Tokyo is an electrifying city. A seething and simmering yet surprisingly well-ordered and safe megalopolis, it is a place that seems to be permanently in flux. A hotbed of creativity, fashion, culture and cuisine, this is a city with far-reaching global influence. It’s a place where, at any one time, a million half-formed ideas are bubbling away and fermenting, ready to solidify, rise up and be noticed, and to ultimately be adopted by the wider world. In a word: Tokyo is exciting.
If you’ve been to the Japanese capital and have fallen hook, line and sinker for its intoxicating charms, and are searching for the next equally buzz-worthy city to explore, we’ve got a couple of suggestions that may well scratch your Tokyo itch.
Size-wise, Osaka can’t compete with the sprawling immensity of Japan’s capital city, but it is no sleepy backwater either. In fact, Osaka is Japan’s third-largest city and has a population of 2.5 million. It is an economic powerhouse for the Kansai region and its inhabitants are known for their hardworking ethos and entrepreneurial spirit. Locals often greet each other with the phrase, mo kari makka?, which means ‘are you making money’? As you may imagine, things here move a quite a speedy pace. You get the sense that in Osaka, things are happening.
Like Tokyo, Osaka has got its fair share of neon, skyscrapers and bright lights as well as its very own Harajuku-esque shopping quarter, America Mura, which translates to ‘American village’. Once a warehouse district, America Mura is now a shopping hotspot favoured by Osaka’s fashion-conscious youth. This is the place to go if you want to see Japanese teens parading about in the latest out-there fashions and showcasing subculture street styles.
For tech-heads and gamer geeks who were taken with Tokyo’s Akihabara district, Osaka has its very own counterpart: Nipponbashi Denden Town. This neighbourhood more than manages to hold its own against its rival in the Japanese capital, with some hard-core otakus (anime and manga superfans) even declaring Osaka’s ‘electric town’ to be superior to Tokyo’s. Much like Akihabara, Osaka’s Denden Town is packed to the gills with electronic stores, anime and manga retailers, adult-themed shops and discount outlets. It’s even got its own outpost of Super Potato (English), a veritable pilgrimage spot for retro-obsessed gamers to play and buy the classic, nostalgia-inducing consoles and cartridges of their youth. Theme cafés are also prevalent here. Maid cafés, where wait staff don black-and-white maid costumes, dominate the offerings, though cat cafés stocked with adorably fluffy felines can also be found.
Speaking of cat cafés, if you want to see Japan’s first one, you can by heading over to Neko no Jikan (English review) in Osaka’s Shinsaibashi entertainment district. Neko no Jikan, which translates to mean ‘Time for Cats’, opened in 2004 and kick-started the global cat café craze. Osaka’s animal cafés don’t just limit themselves to cats in the quest for ultimate cuteness. Go to Fukuro no Mise (English review) for some quality time with some endearingly wide-eyed owls, try Dog Tail Café (English review) for some puppy love and Rockstar Café (English review) for close-up encounters with the reptiles and arachnids.
Osaka has one other potent lure for Tokyo-loving travellers: fantastic food. If you were fond of Tokyo’s dining scene (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), then you are going to go gaga for Osaka’s. Osaka’s food scene is the stuff of legend. As Akie Watanabe, co-founder and tour guide at All Star Osaka Walk explained to us, the city’s culinary culture is tied up with its history and in particular, the arrival of the powerful lord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who began to build his castle here in the 16th century. “To develop his castle town,” says Watanabe, “he persuaded merchants from other parts of the nation to resettle in Osaka. During the Edo Period, the city became an important trading and merchants’ centre. As the merchants prospered, the town grew and such arts as kabuki and bunraku flourished. With money, the merchants also developed a refined taste for food. Since then, Osaka has been called the ‘kitchen of the nation’.”
Among its most famous signature snacks are takoyaki (octopus-stuffed dough balls drizzled with Kewpie mayo, bonito flakes and a savoury sauce not too dissimilar to Worcestershire sauce), okonomiyaki (a cabbage pancake with vegetable and meat toppings) and kushikatsu (deep-fried meat and vegetables on skewers), though you’ll also be able to find the likes of top-grade sushi (Kuromon Market is a good bet for this), fugu (blowfish) and Matsusaka beef (black-haired Wagyū). The city is the birthplace of two unique Japanese dining experiences too: kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi) and kappo (where diners eat at a counter and interact with the chef), both of which are well worth trying. If you’re not sure where to start, simply venture to the restaurant-filled Dotonbori armed with an empty stomach and embrace the Osakan concept of kuidaore, which means to ‘eat oneself into ruin’.
