A sliver of a neighborhood, roughly nine blocks long, the Dotonbori district of Nanba in Osaka runs between Dotonbori Bridge and Nipponbashi Bridge. It may not be big in size, but it is, without a doubt, the beating heart of Osaka, where everything happens and everyone is. Since as early as the 17th century, the area has been known as a lively nightlife district, where revelers would drink and party until the early hours. It had somewhat of a seedy underbelly in the early days, but that has mostly moved onto other parts of town now. The Bunraku and Kabuki theaters of yesteryear, have been mostly displaced by more modern attractions that are more suited to a family friendly environment, during both day and night.
Tonbori Riverwalk and the Glico Running Man
A walk along the popular Tonbori Riverwalk is the best way to get the feel of the neighborhood. During the day there are river cruises available that allow you to see the area from a different angle, and a large ferris wheel that dominates the riverbank. Come dusk, the high-powered signs that flank both sides of the waterway are lit up, and the river reflects them back up into the sky, turning the Riverwalk into a valley of bright lights and neon signs. For those interested in a trip out onto the river itself, visit the massive Dotonbori branch of Don Quijote to buy tickets for the Tonbori River Cruise. The boat departs from the nearby Tazaemon Bridge Boat Dock and cruises on the river for about half an hour.
Along the riverside you can’t and won’t miss the infamous “Glico Running Man”. A Proud symbol of the city, the mighty Glico Running Man has been locked in his triumphant pose since 1935. The billboard itself has been changed out over the years but the Glico Running Man abides. Don’t miss your chance to snap a picture from Ebisu Bridge. The bridge itself has an interesting history, including this tidbit: it was from Ebisu Bridge that fans of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team chucked a statue of Colonel Sanders in 1985, resulting in a supposed 18 year losing streak that was the result of the deceased chicken magnate’s curse.
As daytime gradually shifts to night, a wall of bright lights and neon signs light up the place
Perhaps the most famous icon of the Dotonbori area, and arguably the city of Osaka is the “Glico Running Man” – a gigantic neon sign for a local company founded in the area around one hundred years ago – Glico – a food company that started and remains headquartered in Osaka.
Osaka Shochikuza Theatre
Coming up on its hundredth anniversary, Osaka Shochikuza is one of the last remaining theaters in the neighborhood. Even if you are not attending a performance, the elegant stone architecture and people watching opportunities make it worth a visit. Depending on the performance, tickets prices are varied from fairly reasonable to a little expensive, but neophytes be warned: a kabuki play can last several hours and is anything but fast paced. Check the listings for performances of Shosagoto, which tend to be shorter and breezier, as they are essentially excerpts from full plays, focusing on the dance elements.
Osaka Shochikuza – One of the last remaining theatres in the area, a nod to Dotonbori’s past when the streets were lined with theatres showing performances of traditional Japanese Kabuki plays
The Alleys of Dotonbori
Unlike the more stoic Tokyo or elegant Kyoto, Osaka is known as a city that likes to enjoy itself. The Kansai love of excess and gluttony is evident in the alleys of Dotonbori where stalls and kiosks do steady business, not only preparing local classics like Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki and Kushikatsu, but also exotic and newfangled street treats that rival any street food area in the country. There are also plenty of places to grab a coffee, or sink a few drinks to get the night started.
The backstreets that run parallel to the river are known as the Alleys of Dotonbor. They are full of restaurants, cafes and bars
Another icon of the area is the mechanical crab that decorates the façade of this seafood restaurant, if you look carefully you will find several others dotted around the place
One of several neon-lit signs that look like they’re from a long-past era welcoming you to the start of the Dotonbori alleys
Kinryu Ramen – An old favorite among locals
Kinryu Ramen is one of the more outstanding and iconic offerings in Dotonbori. Kinryu operates five shops in the area, all within walking distance of each other and with roughly the same setup. They all have a basic kitchen within sneezing distance of pedestrians, and serve up simple and quick ramen 24 hours a day. Don’t be fooled by the open kitchen by the sidewalk image, the noodles here are some of the best in the area.
Hozenji Yokocho, Ukiyo Kouji and Hozenji
Hozenji Yokocho is a millennia old alleyway in the neighborhood that leads to a 17th century temple, and it has become a culinary destination. Apart from authentic local institutions selling okonomiyaki and kushikatsu, the area is also home to the Michelin starred Wasabi. Despite the name, which evokes mall food court Japanese food, the shop offers Franco Japanese riffs on the local kushiage (deep fried vegetables, meat and seafood, served on a stick), earning its Michelin star through attention to detail and obsessively sourced meat and produce.
Hozenji Yokocho is accessible via several small entrances tucked away among the hustle and bustle of the surrounds of Dotonbori
Hozenji Yokocho – a stark difference from the rest of the Dotonbori area is home to a plethora of places serving up local cuisines
Another alleyway that connects to Hozenji Yokocho is Ukiyo Kouji, a narrow side street that is lined with red lanterns and decorated with artworks that show how life was in Osaka in the Taisho and Showa periods. At a total length of 20 meters and width of just 1 meter, it’s easy to pass by Ukiyo Kouji without noticing it, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled as it’s a fun little alley worth checking out.
The walls of Ukiyo Kouji have lots of information to look at and enjoy, although the text is mainly in Japanese there are also some nice paintings
And where both Hozenji Yokocho and Ukiyo Kouji meet there is a curious little temple that feels a million miles away from the bright lights and packed streets of Dotonbori. This is Hozenji - a quaint and peaceful temple with a magical atmosphere. Established in 1637, it has a much longer history than almost all of what stands around it. It was a series of food stalls that were set up around this temple to serve pilgrims who came from far and wide to visit that eventually turned into the entertainment district of Dotonbori.
A stone statue of the Buddhist spirit, Fudo, is the centerpiece of this temple. Fudo who represents discipline and firm moral character is usually shown with a stern face, however this one is completely covered in moss meaning you can’t see any of its features at all, giving it a much gentler atmosphere. Visitors are encouraged to throw water over the statue to keep the moss fresh!
Hozenji, a small temple nestled in the back streets of Dotonbori
Hozenji, a small temple nestled in the back streets of Dotonbori
The moss-covered statue of Fudo at Hozenji