Stretching for over 2-1/2 kilometers past Osaka Tenmangu Shrine, Tenjinbashisuji shopping street is the longest covered shopping arcade in Japan, and one of Osaka’s oldest merchant areas. Wes Lang walks the entire length in search of the unique.
Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Arcade - image © Wes Lang
Covered shopping arcades are an endangered species in Japan, as locals are drawn away from the local markets and into the large chain shopping malls sprouting up seemingly everywhere these days. Before Osaka’s shopping streets completely fall victim to this unfortunate trend, I set out to explore the Tenjinbashisuji arcade, which starts at Tenjinbashisuji rokuchome subway station. The station lies on the Tanimachi subway line, just a couple of stops from Higashi-Umeda Station, and is referred by locals as ‘Ten Roku’ station. The entrance to the shopping arcade can be found at the top of the stairs of exit #8, and it is here that I start my exploration. Upon exiting, I immediately see a Golden Arches as the very first shop of the shopping arcade. So much for first impressions.
MZan preparing takoyaki - image © Wes Lang
Before diving head first into the bustling crowd of shoppers, I decide to learn a little about the history of the area, and what better place to start than the Museum of Housing and Living. The museum is on the 8th floor of the concrete building directly across from the McDonalds. I exit the elevator among throngs of Asian tourists. Apparently this museum is on the radar of the increasingly record numbers of tourists that continue to flock into Osaka. I begrudgingly fork over the 600-yen admission fee and climb the escalator to an area overlooking a reconstructed Edo era street. I descend the stairs and enter the street, swimming my way through tourists dressed in traditional yukata that seem more interested in posing for photographs than checking out the immaculately reconstructed storefronts. Downstairs, a exhibit of miniature scale models of Osaka’s neighborhoods as they existed in the Meiji and Taisho eras, takes center stage. This is worth of the price of admission alone, as you can get a glimpse of what Osaka used to look like until the catastrophic air raids of the Second World War leveled most of the city. I bounce around from model to model, imagining myself riding one of the many streetcars that used to transport passengers through Osaka’s bustling streets. The sound of music snaps me out of my reverie, and as I retreat the foyer I find a Veeh harp concert in full swing.
Harp concert - image © Wes Lang
Back on street level, I head south through the shopping arcade, bustling with locals in the midst of their midday shopping. I plan to keep a detailed tally of the different types of shops, but the sheer number is overwhelming. There are nearly 600 shops spread out over the entire 2-1/2 kilometer stretch of covered arcade. I soon eye my first takoyaki shop, the quintessential Osaka food that brave pescatarians should try at least once. It was too early for a break, so I continue on, passing a spacious barber shop on my left that offers haircuts for only 1300 yen. Next door to the hair salon is a 100 yen shop, with aisles so narrow and stocked full of merchandise that I find it hard to navigate. Still, in these Japanese equivalents of dollar stores you can find almost everything you need, and soon enough I walked away with a new roller ink pen. The next shop that catches my interest is called This Cover+, and it specializes in smart phone covers and accessories. I don’t even own a smart phone, but still find it interesting browsing through the sheer number of options for those who want to express themselves by decorating their personal hand-held devices.
Man peddling trinkets to customers - image © Wes Lang
You will soon pass your first east-west cross street, and if you look up at the roof of the arcade you will see the kanji characters for 天五(Ten Go). This is an abbreviation of Tenjinbashi Gochome, or the 5th block of the Tenjinbashi neighborhood. Most neighborhoods in Japan are subdivided into these tinier blocks, and since nearly all of the smaller side streets do not have names, it is the one keys to finding your way around. The shopping arcade extends all the way to Ten Ichi (Ten-1), so you’ve still got a long way to go before running out of shopping options. Just after crossing the street, I see a kimono shop on my right and am tempted to pick up a yukata for my daughter if not for the fact that she would soon outgrow it. Just past the kimono shop I see an udon shop named Ibuki (いぶき), an inadvertent nod to my daughter of the same name. It’s a standing noodle shop, the likes of which used to exist all over the city, and it’s a great place for a cheap and quick bowl of hot noodles for people on the go. Looking for a place to sit and enjoy a meal at a more leisurely pace, however, I move on, passing by Gozen bento shop, which offers a build-your-own-lunch box buffet. Patrons load up their trays, which are weighed and priced by the kilogram at the counter.
