Towering 300 meters over Osaka, Harukas is Japan’s tallest building and one of Osaka’s newest tourist attractions. It’s a symbol of the revitalized Tennoji area and worth a visit if you follow Wes Lang’s insider tips.
Harukas towers over the neighborhood of Tennoji - image © Wes Lang
Tennoji has long been known as a seedy, run-down part of town with an overflowing homeless population and a neglected feel to the aging architecture, but it has recently undergone a modern overhaul and become home to Harukas, Japan's tallest building. Here’s why: It all goes back to the year 2000, when department store sales were stagnant and retailers were struggling to shake off the decreased spending of the prolonged recession. Sogo department store was one of the hardest hit , and in a last-ditch effort to fend off bankruptcy, the retailer completely demolished their Shinsaibashi flagship store and rebuilt it from scratch. This set off a massive chain reaction, with other competitors soon following suit. The rebuilt Sogo store opened its doors in 2005, the same year that rival Hankyu started the demolition and reconstruction of their giant complex in Umeda.
One year later, Tokyo-based retailer Marui completed construction of their flagship department store just opposite Takashimaya department store near Namba station. This put Takashimaya on their toes, resulting in a complete overhaul and expansion of their historic 1932 building that was completed in 2009, the same year that, oddly enough, sent Sogo into insolvency. The failed Sogo store was acquired by next-door neighbor Daimaru, who doubled their retail space and forced Tennoji-based retailer Kintetsu into action. Kintetsu called and raised their bet by completely demolishing their department store and building the 300-meter-tall monolith Harukas, the largest department store in Japan and the country’s tallest building. It opened in March 2014.
Harukas is easily twice the height of neighboring buildings, which really puts its scale into perspective. - image © Wes Lang
I opt for a weekday visit to take in the panoramic views over Tennoji district and the rest of Osaka from the observation deck. The subway ride from Umeda Station takes just 15 minutes, so at Tennoji Station I follow the large crowds up through the ticket gates towards exit #9, where the main entrance of Kintetsu department store dominates the entire left wall of the underground concourse.
Signposts to the observation deck point visitors toward the escalators upstairs, but the secret basement entrance to the 16th floor ticket counter for the observation deck can be found through the glass doors just to the right of the grey facade of the department store entrance. Look for the stylish letters reading ‘Abeno Harukas‘ suspended from the ceiling in front of the sliding glass doors. The right elevator bank takes you to the ticket counter, while the elevators on the left whisk you nonstop to the 17th floor, where it’s a simple escalator ride down to the ticket gate on the 16th floor. This information is important if you’re visiting on a crowded weekend, but since there is no one else in the queue on this quiet morning, I board the regular tourist elevators on the right and enjoy the pleasant glass-walled ascent above Tennoji’s low-rise jungle of concrete.
Visitors take in the views from the 16th floor observation deck. - image © Wes Lang
Upon exiting the elevator, I am immediately drawn to an outdoor observation deck lined with benches facing the sea of skyscrapers to the north. I step outside and admire the wonderful vistas that are completely free-of-charge to the public. In fact, cash-strapped visitors can enjoy a leisurely rest in the sunshine and later partake of a cheap cup of coffee in the upstairs cafe.
The views spread out before me have only whet my appetite for a much broader panoramic view from the top of Osaka, so I slide over to the ticket counter to weigh the options. The cheapest choice (¥1500) is a one-time ticket for the observation deck, but the all-day pass (¥1950) is also quite tempting. The day pass allows unlimited access to the observation deck, meaning you could go up to enjoy the morning views, descend to ground level for lunch and shopping, and climb back up to watch the sunset and night scenery. Another option is to stay in the Osaka Marriott Miyako hotel that occupies the upper third of the building, as entrance to the observation deck is included in the room price.
There’s also a special discount ticket that allows access to both the observation deck and the art museum, so inquire about the current exhibition schedule at the ticket counter when you make your choice. As luck would have it, there is a Renoir exhibition in full swing, so I buy the combo ticket (¥2450 for this particular exhibition) and proceed to the front of the line for the observation deck elevator. During weekends and holidays there can be a several hour wait for entry, but luckily there are hardly any other visitors on this quiet morning in mid-March.
You can also purchase Harukas 360 Observatory tickets online. If you intend to visit the Universal Studios Japan theme park during your time in Osaka, you can buy a USJ VIP Wristband which gets you entry into Universal Studios and Harukas.
The views from the 60th floor observatory are some of the best in Kansai. - image © Wes Lang
The back half of the elevator is completely lined with glass, and as the cabin rises to the 60th floor of the high rise, a modern light show ensues on the back wall, resembling a scene out of the Matrix. The doors open up to the glass-encased observation platform, where the vistas are truly jaw-dropping. It’s best to proceed in a counter-clockwise direction, starting with the eastern views out to the mountains of Nara. Turning north, the buildings of Kyoto city are visible on the horizon on days with clear visibility. In fact, before purchasing a ticket, do a quick check of the weather and air quality while on the 16th floor in order to save yourself some disappointment. If no mountains can be seen from there, then you’re better off saving your trip to the top for another day.
