It’s a mystery place. A faceless mother. I wanted to see it again without knowing why. The city never really stops during the nine hour train ride from Tokyo to Osaka. But when you arrive, you are in a different place. What are you Osaka? The second largest city in Japan, people reply. But what does that mean when number one is number one in the world.
While political power was concentrated in Tokyo, Osaka used to be the economic hub of the archipelago. It was a fair rivalry back then, similar to the one between Shanghai and Beijing in China. After the World War II air raids left Japan’s wooden cities in smoke and ashes, it was decided that Tokyo would be rebuilt into the single focal point of international trade and diplomacy. Companies were encouraged to relocate their headquarters in the capital and Osaka was left—a city by default.
What makes matters worse is that is that Osaka is only part of a larger urban area, the Kansai metropolis, featuring cities that, as opposed to Osaka, have a clear-cut identity: Kyoto, of course, old imperial capital, guardian of the nation’s heritage. People there are proud I hear. Strict and self-righteous. “Very traditional”.
Kyoto was the A-bomb’s initial target until US officials realised that obliterating a thousand years of cultural treasures might reflect badly in them. Hiroshima was chosen instead. And even though Osaka burned to the ground by air raids too, this Southern sister is the one remembered as the phoenix city.
On the East side of Osaka, you’ll find Nara, which served as imperial capital before Kyoto did, and has kept its share of treasures. But the city has since returned to nature, in spirit at least. Nara is Kansai’s ‘green’ city, a hippie alternative super suburbia with farmer’s markets and polite urban deers, waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights.
Kobe, the port city, trapped on a tight strip between mountains and sea is a place of import-export. You’ll find many foreigners here. The city is as international as the fame of it’s marbleous beef. Each city has its own flavour.
Kyoto’s character is best reflected in its typical sweets: delicate, traditional, exclusive. Nara is the healthy choice. A bowl of organic vegetables. Subtract all of this from a metropolis and fry it in a pan. Osaka is what’s left: Osaka is an Okonomiyaki.
This typical dish of the area became popular during World War II, when there was a short supply of rice. What is often called a “Japanese pancake” has cabbage as its main ingredient and is in fact a mixture of leftovers. Flower, grated yams, water, eggs, onion, pork squid, shrimp, vegetables, cheese. Top it off with mayonnaise and Worcester sauce. Okonomiyaki is soul food and Osaka is a soul city.
Cities have personalities. And these personalities come with personality disorders. Sociologists have coined the term ‘second city syndrome’ to describe the universal phenomenon of smaller cities talking down on the bigger one out of insecurity. Ironically, the larger city often praises the smaller city, portraying it as cute and romantic.
It is not uncommon to hear people from Osaka disapprove of the “snobs” in Tokyo. Riding the train, it strikes me that people do dress and act differently here. A bit more laid-back. Osaka Style. Sometimes you have to be a bit different in order to be you. Maybe that’s why the people of Osaka still ride the station escalators on the right side, while the rest of Japan stands on the left.