New Emissary

The Other City

The host of Expo 1970, this design-friendly Japanese city is still well worth a visit.

The grand opening of the much-hyped Shanghai Expo is just around the corner, and today China’s official news agency, Xinhua, published a retrospective piece that highlights seven ‘marvellous structures’ from previous world expos, which includes the now 30-year-old ‘Tower of the Sun’ monument from Japan’s 1970 event in Osaka.

Though not as popular a destination as its close neighbour, the picturesque old capital city of Kyoto, (which the New York Times in a widely-circulated travel piece this weekend called ‘an ancient city electrified by the breathtakingly new’), Osaka is still well worth a stop, especially for the design-savvy traveller, at least according to Gordon Kanki-Knight, the author of the Osaka Wallpaper* City Guide. I got in touch with the design aficionado, who’s recently relocated to Australia. He had some valuable thoughts to share on the city that was a point of international focus three decades ago, and still remains one of the most interesting urban areas to visit in Japan:

What distinguishes Osaka from other major cities in Japan such as Tokyo?

Osaka is not just okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake-like dish; one of Osaka’s most famous regional cuisines) baseball and beer—which is how a lot of Tokyoites see Osaka. There’s an incredible creative scene there, and it’s growing in its own way. It’s still a rough-around-the-edges city, and it’ll will never be as slick as Tokyo or even Kobe, but in many ways it’s all the better for that. For example, the young creative team called Graf—a six-man design collective headed by Hideki Toyoshima—embodies all that is great about the city. They’ve got the guts to take on any project and their hard work and talent ensures pretty much everything they do—be it a cafe, art event or furniture collection—is a success.

Why might it be of particular interest for design/architecture aficionados?

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Osaka is hard to beat for students of architecture. This is, after all, the hometown of Tadao Ando—one of the world’s great building designers. Church of the Light, arguably his greatest creation, is in an Osaka suburb, and his Sayamaike Museum, just 30 minutes from the city centre, is my personal favourite. The pre-war buildings in the city are fantastic, too—visit the Sakaisuji Club for lunch and you can take in a work by one of Japan’s pre-war architectural goliaths—Matakichi Yabe. And the food there is excellent. The city is also a treat for design fans—book a room at the Dojima Hotel then explore stores such as Issey Miyake-run fashion boutique Elttob Tep and furniture shop Truck.

Have you ever visited another city in the world that you would best compare it to?

Osaka is unlike any other city, but holds its own against all of them when it comes to architecture and design… and one cliché is true, this is probably the friendliest city in Japan.