Minato Ward: Exploring Osaka’s Harbor District

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Almost every major city in Japan has a Minato Ward of its own. Minato literally means “port” in Japanese, and so each coastal city in the country has one.

However, there are few quite as vibrant, charming and endearing as Osaka’s own Minato Ward.

From the bustling bars and izakayas of downtown Bentencho, to the tranquil sunsets of the Osakako harborside, Minato has something to suit all tastes, and all budgets.

Minato Ward has two distinct parts, each with their own unique character and points of interest.

The “mainland”, e.g. the part of the city that is connected to the other wards of Osaka encompasses two busy train stations, Bentencho and Asashiobashi, running the length of “Minato Dori” one of the longest and busiest roads in the entire city. Minato Dori starts at the harbourside and goes right into the very heart of the city, ending in Osaka’s Midosuji area, between the urban hubs of Namba and Umeda.

This area of Minato Ward is noticeably livelier than its “island” counterpart, Osakako.

Osakako has its fair share of Izakayas, restaurants and bars, but these are definitely more laid back and usually close their doors around 12 midnight or 1am.

Osakako was, until about 15 years ago, only reachable by bus, with Minato Dori linking it to the rest of Minato Ward via a road bridge. However a subway station was added in the early 2000s, linking Osakako with nearby Asashiobashi and the hub station Bentencho.

This makes Osakako a great place to base yourself if you are travelling on business or vacation. With the subway link you can be in Namba, Umeda or Tennoji in around 20 minutes.

Having been built on reclaimed land from the Osaka Bay in the early 70s. All of the buildings on Osakako are, at most about 40 years old. This gives the area a distinctly more modern feel than the rest of Minato Ward.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the shopping and entertainment facilities at the port itself. As you approach the port, you will notice the giant ferris wheel, known locally as the Tempozan Kanransha (天保山観覧車).

At one time this was the tallest ferris wheel in Asia, and even today, it’s still a mightily impressive sight. In the evenings the wheel is lit up and the color will change depending on the weather forecast the next day. So if you see a pink or green wheel, you’re looking at a good day tomorrow. If it’s blue however, make sure you don’t forget that raincoat and umbrella!

Directly adjoined to the rear of the ferris wheel is Tempozan Market Place. Here you will find a food court offering some of the very best local and international fast food Osaka has to offer. Kushikatsu skewers, Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki, you name it, they’ve got it. They also have Subway and KFC if you’re not feeling too adventurous.

Tempozan Market Place is also home to some fantastic souvenir shops.

Among these is the legendary “Ninja Shop” where the staff take the idea of dressing for work to a whole new level, with their all-black costumes and masked faces.

The sign on the door says it all really: “If you need any help, please ask a ninja!”

To the rear of Tempozan Market Place you will find Tempozan Harbor Village. A beautiful courtyard between Market Place and Minato Ward’s star attraction, the Kaiyukan, Osaka’s internationally renowned, massive aquarium.

Harbor Village is a great place to chill out in summer, with bench seating and excellent casual drink options available from the nearby Starbucks, Mother Moon Café and Family Mart convenience store. During the busier weekend days, you’ll also have live street performers on-hand to entertain you and create something of a carnival atmosphere.

In winter, the Harbor Village is transformed into a winter wonderland with all manner of Christmas themed illuminations and exhibits. You may even find the occasional festive musical performance in the evenings too.

This is all just a warm up act however, for the wonders that await you inside the Osaka Aquarium.

This massive monument to all things marine takes a good 3 or 4 hours to fully appreciate, so be sure to set aside a half day for your visit.

The star attraction is the huge whale shark, believed to be the biggest fish in existence. At 10 meters in Length and weighing in at 19,000 kgs this behemoth really has to be seen to be believed.

Of course it’s not just massive creatures like the whale shark that get all the limelight at this aquarium. Among other things, you call also get up close and personal with rays, skates, dolphins, hammerhead sharks, penguins, and my personal favorite: sea lions.

As you walk through the hall of jellyfish towards the end of your visit, you’ll be greeted with one final surprise. A large pool in the center of the room where, if you’re feeling brave enough, you can actually put your hands in the water and feel what it’s like to touch a shark or a skate.

After the aquarium, be sure to head round to the back of the building, in front of the “Seagull Hotel” where you will find a perfect replica of the famous Little Mermaid Statue, donated by the city of Copenhagen to the people of Osaka back in the 1990s.

The Mermaid gives the perfect frame through which to view the sunset out into the harbor across the Osaka Bay.

I can safely say, that in all my travels, I’ve yet to find anywhere that does sunsets quite as beautiful as Osakako.

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