While most people head by train to the shopping district of Shinsaibashi, a more interesting approach lies through the old commerce center of Senba, along a tree-lined avenue offering a glimpse of Osaka’s pre-war past. Wes Lang takes us along.
Street light with skyscrapers - image © Wes Lang
The walk starts from Kitahama Station, accessible on the Keihan Line from Sanjo Station in Kyoto. The limited express train bound for Yodoyabashi takes about 50 minutes and costs Y410 from Sanjo Keihan. Alight at Kitahama Station and turn right after exiting the wicket. Walk through the underground passage to exit 22 and climb the stairs. Turn right at the top of the stairs and head west along Tosabori-dori Street. You’ll immediately pass the staggered brickwork of the Kosei Securities building on your right. Take a minute to admire the ornamental Italian metalwork on the gates and the classical feel of the lobby. Any minute you’d expect Alain Robert to spring out of a side door and start free climbing the bumpy facade. Even though the structure was built in 2001, it looks as if it was constructed a century earlier and fits in well with the pre-war structures on the riverbank behind the building.
Latte on the terrace - image © Wes Lang
Continue along Tosabori-dori, and a few minutes further west of the Kosei building you’ll reach Brooklyn Roasting Company, one of Osaka’s best places for espresso beverages. Grab a drink of your choice and retreat to the terrace out back overlooking the Tosabori-gawa River. The cafe has a New York vibe and for good reason - it’s actually the Osaka branch of the famed Brooklyn Roasting Company in NYC. They serve the same coffee beans and the baristas have been professional trained to work the machines and serve up quality java. I grabbed a hot latte and settled into a seat on the terrace overlooking the river, where the Neo-Renaissance arches of the Osaka Central Public Hall looked on with envy. Built in 1918, the palatial structure would not look out of place on the streets of Paris and it provides a wonderful accompaniment to your caffeine fix.
Osaka Public Hall exterior - image © Wes Lang
To get to the Hall, exit Brooklyn Roasting and turn right, walking along Tosabori-dori for half a block until reaching the first intersection. Turn right and cross the bridge over the river to the front of the building. The entrance is in the basement, so go down the concrete stairs and enter the automatic doors on your right. You’ll find a small gift shop and exhibit room showing photos of the original building. The building was financed by Osaka stockbroker Iwamoto Einosuke, who also sponsored a design competition for the building, the drawings of which are on display in the exhibit room. The first floor of the building houses the performance hall, so head up the grand staircase to see if the hall is available for viewing. It is still used for private meetings and an occasional public lecture. After a look around, head back outside, where the exterior of the building makes a great backdrop for a photo.
Sankyubashi sign - image © Wes Lang
After admiring the century-old structure, cross back over the bridge to Tosabori-dori, cross the intersection and continue walking south along a tree-lined promenade named Sankyubashi-suji Street. The first thing you’ll notice is the lack of electrical wires along the street. This is one of the only streets in Osaka where the wires have been completely buried underground. In place of the utility poles, vintage street lamps have been erected in a silent nod to the Osaka’s past, when such lanterns were the primary source of illumination on the darkened streets. The other peculiar feature to the north-south thoroughfare are the signposts erected at every intersection, with each east-west street clearly given a name to aid in navigation.
Yoshida Barber Shop - image © Wes Lang
The third building south of the intersection on your right side is marked by a barber’s pole. This is Yoshida Barber Shop (吉田理容所), which has been in continual operation since 1930, when the two-story merchant house was originally constructed. Appointments are by reservation only, but if you can speak Japanese, it would make for an interesting place for a trim to say the least. Continue walking south, turning right at the first intersection (Uchikitahama-dori Street) and next to a Chinese restaurant called Fukusenroh you’ll see an old two-story wooden building with whitewashed walls. This is Tekijuku, an old college of Dutch studies founded by Ogata Koan.
Koan opened the school in 1838, back when the country was still closed to foreigners and trade was only allowed with the Dutch and Chinese. Notable graduates of the school include Fukuzawa Yukichi, whose face now adorns the 10,000 yen bill. Entrance to the building is 260 yen and the staff speak basic English. Lockers are provided at the ticket counter and indoor photography is prohibited, so put your bags inside and enjoy a walk around one of the only remaining examples of a traditional merchant’s house.
Before the Second World War, this entire area was filled with houses of similar design, with sleeping space for the families above the first-floor retail spaces. The stairs to the second floor are incredibly steep, so please take care when climbing up and down. Although there are no English-language displays inside, it’s still worth paying the admission fee and walking around, especially to see the scuff marks on the second floor columns from the swings of samurai sword-wielding pupils.
Tekijuku courtyard - image © Wes Lang
Retrace your steps back to Sankyubashi and turn right to the next intersection called Imabashi-dori. On the southwest corner is a multi-story building with an ornate crown molding running the entire length of the second-story roof. This is the old Yagi Tsusho headquarters, built in 1918. The entire structure was renovated and expanded in 2013 and now houses an 11-story luxury apartment complex on top of the original two-story structure. Fortunately, in a victory for historical preservationists, the developer decided to keep the existing structure and build on top of it instead of demolishing the entire thing.
On the ground floor of the building, facing Imabashi-dori, you’ll see Elmer’s Green Coffee Counter. Stop by for a hand-poured cup while checking out the art exhibits in the adjacent gallery. Still buzzing from the espresso earlier, I skipped this pit stop and headed further west to a large traditional wooden building that caught my attention. On the opposite side of the street, just one block west of the coffee counter sits Aishu Kindergarten, an immense structure of Kyoto-style architecture built in 1901. It is the oldest public kindergarten in Osaka and the 2nd oldest in Japan. The recently renovated building still functions as a kindergarten, so access for the general public is restricted, but you can imagine how strict the teachers must be with their young pupils in order to keep the historical structure in pristine condition.
Yagi tsusho building exterior - image © Wes Lang
Return to Sankyubashi and turn right, walking one more block to Koraibashi. On the corner stands Opera Domaine, a red brick wedding hall built to resemble a pre-war western building. The designers have done an excellent job designing the building to fit the retro character of the street. Right next door you’ll find Naniwa Church (浪花教会). The church was built in 1930 and still holds weekly services that are open to the public and free of charge. Diagonally across from the church you’ll see your first intrusion of modern amenities, a Sunkus convenience store. Drop inside if you need a bottle of water or the restroom.
Naniwa church - image © Wes Lang
Continue south for two blocks, and after passing by a Mini Stop convenience store on your right you’ll arrive at Hiranomachi. Turn left on Hiranomachi and halfway down the block on your left you’ll see a four-story Art Deco structure that is home to Ogawa Fragrance company. The building dates from 1930 and was originally the headquarters of Ogawa, which was at that time an incense company. The business has now expanded into producing fragrances and artificial flavors. Cross the street and look back at the facade in order to notice the electrical lines running directly in front of the building. Hopefully Osaka will eventually get around to burying all of its electrical wires in front of their registered historical landmarks.
Ogawa facade with electrical wires - image © Wes Lang
Retreat back to Sankyubashi and turn left. The building on your left is home to an organic donut shop on the ground floor with a Hawaiian diner on the second floor above. Despite the name, Le Beignet does not serve New Orleans-style beignets but just regular doughnuts. I settled for a chocolate-covered pastry that really hit the spot after all of this walking and it only served to feed my thirst for another caffeinated beverage. Just past the doughnut shop you’ll find a Cuban cigar bar marked with a large Cuban flag out front.
Adjacent to that smoker's paradise is Garage 39, a popular Craft beer bar that unfortunately does not open until 5pm. At the corner of the next intersection I found R39 bar instead and grabbed a seat at the counter. The friendly barista recommended an iced latte that was served in a wine glass. The latte tasted richer than the one at Brooklyn, with tiny bits of ground espresso settled in the bottom of the glass like the filtered sediment of a water filtration system. The bar roasts their own beans at their main shop near Osaka Tenman-gu Shrine and they also serve pizza for lunch, with full cocktails available in the evening hours.
