Osaka's quirky Shinsekai area is a hub for nightlife and dining. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Once the capital of Japan, Osaka is now firmly overshadowed by the country's current first city, Tokyo. As Japan's second-biggest metropolitan area, Osaka is a sprawling megalopolis encompassing several satellite cities and inhabited by almost 19 million people.

This also makes it the second-most powerful economic centre in Japan. Yet on both those counts it pales in comparison to Tokyo.

Japan's neon-splashed capital also dominates on the tourist front, attracting nearly three times as many foreign visitors as Osaka, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Yet Osaka, on the country's central eastern coast, has everything travellers adore about Japan. Imperial vestiges and grand temples set amid manicured parks are juxtaposed against the hyper-modernity, curious food and quirky street culture for which the country is renowned.

In fact, I encounter all of these drawcards while wandering the Tennoji district surrounding my hotel.

Striding past the subway and train lines which link Tennoji with the rest of Osaka, the aromas wafting from food stalls and streetside cafes are hard to ignore.

My stomach is full from breakfast but I pause to inspect menus which are littered with wonderfully exotic meals containing ingredients that are unfamiliar to me.

Takoyaki sounds appetising, I think. Less appealing is its English description - octopus balls. Best left for another day, I reckon as I amble towards Tennoji Zoo.

There are more than 1000 creatures on display here amid lush gardens framed, rather incongruously, by the backdrop of the towering glass-and- steel skyscrapers synonymous with Japanese cities.

As I study a pair of playful Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys, an elderly Japanese man approaches me and strikes up a conversation.

The retired doctor urges me not to waste too much time at the zoo - every country has them, he argues - and to instead seek out a purer cultural experience.

He scribbles a rudimentary map on the back of my zoo ticket directing me to the nearby Shitennoji Temple.

It turns out to be as splendid as the amiable doctor claimed. The oldest temple in this ancient country, it was built in the Chinese Buddhist architectural style sometime between the late-sixth and early-seventh century.

A local man pays his respects at a shrine near Shitennoji Temple. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

The timing of my visit to this grand historical edifice is a tad askew. One month later, in January, I could have witnessed the peculiar delights of the Naked Man festival, more commonly called Doya Doya.

Despite the numbing winter weather, Doya Doya sees young men strip to sumo-style underwear and jostle to grab paper charms from within the temple while they are doused with buckets of water. This traditional ceremony encapsulates the beguiling blend of ancient culture and eccentricity which is Japan's trademark.

Leaving the temple, I come across an example of such idiosyncrasy: a gaggle of cartoon characters mounted on a statue of a Japanese warrior.

The cheeky locals inside these gaudy costumes giggle as they pose for photos of the spectacle they have created.

This costume play, or "cosplay" as it is known in Japan, started as a counter-culture but is now a mainstream pastime. Accordingly, it has been embraced by commercial interests, highlighted in Tennoji's ostentatious Shinsekai neighbourhood, just a brief walk from the Shitennoji Temple.

Here, youthful employees don outrageous garb to catch the eye and draw you into their restaurant or bar.

One of the major nightlife hubs in Osaka, Shinsekai offers affordable eateries and pubs which try to outdo each other with their ever-more bizarre styles. Eventually, I settle on a restaurant-bar with a neo-Wild West theme.

Once again, octopus balls are on the menu. "When in Rome," I figure. But the waitress informs me they don't serve pizza or pasta so I settle instead for okonomiyaki, a pleasingly savoury Japanese omelette.

My hunger quelled, I head for the central icon of Shinsekai, Tsutenkaku tower. This 130m structure was apparently intended to resemble the Eiffel Tower.

It is not without similarity, although where beneath the Parisian icon there is a stately park, here there is a clutch of glowing Pachinko parlours. Men spanning the full spectrum of age hunch over these gaming machines, hoping to collect enough balls to earn a prize.

I resist the urge to gamble and instead ride the elevator to the top of the tower. From the observation deck, I look out over an expansive blanket of shimmering lights.

Scanning across the horizon I try, unsuccessfully, to locate the main reason I've come to Osaka - the Osaka Castle. While the Tennoji district alone has offered me so many Japanese experiences, this ancient site is not to be missed. Ringed by verdant parks, smaller citadels and an imposing array of turrets, gates and moats, the castle has stately location.

It was built more than 400 years ago at the behest of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a warrior and politician who became one of the most powerful men in Japan. While the ornate structure has twice been badly damaged by fire, its latest reconstruction is impeccable and ensures it remains magnificent.

The museum inside details the captivating past of the castle and the battles it has endured, and this history lesson seems an apt way to complete my time in Japan's original capital city.

Osaka may lack the cachet of Tokyo but it offers many similar, appealing experiences at a cheaper price and minus the sometimes maddening tourist hordes.

FACT FILE

From late May through to early June, Osaka locals gather at various locations across the city to watch the vivid night-time displays created by Japanese fireflies. Expo Park and Sugawara-jinja Shrine are the most popular spots to witness this show of nature.

Osaka has an international airport which can be reached from major South-East Asian flight hubs such as Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Alternatively, from Tokyo, Shinkansen bullet trains can take you to Osaka in under three hours.

Osaka Aquarium and Universal Studios Japan are located close together in the city's Bay Area. The aquarium is one of Japan's biggest with 15 tanks. Universal Studios has an array of rides based on popular movies and is the second-most popular theme park in Japan after Tokyo Disney Resort.

The West Australian

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