plays as well as Kabuki, and some of his plays such as The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Sonezaki shinjū) and The Battles of Coxinga (Kokusen'ya kassen) are still popular today. It takes three puppeteers – left, right and centre – to perform one puppet, whose every joint and facial feature is movable, in order to express all possible nuances of a character's emotions.
If you are really struck by the deep-voiced jōruri chanting, and feel like taking a lesson, amateur jōruri clubs are quite popular here. You will eventually be expected to take a turn performing, if you stay around long enough!
Kabuki theatre is the biggest entertainment, and the top actors are true stars. It is an all-male theatre, and female-role specialists (onnagata) dress as women even in their daily life. They wear a purple cloth on their forehead to cover the shaven area of hair that men customarily have.
Dōtonbori in the south of the city is the theatre district. The major theatres are Kado-za and Naka-za, which stand next to each other and are rivals in staging hit productions with famous actors. The 11th month in the lunar calendar (equivalent to December in the Gregorian calendar) is the most important month for the Kabuki theatre because that is when actors' new annual contracts with the theatre managers begin. The opening season performance with the new troupe is called kaomise kyōgen, and has a particularly merry atmosphere.
The top actors you should check out at present are Arashi Kichisaburō II, the handsome male lead-role (tachiyaku), known for his lovely almond eyes, and Nakamura Utaemon III, the pop-eyed all-round star, who also performs in the city of Edo, where he is popular too.
In and around Kabuki theatres, you may see groups of people wearing matching clothing and peculiar rectangular hats, especially at the start of a new theatrical season. They are members of Kabuki fan clubs, and devout fans to their core. They send gifts to the troupe for the new season and attend performances together. When the actor they support comes out on stage to greet the audience, they start to sing (each group has its own song), beating wooden clappers to the rhythm. Osaka Kabuki fan clubs are well known for their zeal and dedication.
Where to stay
For travellers with deep pockets, head to the left bank of the Yodo River, along the Tosa-bori moat, where there are up-market restaurants and a hotel district . You can find exquisite service in this area but, please be aware, the price tag here reflects the clientele.
North of the Dōtonbori theatre district, right in the city centre, is the biggest shopping district – Junkei-machi – along the street running east-west. You can find virtually everything here, from clothes, footwear and accessories, to food, kitchen utensils, household tools and ceramics. Numerous shops are squeezed into this one street, and it is always crowded with shoppers and browsers.
At the west end of this high street is the bridge to enter the Shinmachi district. Similar to Yoshiwara in Edo and Shimabara in Kyoto, Shinmachi is the officially licensed brothel district, isolated somewhat from the surrounding areas by enclosed walls and ditches. Unless you have plenty of money, Shinmachi may not be for you, but if you have a chance to peek at the grand procession of a courtesan (high-ranked sex worker) walking from the house of her employer to the restaurant where her client awaits, you will understand why an evening's entertainment with her and her entourage is so expensive.
Food and drink
You may have heard it said that Osaka is the 'nation's kitchen' (tenka no daidokoro).
All kinds of goods go through Osaka. Thanks to its location close to the sea and mountains, Osaka never suffers from a shortage of good food. What makes Osaka's cuisine particularly sophisticated is the use of dashi (umami-packed stock). Dried bonito from the neighbouring Kii province to the south and kelp from the land of Ezo in the far north, make the perfect dashi as a base for various dishes. Good-quality, locally-sourced soy sauce and salt are also available. From casual dining to fancy foods, the choice is yours!
The names of dishes in Osaka may sometimes appear perplexing to visitors. For example, you may see on a menu outside a small restaurant a dish called kashi-wan, meaning 'sweets bowl.' This is not a dessert, but rather sea bream fillet, a slice of steamed fish cake and shiitake mushrooms cooked in a clear savoury soup.
Getting fresh water is a bit of a problem in the city centre. Well water is too briny to drink, but you can buy fresh water from street vendors if you have cash. Otherwise, you can get fresh water for free from the well in Masui, just to the west of Shitennōji Temple. Thanks to the quality of the water springs, excellent restaurants prosper there, and you can find grand two-storey establishments.
Being on the coast, sushi is a must. The recently opened sushi shop, Fukumoto Sushi, is becoming hugely popular. The appearance of their sushi may not be what you expect. It comes in a box, with sliced fillets of abalone, sea bream or a plain omelette on a bed of rice seasoned with salt, sugar and vinegar, eaten with Japanese sanshō pepper and ginger. It is not expensive, but it's a delicious treat. It is so popular that people – even the locals – fight to buy it! Visiting the shop early in the day is recommended.
In Osaka, you can taste the best sake in Japan. This is because not only is the highest-quality clear sake produced in Itami, just across the Yodo River, but also this sake has to pass through Osaka to be transported to Edo via the eastbound sea route.
Itami sake is prized by the elites in Edo, including the shogun himself, because it is clear and clean, unlike the cloudy sake that is more typical. Nowadays you can find about 200 brands of Itami – Hoshi no I (Starry Well), Tanchō-sui (Cranes' Elixir) or Wakatake (Young Bamboo), for example – which one appeals to you?
Osaka is renowned for the summer festivals (natsu matsuri) of the shrines. The season runs from the late sixth month to early seventh month (about late July to early August in the Gregorian calendar). It takes weeks to complete the whole set of religious services at each shrine, but the highlights of the festivals are the couple of days when people in the community participate in the celebration and onlookers gather to see the lively parades.
One of the famous summer festivals is at the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine. The Shrine is quite far south of the city centre, but it is worth a half-day trip. It boasts large green premises which enshrine deities blessing safe sea travel, proficiency in poetry composition and abundant harvests. These deities have been venerated by high and low alike since ancient times.
Continue your holiday-from-home around Japan with a virtual visit to the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries, which cover Japanese history from 5000 BC to the present day. Discover five highlight objects on our gallery page.
In the mood for more time travelling? You can read these other blogs in our historical city travel guide series: