Any visit to Osaka, Japan must include a walk through its Namba and Dotonbori districts after dark. The massive flashing neon signs, hoards of people, and all the sights, sounds and smells truly bring these neighborhoods to life in the evening. But first, a little clarification:
Are Namba and Dotonbori the Same Neighborhood?
You may see Namba and Dotonbori used interchangeably on some websites. But they are, in fact a bit different, although the distinction between them blurs. The southern part of Osaka is called Minami in Japanese, and Namba refers to the shopping and entertainment district in its center. Dotonbori more specifically refers to the river and the street running alongside it to the south. If that isn’t confusing enough, you may see “Namba Dotonbori” used together on some signage.
The Dotonbori area of Minami has an interesting back story. Dotonbori got its name from Yasui Dōton, a local entrepreneur. In 1612, he decided to expand the Umezu River by connecting two branches of the Yokobori River with a canal to increase trade. Unforunately Dōton died in the Siege of Osaka, but his cousins completed his vision for the canal in 1615.
This is how the Dotonbori canal looks today, illuminated by all the neon signs lining the streets. Ebisubashi Bridge is in the distance, linking the Shinsaibashi-suji and Ebisubashi-suji shopping districts.:
Dotonbori became Osaka’s entertainment hub as far back as 1621, when the Shogunate at the time implemented urban planning. Dotonbori quickly turned into a bustling theatre district, which included many restaurants and cafes. Eventually, people’s interest in the theatre waned, and the area turned into more of a shopping and restaurant district. Extensive bombing in World War II destroyed all the theaters except for one, the Shochikuza theater, which still stands today.
Today, this is arguably one of the liveliest areas in Osaka. You’ll feel a bit like a bobblehead as you attempt to capture all the excitement around you. So let’s go through a few of the highlights:
Namba and Dotonbori are chock-full of electronics shops, department stores, and chain stores like Forever 21 and H&M, if you feel like dropping a few bucks.
Walking past the Dotonbori H&M store toward the neon billboards will take you to another shopping district, the Shinsaibashi shopping arcade. It’s just a matter of navigating through the hoards of people that hang out here every night.
The same spot from a different angle. This area really lives up to the phrase “bright lights, big city”:
Dotonbori’s shopping district has its own website here.
We loved checking out the shops that cover multiple floors, especially those specializing in anime characters. We’re only familiar with a few, but that didn’t stop us from popping into several shops to see what they had.
Namba’s covered shopping arcades are really fun to explore. You can also get really great meals at the restaurants tucked away on these covered streets.
A few of our favourite Japanese stores include Daiso, a chain of 100-yen shops (basically dollar stores), Tokyo Hands, an impressive hobby and craft store chain, and Don Quijote, a discount store that carries everything from watches and clothing to cosmetics and housewares. You can find all three in the Namba/Dotonbori/Shinsaibashi district.
This street below had shops like Edion, a tax-free electronics store, and Laox, a cool mix of cosmetics, watches, and more. This is such a fun place to shop!
Also check out Den Den Town if you’re into electronics, manga, and arcade games.
Immerse Yourself in Sensory Overload
Dotonbori’s main draw, of course, is its massive neon signs, the most famous being the Glico Man sign. This sign, erected back in 1935, advertises Glico candy. This is actually the sixth iteration of the sign. The previous five used neon lights, but the current version uses LED’s. Frankly, I’m not sure why it’s so famous. Perhaps it’s just famous for being famous.
This is the Asahi sign – also massive, as you can see.
Does anyone know the story behind this sign? I’ve seen it a million times in movies and on the interwebs, but I couldn’t find its backstory:
You’ll find something new to draw your attention around every corner. Shops and entertainment centers are open late too, which is great for experiencing a bit of night life.
Even the quieter-looking streets are interesting to walk up and down. You could spend days exploring Namba and Dotonbori and never see it all!
If you really want to assault your senses, walk into a pachinko parlour, like 123 Namba Shop, for example. They’re overly bright and incredibly loud. All the slot machines must have their volumes cranked up to 11. Your ears will be ringing and you’ll have spots dancing in front of our eyes in no time.
Although gambling for money (via casinos, poker and bingo, etc) is illegal in Japan, pachinko parlours circumvent the law in a clever way. The slot machines dispense pachinko balls instead of money, which you can then exchange for prizes or tokens. But then you can exchange those prizes or tokens for money at a nearby prize exchange location separate from the parlour.
We don’t gamble and we didn’t understand how to play the games, so we didn’t try any of the slot machines ourselves. We really only popped into a few parlours looking for gashapon machines, which we did manage to find!
There’s no shortage of places to eat in and around Namba and Dotonbori. Whether you prefer a nicer sit-down place, or just want some “on-a-stick” street food, you’ll find it all here. You can even find an Irish pub or two, if you prefer – but I recommend going for some traditional dumplings, ramen or okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake) to get into the spirit of the place.
Keep an eye out for the amazingly inventive restaurant signs, too. These were a few of my favourites:
Are you looking for takoyaki (octopus balls)? Look no further – just seek out the giant octopus under the Konamon Museum sign. Here, you can not only eat takoyaki, but you can learn how to make them yourself, make a wax version of takoyaki as a souvenir, or tour their historical museum!
Note the giant blowfish over the Zubora-ya restaurant, and the hand holding some tuna sushi next to it. The restaurant under the tuna sushi sign is Genroku Sushi, the world’s first sushi-conveyor belt restaurant:
I’m a sucker for dumplings, and Osaka Ohsho’s sign makes my mouth water. If dumplings came in this size, I’m pretty sure I could still get through at least one in a sitting:
This beautiful three-dimensional dragon sits above the Kinryu Ramen restaurant. It’s a bit hard to tell in this photo, but he’s just stuck his head through the sign, and he’s got a bowl of ramen in one hand (paw?) and chopsticks in the other!
Can you guess what’s on the menu at Kani-doraku? This was a common sign throughout Japan, so I can only assume this is a chain restaurant. But this particular crab has graced the facade of this restaurant since 1960. The eye stalks and arms actually move!
This is Showa Taishu Hormon restaurant. Note that cow sign hanging to the left. They serve beef of course, but also other organ meats, if that’s your thing.
When you’re looking for a place to eat, don’t ignore the narrow alleys or covered shopping arcades, as these areas often have incredible food with less of a touristy vibe.
Regardless of whether you’re in Osaka for a week or just one night, you need to spend an evening in Namba and Dotonbori. As great as the area is during the day, it really comes alive after the sun goes down!