What else is there to say about Osaka? It is clean. Trains and subway lines are reliable and regular, and will take you everywhere you want to go until midnight. Osakans are welcoming and helpful, even in the face of difficult language barriers. Watanabe, who describes Osakans as “the friendliest in Japan, very kind and very talkative,” says that All Star Osaka’s customers often comment upon the warmth of the locals.
Despite the modern nature of the city, pockets of history still exist. Peer back into the Osaka of old at centuries-old temples and shrines such as Shitennō-ji and O-hatsu Ten-jin, before exploring the imposing reconstruction of General Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s 16th-century Osaka-jō castle.
There are many parallels that can be drawn between the South Korean capital and Tokyo. For starters, they are both massive supercities. They are both modern, neon-lit and packed with high-rise buildings, but also contain a smattering of traditional temples, shrines and old-fashioned teahouses. They are the capitals of their respective countries, meaning they accumulate more people, brain power, wealth and resources than secondary cities. Both are economic hubs as well as cultural and technological innovators in music, fashion and technology. So, if you are looking for somewhere that has the same kind of youthful dynamism, creative vibe and pulsing energy as Tokyo, but is very much culturally distinct, Seoul is an excellent option.
For visitors with a keen interest in pop culture, there is just as much to sink your teeth into in Seoul as there is in Tokyo. Over the past two decades, Korea has been gaining ground on Japan in the pop culture stakes, asserting its dominance on the Asian cultural scene and extending its influence further westward. Not only is the wider world finally getting hip to K-pop, but also being introduced to more and more South Korean fashion and even cinema, with directors like Chan-wook Park now household names across the globe.
Check out Changdong, an up-and-coming district devoted to K-pop, which not only houses a concert hall, recording studios, galleries, cafes and shops, but is also slated to get a second 20,000-capacity concert venue, a music school and a K-pop museum. To get up to speed on Korea’s cutting-edge fashion trends, head to Hongdae and Sinsa. Sinsa is part of Gangnam, a district that was propelled into the international spotlight by Korean popstar Psy’s 2012 hit, Gangnam Style, and is well worth exploring further. By day, Gangnam is mostly the preserve of smartly-dressed office workers, but by night, it’s a party hub crammed with bars and karaoke joints.
If it was Tokyo’s shopping scene that had you hooked, you’ll find its equal in bustling, shop-packed Myeong-dong. Or if you’re a fan of Tokyo’s well-kept parks, you’ll find plenty of equally peaceful green spaces hidden away in Seoul. Among the most beloved by locals are those near water, such as the riverside Banpo Hangang Park and Nanji Hangang Park. The vast Olympic Park, a legacy of the 1998 Olympic Games, is another pleasant green spot, encompassing ponds, sculptures, two museums, a modern art gallery and the ruins of the 3rd-century Mongchon Fortress. In terms of history, Seoul displays its past much more prominently than Tokyo, which lost many of its heritage buildings during World War II bombings. Among the most show-stopping historical sites in Seoul are the city’s royal palaces, including the UNESCO-listed Changdeokgung and Deoksugung, the latter of which can be explored after dark when the complex is beautifully illuminated.
Japan’s culinary heritage is highly acclaimed. It was one of the first countries – second only to France – to get UNESCO acknowledgment for its traditional cuisine. And though Korea has yet to get the UNESCO nod, Seoul’s dining scene is more than capable of giving Tokyo’s a run for its money. As expected in a city this size, the choice of what and where to eat can be overwhelming. For street food, try the century-old Gwangjang Market and the Noryangjin Fish Market, where you can pick up staples such as ddeokbokki (rice and fish cakes dipped in a sweet chili sauce) and – for adventurous eaters – sannakji (raw baby octopus that has been so recently killed, the tentacles are still moving). If you can’t stomach anything that is still squirming, opt for king crab soup or sashimi, sliced fresh before your very eyes, instead. Other must-try Korean favourites include bibimbap (a mixed rice bowl with vegetables and beef), bulgogi (beef marinated in a soy-based sauce), samgyetang (chicken and ginseng soup) and soondubu jjigae (a chili-spiked tofu stew).
Museum-wise, Seoul also stacks up to Tokyo, with institutions such as the National Museum of Korea showcasing the country’s assortment of ancient treasures, while the War Memorial of Korea provides insight into the events of the Korean War. As in Tokyo, you will have access to a well-functioning and extensive public transport system in Seoul, with ample English signage to help you find your way around. One last bonus: Seoul is significantly cheaper than Tokyo.
Convinced Osaka may be the right destination for you? Check out HomeAway’s Osaka vacation rentals. Sold on Seoul? Browse our Seoul apartments and houses. If you’re still stuck on Tokyo, never fear; we’ve got lots of vacation rental properties there too – explore the wide selection in Tokyo.