Kimono shop - image © Wes Lang
I gradually spy my first pachinko parlor, a roundabout form of gambling that originated just after the war. With the recent legalization of gambling, it is difficult to tell whether these icons of economic prosperity will survive the impending onslaught of the casino industry. At the next cross street, I am surprised to find another covered shopping arcade extending out in both directions. The shopping possibilities are endless, but I stick to the original plan and avoid any side trips for the time being. The shopping arcade narrows, as if threatening to suffocate me. In the space of just half a block, I am inundated with restaurants, confectionaries, clothing shops, pharmacies, clinics, and two more pachinko parlors as the brain starts to shut down from information overload. I also notice a sudden increase in the number of sushi shops, including one in particular named Harugoma (春駒), which has a long line of waiting customers stretching far down the constricted arcade. Feeling claustrophobic, I quicken the pace until reaching a peculiar grave to cigarettes outside of a ‘No Smoking Goods Shop’. Customers can deposit their packs of cigarettes in the mouth of the cigarette tombstone in exchange for electronic cigarettes and vaporizers on sale inside. This shop is in response to the recent indoor smoking ban that is currently under consideration in the Japanese Diet. Osaka may soon be seeing more of these kinds of shops if the bill is passed into law.
Cigarette tomb - image © Wes Lang
Fortunately, the shopping arcade begins to widen until reaching another cross street marked by a KFC restaurant. On my left I see JR Temma Station and directly above the portrait of Colonel Sanders, I am greeted by a giant ladybug with four black spots painted on its rotund back. Here is a play on words, as the ladybug, known in Japanese as a tento mushi, represents the ‘Ten’ in Tenjinbashi, while the four dots allude to the 4th block of the neighborhood, known affectionately as ‘Ten Yon.‘ Just down from the KFC, I am drawn to a framed Hokusai print in the entrance to Gakubuchi no Yamato (ガクブチの大和), a shop specializing in photo frames and paint canvases. In the front of the shop are reasonably priced art prints, while the larger photo frames are sorted by size towards the rear of the space. I pick up an illustration of a pair of Japanese Daruma dolls and continue heading south.
Artwork for sale - image © Wes Lang
The neon stars and rainbows of Tamade Supermarket soon come into view. Tamade is one of Osaka’s best known supermarkets, known as much for their cheap merchandise as for their catchy shop-clerk recordings on continual loop that perpetually assault your aural passages. It’s like a supermarket on speed, and well worth checking out even if you don’t end up buying anything. A bit past the Tamade, the brick facade of Coffee Shop Victor catches my eye. This is a traditional kissaten that have existed long before Starbucks even considered going global. While they do have a penchant for brewing a great cup of joe, they are generally a magnet for chain smokers, so I move on in search of a cleaner environment. At the next cross street, I see another takoyaki shop, only the second one in the entire shopping street. While commonly translated as ‘octopus balls’, the round-shaped octopus-filled snacks are a favorite treat for locals and tourists alike. They come in orders of six, eight, or ten, and are best shared among a group of friends. However, solo travelers have the luxury of opting for tako sen, a takoyaki sandwich of sorts, as three octopus balls are squeezed between two fish-flavored rice crackers and served with an optional topping of fresh green onions. Costing only 200 yen, I purchase one and head west, one street away from the shopping street to Ogimachi Park, a rare bit of green space surrounded by modern glass buildings. I climb the hillside opposite the cubical blocks of the Kansai TV building, and observe the children clambering around the slides of the adjacent playground.
Takosen closeup - image © Wes Lang
After the snack, I head back to the main arcade and continue my march south. I stroll past the Fuguetsu okonomiyaki shop, a place known for their scorched style of preparing Osaka’s second most famous dish. Further on I spot a Ceylon tea shop but I am in the mood for something a little more Japanese, so I proceed on. Soon I reach a broad street with an overhead highway spanning above. Halfway across the street, the lampposts and railings of Meoto-bashi Bridge serve as a reminder that a river once flowed through this area. The waterway was filled in to make room for the road, but the signpost indicates that there were once two small ponds near here that were considered to be husband and wife. Occasionally, a few fervent couples still come here to pray at a small shrine near the bridge for a successful marriage. Above the bridge, the signage transitions from ladybugs to flowers, as we have now entered Ten San, or the third block of Tenjinbashi.
ladybug marks the entrance to Ten 4 - image © Wes Lang
Immediately on the right side is a taiyaki shop, a place serving bean-filled sweets in the shape of a sea bream. I skip the sugary fish temptation for the time being, searching for something a little more filling and set off under the colorful shrine gates hanging from the ceiling of the arcade. The crowds have thinned out greatly, and it becomes a rather pleasant stroll past the quiet shops. Soon I reach the wooden storefront of Kurume, a store specializing in traditional, high quality wooden items including chopsticks, shoehorns, ear picks, and tableware. I purchase a small trinket before skirting past a couple of places with their shutters closed and a couple of empty lots covered with chain link fencing. Shop turnover in Tenjinbashi is surprisingly high, as steep rents and cutthroat competition can make or break business owners. After crossing over another side street, a small space with a wood and glass facade appears on my right. I have reached Happy Camper Bagel, and I quickly step inside for a look. A wall of bins on my right contains a dozen different selections, many of which have already sold out. Opened in 2013, the bagel shop is run by a friendly couple who make the bagels fresh daily. The store closes at either 6pm or whenever they sell out, whichever comes first. Judging by the bleak selection at 2pm, I would venture to say that they probably close early most days of the week. I pick up a pecan and cinnamon bagel for a later snack and continue my southern march.
Facade of Kurume - image © Wes Lang
The color of the torii shrines on the roof shift from blue to green and then red, as the arcade takes on more of an international flavor. Il Sole, a wood-fired brick oven pizza shop threatens to pull me in, but the Thai restaurant a few doors down puts up a stronger fight. Just as I am about to settle for a spicy southeast Asian lunch, the warm lights of T-Green’s, an inviting cafe just opposite pull me in. I am greeted by Misato, a jovial waitress who coaxes me into a cozy seat and explains the menu in fluent English. I decide on the Buddha Bowl, a vegetarian salad consisting of a base of brown rice and quinoa, topped with fresh vegetables, beans, and savory avocado. For an additional 200 yen, I can add a coffee or tea, but I up the ante by upgrading to a matcha latte, prepared with powdered green tea sourced directly from the tea fields of Kyoto. The sugar-free concoction arrives at my table after lunch and I stare at the glass as if looking at a work of art. The cafe is busy but not overly chaotic, and with the free wi-fi I settle into a pleasant rhythm, rewarding myself for this gem of a find.
Green tea latte - image © Wes Lang
Once the caffeine takes hold, I storm to my feet and trod off towards Osaka Tenmangu Shrine, which will soon be closing for the day. En route, I pass by Uni Hostel, a cheap guesthouse that makes for an interesting place to set up camp for a more thorough exploration of the area. A bit further down, I pass by a shop selling kitchen knives and a confectionary called Bashodo. A shop clerk out front attends to grilled rice cakes sold to ward off bad luck. In the name of superstition, I lay down 100 yen and walk off with a hot, azuki bean paste delicacy that not only warms the tummy, but hopefully brings me good luck. Soon I reach another broad street called Sonezaki-dori, which is home to both Minami Morimachi subway station and JR Osaka Tennmangu Station. This is the entrance to the Ten Ni (Ten 2) section of the shopping street. As I cross the wide lane, I am greeted by four dolls suspended from the entrance of the shopping arcade. These are replicas of the mukae ningyo, or welcome dolls, which are adorned to the floating procession of boats during the Tenjin Matsuri, held every July 24th and 25th at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine. The festival is one of the three great summer festivals in Japan, and during the celebration the area is overflowing with people, which doesn’t make for ideal shopping conditions.
Mukae nikgyo, or welcome dolls - image © Wes Lang
I push on, past an okonomiyaki shop and before long I discover Osaka Chakai , a green tea shop with an attractive second floor lounge space with free wi-fi. If I wasn’t already jacked up on caffeine I would have stopped by for a visit. Instead, I meander ahead past a bicycle shop until reaching Ibuki Coffee Shop (伊吹珈琲). Looking up, I see the kanji for Ten Ichi (天神橋１), the final block of the shopping street. Here I turn left and walk one block to the entrance of Osaka Tenmangu Shrine. The grounds have been built to honor Sugawara Michizane, a Heian-era scholar and educator whose spirit has been closely linked with Tenjin, the deity of scholarship and education. Every year, thousands of high school seniors flock here in order to pray for successful results on their college entrance exams, and children of all ages also come to seek spiritual guidance in their scholarly pursuits. The number of good luck charms and trinkets for sale is impressive to say the least. In the late afternoon light, the shrine lays mostly quiet except for a dozen or so visitors gathered on the eastern side of the grounds. The sound of shakuhachi flutes breaks the silence, as white-figured attendants cross an elevated covered walkway towards the main sanctuary. I hurry over, just in time to catch the bride-to-be emerging in her pristine white kimono, followed by the groom dressed in a black hakama suit. The couple enter the altar as the priest commences the ceremony. Perhaps my earlier purchase of a good luck snack wasn’t such a bad investment after all.
A wedding procession, Osaka Tenmangu shrine - image © Wes Lang
After watching the ceremony, I retrace my steps back to the arcade and turn left for the final 50-meter walk of the covered street. I am tempted by a taiyaki shop on my left peddling an okonomiyaki-style tai yaki, which seems a bit odd as the sweet fish-shaped cakes are usually filled with azuki-bean paste or custard cream. I turn down their enthusiastic offer and finally emerge in the fading sunlight of the day. I am pleasantly surprised to see the shopping street continue under open air for another couple of blocks. I eye another cheap accommodation called Suna no shiro guesthouse, as well as an owl cafe and a burger joint, before meeting up with the main street.
Man cooking good luck rice cakes- image © Wes Lang
Just before the main street, a side street merges with the very tip of the shopping street. Turning left, I see the Fujihara Building, a brown-brick structure that dates from 1923 and houses a graphic design firm on the second floor with an accessory showroom above. The building was used as a set for a TV drama back in 2009, and still retains a unique charm, thanks to the plethora of art installations attached to every available wall space. The basement is home to Fujihara art gallery, an amazing multi-media space that is only open for special exhibitions. On weekdays, you can enter the main part of the building and ponder the artwork in the public areas. There are creative displays everywhere, including a looped recording of a static-filled lecture wafting up from the darkened halls of the basement. The art continues outside as well, as an adjacent parking lot hosts a permanent exhibition of paintings and sculpture attached to the walls.
Fujihara building - image © Wes Lang
The golden arches truly led to golden discoveries in the vast stretches of the pulsating Tenjinbashi arcade. Even if I walked this street a dozen times, I am sure that I would continue to discover hidden treasures just waiting to be unearthed.
Where Are These Places Located?See these places on the Inside Osaka Google map:
- Open the Osaka map
- You will see the list of places on the left hand side. (Click the 3-line icon in the top left corner if not). Scroll down or use the map search (the magnifying glass icon) to find the place you want.
- Click the name of the place in the list. Its location pin will be highlighted on the map.
- Map pins are color coded - BLUE: Hotels / Ryokan / Guesthouses | VIOLET: Ryokan | PINK: Places to Eat | GREEN: Shops | YELLOW: Things to See and Do
- If you're using the map on your phone, open the map and then search for the name of the place. The map will then zoom in on its location.
Osaka Vacation Checklist
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