Flanked by luxury fashion brands and boutiques, walking down Midōsuji Street in Osaka feels very similar to exploring Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Osaka’s colorful, double-wide avenue cuts through Minami, the city center for shopping, dining and nightlife, and it crosses what might be the city’s most recognizable landmark, the Dōtonbori Canal. Japan’s second most-visited city appears polished in every single way, but first impressions rarely tell the full story.
I came to this realization at a street corner just one block west of Midōsuji. Attached to a wall about 18 feet up was a psychedelic green and red sign that read “ganja acid” with a cannabis leaf replacing the superscript dot in the letter “j”.
Despite its conservative reputation, Japan is fairly moderate by Asian standards on most issues except drugs. While the country does not hang drug offenders like Sri Lanka, cannabis possession can land you several years in jail—or nine days if your name is Paul McCartney—and the government suggested it might go after citizens who consume cannabis overseas in countries where it’s legal. In 2011, the U.S. State Department even issued a travel warning about the severity of drug arrests in Japan, and all this risk makes it one of the most expensive places in the world to get high.
For all these reasons, Ganja Acid is not a sign one would expect to see in the commercial center of Osaka—even if Japan didn’t prohibit magic mushrooms until 2002—but it did highlight the vibrant subculture hiding in plain sight in Japan’s third largest city.
So, what is Ganja Acid? It’s actually two adjacent bars, Ganja and Acid, found on the third floor of an office building that’s been converted into a collection of tiny bars a lá the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Tokyo. In an apparent drug mix-up, Ganja is a psychedelic bar, while Acid is a music venue that often hosts DJs. Ganja / Acid (as it’s properly stylized) has been around for more than two decades. The low-capacity spaces attract an eclectic mix of tourists, music artists and eccentrics, including (per a random blog post) “some dude [who] regularly drank in different plush animal costumes.”
Like the Golden Gai, all or most of the bars in the building require a small coverage charge (usually the equivalent of a few dollars in Yen) that includes a food item, and several of the bars feature artwork on their doors that reference cannabis or psychedelics. Nevertheless, don’t expect to find ganja or acid in any of the venues as the names and imagery are merely subversive symbols that speak out against the prohibitive status quo. Any visit to Osaka should include at least one night hopping between these cubby hole-sized bars, though the city also boasts several other elite drinking spots.
The other must-visit bar is, unfortunately, harder to find than a Rhodes Scholar at a Drumpf rally. Bar Nayuta, located two blocks west of Midōsuji and with minimal signage, is a hidden bar on the fifth floor of a narrow, nondescript building. Once you arrive at the address, enter the doorway that says MARIO BLDG, take the elevator up to 5F and then duck through the small entrance around the corner.
Once inside, Bar Nayuta makes you feel like you’ve transported to a European-style speakeasy with vintage aesthetics that include a half-moon shaped bar. Behind the counter, mixologists craft wild creations that celebrate originality without sacrificing taste. Just let the bartenders know the types of spirits and flavors you prefer and give them full creative control over your drink, but keep in mind that they seem especially adept at utilizing absinthe so don’t be afraid to embrace the green fairy.
For those who prefer hops to spirits, Craft Beer Works Kamikaze (four blocks west of Midōsuji) features a rotating lineup of 23 beers on draft, which typically include lots of Japanese breweries and odd-ball options like bourbon barrel-aged guava sour. Don’t expect to find Pliny the Younger, but you will likely find double and triple IPAs. Click here for a sample lineup from May 2019.
Osaka also boasts several quality sake brands that can be enjoyed in local bars or at many of the breweries accessible by public transport from the city center.
An old saying suggests that Tokyo residents spend all their money on shoes, Kyoto residents spend all their money on fashion and Osaka residents spend all their money on food. Fittingly, author Michael Booth called Osaka the “world’s greatest food city,” and others have suggested the same. Top fine-dining options include the kaiseki classic Kashiwaya (3 Michelin stars) and the famed French-Japanese mashup La Cime (No. 14 on Asia’s 50 Best list), but you should skip these places and head straight to the sizzling street food.
Osaka’s street food culture is diverse, unique and several generations old with dishes like savory egg-and-cabbage pancakes (okonomiyaki), breaded meat skewers (kushikatsu) and batter-fried octopus balls (takoyaki)⎯the latter invented by an Osaka street vendor in the 1930s. Likewise, the longstanding Yoshino (opened in 1841) serves hakozushi sushi pressed into box-shaped squares and rectangles, which reflects a style of sushi preparation that is popular in Osaka yet rarely seen elsewhere.
The best street food options are found near the Dōtonbori riverwalk in the heart of the entertainment district, further south in the old school, neon-lit Shinsekai neighborhood, and up north in the lantern-lined, 1920s-style Takimi Koji restaurant row in Umeda.
For those who do want to dabble in highish-end cuisine, try one of the city’s top tempura spots, or head to the Fukushima neighborhood for famed udon and long lines at Hanakujira. If you’re desperate for a burger and willing to visit the suburbs, it’s hard to do better than Awajishima Burger, which Eater describes as “the center of nearly every burger conversation in western Japan.”
Whether eating in a fancy restaurant or from a street vendor, do not tip. It is not part of Japanese culture. Likewise, you should always have some cash (Yen) on hand since some restaurants do not accept credit cards. Your bank card might get denied at many bank machines, but it probably will work at a post office and/or 7-Eleven ATM, of which there are many.
Stay in Style
Most tourists will want to stay in the Minami neighborhood—home to the Dōtonbori riverwalk, the Shinsaibashi and Namba districts, and the most popular food, drink and shopping options—and the ideal place to stay is the Hotel Nikko Osaka. This ultra-modern, 32-floor hotel faces Midōsuji Street (across from the Daimaru department store) and features direct access to the Shinsaibashi subway station. Its nine restaurants serve wide-ranging cuisine such as sushi, French, Cantonese, and Japanese black beef steaks, while the 31st-floor Sky Cruiser lounge is a chill place to soak in the Osaka skyline. The rooms on the high floors offer views of Mt. Ikoma (for the east-facing rooms) and Osaka Bay (on the west side).
Hotel Nikko Osaka is also easy to reach from the airport without an overpriced taxi. Travelers can take the Nankai airport line from Kansai International Airport (KIX) to Osaka Namba Station, and then head north on Midōsuji for 10 minutes on foot (or one stop on the Midōsuji subway line) to reach the hotel.
Speaking of style, Minami shopping might resemble Fifth Avenue in NYC, but it is also home to the decades-old Amerikamura, a retail and entertainment complex that describes itself as “the birthplace of street culture in Japan.” Other retail options around town include THE GROUND depot and BAPE for Japanese street wear and Takeo Kikuchi for high-end Japanese style with an industrial flair, and keep an eye out for Japanese labels like kotohayokozawa, Mastermind JAPAN, Neighborhood and the punk-inspired UNDERCOVER.
Bow Before the Deer
Kyoto and Nara are both about an hour away by public transit. While Kyoto deserves an extended stay, take a day trip to Nara to explore the temple architecture and exchange bows with the ever-present deer. As you gradually ascend the hill into Nara Park, stay patient and know the statues, temples and deer population become more interesting the deeper you go. Purchase deer food for 150 Yen (under $2), and when you encounter deer, flash a cracker and bow and then reward your new friend for bowing back. Tōdai-ji, formerly one of the Seven Great Temples, is one of the top historic sites in the park, but the Nara deer are definitely the real attraction. From the Osaka Namba Station, take the Kintetsu Nara Line (departing every 10 minutes or so) for about 45 minutes to the Kintetsu-Nara Station and follow the crowds east.
The Past, Present and Future
Osaka was once the commerce center of Japan, and the country’s first brokerage firm opened here almost a century ago. Tokyo is now the national business center, though several companies like Panasonic, Sharp and Suntory still have their headquarters in Osaka. In a very loose sense, Osaka is to Tokyo what Chicago might be to New York, though both Japanese cities have much better weather.
More mainstream highlights in the city include the whale shark-hosting Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, Universal Studios Japan, the sky-high Tempozan Ferris Wheel, Osaka Castle, the century-old Tennōji Zoo, the Umeda Sky Building’s Floating Garden, the electronics-anime district Den Den Town, the LGBTQ-friendly Doyama district and lots of temples, shrines, gardens and bridges. In fact, Osaka has so many bridges that some call it the Venice of the East, though the comparison is overused by many cities.
South of the main tourist centers, Tobita Shinchi became a red-light district in the early 1900s and grew into one of the largest brothel areas in the country. Ironically, the brothels (typically advertised as restaurants, so be warned) closed for a few days last month when the G20 Summit came to town because, you know, you gotta keep the Drumpf team focused. (President Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil knows what we’re talking about!)
This was the first G20 summit in Japan, but Osaka will host its second World Expo (or World’s Fair) in 2025, having previously hosted the international exhibition in 1970. The theme for the six-month fair will be Designing Future Society for Our Lives.
PRØ Tips for Japan
Visit Japan Wireless and rent a mobile Wi-Fi unit. For about $5 per day, you can have wireless internet access just about anywhere in the city, which means your smartphone can go online for maps, directions, FaceTime, Skype, emails and texts. JW will send the high-speed unit to your hotel along with a return envelope that you can drop off at the post office or the airport.
For those who plan to travel extensively throughout the country, the Japan Rail (JR) pass can save you money. These unlimited-ride passes, available in one-, two- and three-week options, are only available to tourists visiting from other countries. Purchase the pass in advance and then activate it at the train station ticket counter. The JR pass is primarily used to get between cities, but it can provide limited local transit.
As far as the local subway system, the metro can be confusing throughout most of Japan so familiarize yourself with it before arriving. The cost of individual tickets vary according to your final destination, which means you spend a lot of time looking at the big wall maps in the subway station. Metro pass options include prepaid cards and multi-day passes.
Finally, on the cannabis tip, be very careful. Japan, which claims the oldest evidence of cannabis use, prohibited the plant in 1948 with the Cannabis Control Act, which the U.S. naturally had a hand in establishing. Law enforcement takes all drug possession/use very seriously, as the head of the Tokyo Olympics recently warned the public.
The police famously arrested actor-singer Junnosuke Taguchi (of KAT-TUN fame) and actress Rena Komine for cannabis possession last May as well as Long Beach Dub All-Stars singer Opie Ortiz (who designed iconic images for Sublime) last March. In Osaka alone, those nabbed by the police in recent years include the 2018 MVP of Japan’s professional football league, a ramen shop owner, university students, and a janitor who utilized the bonsai technique to shape gorgeous cannabis plants. The Osaka Prefecture Pharmaceutical Association released an embarrassing series of “Bad. Definitely. Marijuana.” posters that were endlessly mocked on social media. Osaka University focuses heavily on potential cannabis-related harms and tells students that cannabis “offenders can be charged and dealt with as criminals by law enforcement officials,” though someone at OU had to be high AF when the school published a study on how “frog choruses inspire wireless sensor networks.”
Despite the country’s strict prohibition, the cannabis subculture continues to grow with activist groups, a cannabis museum, books, head shops and home grows, and you can find cannabis-related imagery and accessories in hipster neighborhoods like Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. Osaka even hosted a two-day International Conference on Cannabis and Medicinal Research last fall, even as business executives complain (off the record, of course) about the missed opportunities caused by prohibition. Not surprisingly, cannabis-related arrests reached a record high in 2018, breaking the previous record set in… wait for it… 2017.
Certain weeds can break through concrete, and maybe the cannabis community in Japan will eventually break through prohibition. In the meantime, skip the smokes when visiting Osaka, and if that’s an improbable ask, try to limit your stash to nondescript infused candies that you can blend in with similar sweets in their original packaging. The edibles will be the perfect complement to a night out at Ganja Acid.