Vikas Swarup reflects on Osaka, Japan

Tokyo may be the capital of Japan, but Osaka is its capital of food. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Princess Toyotomi, a 2011 Japanese film, centers on the audacious conspiracy theory that for 400 years Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, has been secretly operating as an independent country headquartered beneath the real-life Osaka castle.

While the Japanese would consider the idea of a sovereign Osakan state hilarious, there is no denying that Osaka is the most idiosyncratic city in Japan, with its own dialect, its original brand of humor, its distinct food culture, and above all, its warm and unpretentious people.

The city itself is not particularly touristy. Three years ago, when I first rode into Osaka from Kansai International Airport, I was greeted by a tangled maze of elevated highways, high rises, and treeless neighborhoods dotted with pachinko parlors and giant Ferris wheels. The concrete harshness of the urban jungle was softened somewhat by the network of waterways deriving from the four rivers that traverse the city, but Osaka seemed to have neither the cosmopolitan grace of Tokyo nor the cultured romanticism of Kyoto. Yet, as I subsequently discovered, it has something far more vital and vibrant, exemplified by the Osaka obachans, or “aunties.” These fun-loving, spirited women with a penchant for jaguar-patterned clothes and hunting for bargains in packs, defy the stereotypical image of Japan as reserved, straitlaced, and conformist. Many of them love chatting and gossiping, and carry candies simply to give to total strangers as a way of initiating contact. They create that much-needed sense of community in an impersonal metropolis, making Osaka both big city and small town.

Unlike Tokyo and Kyoto, which prided themselves as seats of shoguns and emperors, Osaka has always been a city of citizens. The culture of merchants and commoners rather than of the samurai class flourished in Osaka, typified by the Osakan greeting Mokkari makka, “Are you making money?” In the late 16th century, the city rose to prominence as Japan’s main commercial entrepôt, a distribution hub from where essential goods were sent all over the country. It was the site of the world’s first futures market during the Edo Period and became an innovation and manufacturing giant in the early 20th century, earning the epithet of Manchester of the East, until Tokyo usurped its position as the economic center of Japan after World War II.

Osaka, however, still retains its status as the food capital of the country. Instant ramen was invented here, as was conveyor-belt sushi and yakiniku, Japanese-style Korean barbecue. The Osakans’ obsession with good food is captured in the word kuidaore, literally meaning “to eat oneself bankrupt.” Two of Osaka’s popular comfort foods—takoyaki, consisting of flavored batter with a tiny piece of octopus inside, and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake—have become Japan’s quintessential street snacks.

The mecca for the kuidaore culture of Osaka is the Dotombori district. To stand on Ebisu Bridge and watch life swirl around the neon-lit street is akin to entering a fever dream. Hordes of people, mostly teenagers, hunt for their favorite karaoke box and eating joint. Pulsating corporate advertisements loom over buildings, while hawkers shout out meal deals, creating a cacophony of light and sound. Giant animatronic crabs, sushi, and inflatable puffer fish decorate the exterior of restaurants even as a scowling Daruma Daijin (the mascot for the Daruma restaurants) angrily warns against double-dipping his kushikatsu skewered meats in the communal sauce. Everything seems big, bright, dramatic—and even a touch comical. (In fact, Osaka is also home to Japan’s biggest comedians.)

It is this confluence of community, comedy, and cuisine that gives Osaka a street-level vitality and appeal of its own. And yet the city is not without its problems. It has the largest homeless population in Japan, and its unemployment rate is higher than the national average. The migration of businesses to Tokyo from Osaka has been arrested by last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake, but bankruptcy continues to rise. Nevertheless, Osaka remains an economic powerhouse.

An American friend once narrated to me how she once got hopelessly lost in Osaka, until a group of Osaka obachans came to the rescue. They not only treated her to a delicious meal, they also escorted her in a taxi to the place she meant to go. For me, that one gesture captures the spirit of Osaka. Tokyo may have more money and Kyoto more culture; Nara may have more history and Kobe more style. But Osaka has the biggest heart.