R39 exterior - image © Wes Lang
With caffeine now pulsing through my veins I wandered back out to the Osaka sunshine and turned left on Awajimachi until reaching the Senba Building (舟場ビルデイング), just a few doors down from R39 bar. The four-story white and brown brick structure was built in 1925 and is built around a central courtyard, lined on both sides by design studios, hair salons, and small boutiques. The building is beautifully designed and it well worth taking the time to explore. Each floor offers a different vantage point into the peaceful greenery of the courtyard. Be sure not to disturb any of the tenants, as appointments are needed to visit most of them. On the top floor is a lovely rooftop garden that is reserved for use by the building tenants but I recommend poking your head up there to admire the view back down into the central open space.
Senba building courtyard - image © Wes Lang
Walk back to Sankyubashi and turn left again, walking south for a couple of blocks until reaching Bingomachi. A five-story brick structure designed in the Chicago School style of the late 19th century dominates the northeast corner of the intersection. This is the Osaka Cotton Industry Club building, a public hall built in 1931 for the burgeoning textile industry. The impressive edifice is closed to visitors except on the 4th Saturday of every month, when visitors are accepted from 2:30pm for a 500 yen admission fee. If you happen to be here on that particular day and time, then feel free to enter and look around. Otherwise, you’ll need to be content with appreciating the exterior of the grand mansion.
Cotton Hall exterior - image © Wes Lang
One more block south, on the corner of Azuchimachi Dōri, you will find Morning Glass Coffee on your right. Recently opened, it is the Osaka shop of a successful Hawaii establishment. They serve a wonderful Western breakfast until 11am, and tasty foccacia sandwiches thereafter. I wasn’t planning on stopping by, as coffee was the last thing on my mind, but the incredibly friendly staff beckoned me in like a Hollywood VIP so I could hardly resist. All of the sandwiches looked quite tempting, but in the end I settled on a Portobello mushroom sandwich and a glass of water.
Instead of Kona coffee, the cafe carries beans from Takamura Coffee Roasters , one of Osaka’s best places for coffee. The sandwich really hit the spot but left me wanting more, so I once again stumbled out to Sankyubashi and turned right, reaching Hommachi Dōri, a few seconds later. Sankyubashi continues across the street and deeper into the newer part of the Senba neighborhood, which is devoid of historic architecture. Instead of continuing straight on, I turned right here and walked one block to Dobuike Street (丼池ストリート) and turned left. The road crosses under the overhead expressway of Chuō Dōri and continues to the south.
A half a block past the expressway, you will find Le Coccole on your right, Osaka’s best vegan eatery. Run by a jovial woman named Tomomi, the cafe serves a creative mix of French-influenced Japanese cuisine. I opt for the veggie plate, which features seasonal organic vegetables sourced directly from Tomomi’s brother’s farm. The meal goes down wonderfully, but was a bit too filling after the appetizer back at Morning Glass.
Sandwich at Morning Glass - image © Wes Lang
I thanked Tomomi for her hospitality and continued traversing south, past another public kindergarten and consider stopping in at Millpour which is home to a Melbourne-style latte, but I was still too stuffed from lunch. The coffee shop is tiny, with room for two people comfortably, but there is outdoor seating in front of the coffee stand, and the place is easy to miss if you’re not specifically looking for it. It’s about a block and a half north of Tokyu Hands, so if you reach that store you’ve gone too far. Tokyu Hands is located on Nagahori-dori Street in the heart of the Shinsaibashi shopping district. Turn right once you hit this main cross street and you will soon reach the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, where the crowds and tourists will increase a hundredfold.
Now it’s time to become a tourist, or you could simply run away in fear and retrace your steps back northward to Kitahama, using one of the streets parallel to Sankyubashi, which is what I ended up doing. All in all it's a great way to see the hidden, historical side of Osaka, away from the throngs of tourists crowding the streets of Namba.
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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