The top floors appear to float in the sky and are not for the acrophobic. - image © Wes Lang
The name Harukas comes from the Japanese word harukasu meaning ‘to brighten or clear up’ and the inspirational views will surely brighten up your day as long as you don’t suffer from acrophobia. The flooring on the western side of the building is lined in glass, which is absolutely frightening for those with an aversion to heights. Kintetsu teamed up with Argentine American architect César Pelli to create a feeling of floating on air as you navigate around the open atrium enclosed by the glass and steel of the transparent rectilinear building footprint.
Pelli is best known for his design of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, once the highest building in the world. With such ever-changing viewpoints, it is well worth doing a few laps, as each repetition reveals subtle details of Osaka’s streets that you may not catch the first time around. For instance, when facing south, the flying saucer shape of Nagai Stadium hovering over the surrounding park is sure to catch your eye, but if scan your eyes downward towards the high-rises hovering just under your feet you can see a massive cemetery stretching nearly a kilometer in length through what must be some prime real estate.
The ball pit set for the 3rd-anniversary celebrations. - image © Wes Lang
While the views are impressive to say the least, if you really want to say you’ve been to the tallest building in Japan, you need to climb to the heliport on the roof, which is exactly 300 meters off the ground. You see, for the longest time, 296-meter tall Landmark Tower in Yokohama was the highest building in Japan, and the Harukas observation deck on the 60th floor is around the same height as its rival. Fortunately, access to the heliport can be yours for an additional 500 yen but it requires you to sit through a 40-minute guided tour in Japanese. The information desk on the eastern side of the observation deck sells tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. Dreadfully, the tours were cancelled due to high winds during my visit, which only serves as an excuse for me to come back in the future. In addition to taking the heliport tour, you can also upgrade to the day pass if you have originally purchased a one-time ticket and want to come back later that day for another look.
All of this walking is making me thirsty, so I drop down the escalator to the atrium entrance and the large cafe serving food and drinks. The coffee sold here if your typical mass-produced machine coffee, so I go for a tapioca milk-tea beverage and settle into one of the outdoor tables on the atrium. Due to the 3rd anniversary, a huge ball pit of bright pink balls occupies the entire center of the spacious atrium, so I observe children of all ages frolicking among the sea of rubber orbs. Apparently the space is host to a variety of seasonal events, so hopefully there will be something just as exciting during your visit.
The view from the top of Osaka. - image © Wes Lang
The tea sets the digestion in motion, and what better way to relieve myself that at a restroom with the best view in Osaka. It must surely be difficult to look yourself in the mirror when you have half of the city reflected into your eyes, so enjoy the unique angle and natural light in the surprisingly comfortable space. Feeling better, I make my way back to the elevator and descend back down to the 16th floor. Grasping my ticket to the art museum, I drop off the jacket and bag in a coin locker and step inside.
This particular exhibition is centered around the work of Ryuzaburo Umehara, a Japanese artist who traveled to Paris in the early part of the 20th century to study under Renoir. In addition to Umehara’s artwork, the exhibit features several hand-written letters from Renoir as well as around a dozen original Renoir pieces. The gallery is well designed and the 880 square-meter floor space holds up to other larger art museums in the city, especially in terms of its permanent collection of original Picasso, Matisse, Rouault, and Degas works. Exhibitions rotate every six weeks or so, and the upcoming Studio Ghibili installation is sure to attract large crowds.
The 17th floor cafe makes a great place for a light lunch - image © Wes Lang
By now it is nearing lunch time, so after exploring the museum gift shop, I take the escalator up to the 17th floor and grab the last available counter seat at Cafe Ciao Presso, a chain-coffee shop serving simple sandwiches and Italian espresso drinks. The cafe is popular with the corporate lunch crowd as well as with locals wanting a great view without spending the money for the observation deck. An added bonus is the free wi-fi that Kintetsu department store has generously made available to its customers. Patrons have clearly taken advantage of this, as every third customer is absorbed in their laptops instead of admiring the views.
Now that Harukas has completely transformed the struggling neighborhood of Tennoji, it’s only a matter of time before an area in Tokyo takes a page out of its westerly neighbor and builds an even taller skyscraper to reclaim the title of Japan’s highest building.
About Wes Lang
Wes Lang is a freelance writer based in Osaka whose work has appeared in the Japan Times, Kansai Scene, and Outdoor Japan. He runs the website Hiking in Japan, which provides comprehensive English-language hiking information for Japan's mountains. He is currently writing a guidebook to the Japan Alps scheduled for release in 2018.
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