Osaka Area Guide: Umeda 梅田
Umeda began with the building of a train station. In 1847, what had been agricultural land was filled in to accommodate Japan National Railway's Osaka Station.
Hence the area was given a name composed of two Chinese characters: ume, meaning "buried"; and da, meaning "field."
There are various theories as to why the first character was later changed to another with the same pronunciation, but with the meaning "plum."
It suffices to say that the latter seems more attractive.
The opening of Osaka Station, one of the first railway stations in the Kansai region, defined Umeda as a transportation hub and from the 19th to the 20th century, other railways followed suit, building terminals close to Osaka Station.
Most of these, however, borrowed the name of the Umeda area, rather than that of Osaka City. The modern day result is that Umeda station is a considerable piece of real estate serving numerous train lines.
During the Second World War the area was flattened by air raids, and immediately afterward, became the sight of one of the many black markets that appeared in Japan when food and other essentials were scarce. The ethical color of the place reversed itself over time, but Umeda is still, very much, a marketplace.
May of 2011 saw the opening day of Osaka Station City when 50,000 people came to experience the thoroughly up to date complex of shopping, dining, and entertainment venues that has engulfed JR Osaka Station: one more leap in the development of this mercantile Mecca.
A few blocks to the south of the station, the landmark, Umeda Sky Building, has stood since 1993. Two 40 story towers are joined at the top by an observation deck featuring restaurants that overlook the city from a vantage of 173 meters, or for a small fee you can look out from the rooftop. The basement is a collection of restaurants meant to resemble the Osaka of the early 20th century, and on the grounds are modern sculptures and a nicely manicured garden, complete with a small rice paddy. The court between the towers is often the site of cultural festivals.
As the train tracks run away north of Osaka Station they pass between Hankyu Station and the department store of the same name - which is, itself, a piece of Japanese history.
Built in 1929, it was the brainchild of Ichizo Kobayashi who also owned the railroad. The store was just one of the attractions that Kobayashi opened along his railway, which ran from Osaka to Kobe, but it inspired a trend that you can see throughout Japan today: railway terminals and junctions throughout the archipelago now feature department stores linked to the transportation companies.
In Umeda the Hankyu Department Store has a companion just across an enclosed walkway to the north: Hankyu Grand building. Both locations offer extensive shopping and dining opportunities. Nearby are entrances to a labyrinth that is said to be the world's largest underground shopping arcade. Constructed in the 1960's five subterranean avenues radiate out from Osaka Station City: Diamor osaka, Herbis Osaka, Hankyu Sanbangai, Dojima Underground Shopping Center and Whitey Umeda - with its historic 1960s fountain at Izumi-no-Hiroba Plaza.
On the other side of the tracks is Big Man Square: a large, vaulted space in front of Hankyu Railway's Umeda Station. It is named for the giant TV screen, Big Man, mounted in the northwest corner. Big Man is a good location to know, because it is a popular gathering spot for groups of any size before they set off for an evening in the area or beyond.
Big Man was joined more recently by its identical twin, Co-Big Man in the southeast. Behind the TVs, Kinokuniya bookstore has a respectable selection of English books along with stationary supplies, geodetic survey maps, and a wealth of Japanese titles. In the summer months you will usually find an open air beer, juice, and snacks concession operating in the square which attracts many foreigners and Japanese with an atmosphere conducive to chatting in whatever language they have in common.
Continuing on to the north, the tracks pass directly over a long runway comprising a collection of boutiques called EST where you can find Japan's latest words in fashion. Just to the east is the HEP building that houses one of the largest cinema complexes in the area, and other shopping and entertainment venues, and is crowned by the Ferris wheel that has become a familiar part of the Umeda skyline.
To the west is a warren of little crisscrossed avenues that are stuffed with boutiques and ethnic restaurants along with one of the largest branches of the Loft department store chain, offering a huge range of household goods that appeal to modern generations.
Among the latest additions to this area is a bookstore that occupies the first seven floors of a wide concrete tower, topped by an elegant restaurant, hotel, and wedding chapel. A combined venture of the Junkudo and Maruzen chains, its foreign books section has everything from classic murder mysteries to modern fiction, and illustrated cookbooks to mathematical tomes on economic forecasting.
Here also is where the tracks divide with the JR Tokaido Honsen heading north toward Kyoto and the Loop Line bearing east to make a circuit of the city. On its way out of Umeda, the Loop Line runs through the Nakazaki-cho district and skirts the shopping street that lies one block to the north.
By day this is a quiet stretch dotted with mom and pop stores and a couple of tachinomiya (traditional Japanese pubs with a limited selection of drinks and snacks and no seating) that harkens back to earlier days. At night more recent additions of izakaya and Western style restaurants open their doors and light up the way.
This shopping street ends where it meets Tenjinbashi Suji, the longest shopping street in Japan, running perpendicular to it. Tenjinbashi Suji is a bit flashier and mixes in pachinko parlors, electronic game centers, and internet cafes with the more traditional shops and eateries, but this street and its surrounding alleyways remain a quintessence of the Osaka way of doing business and entertaining.
As well as having its own virtues (or vices, depending on your outlook) Umeda is an excellent base for exploring the whole of the Kansai region. It is home to accommodations that will suit travelers of any ilk and are within easy walking distance to an entrance into Japan's convenient railway network.
Access - how to get to Umeda
Railways connecting to Umeda Station include the Hankyu Line (with trains on the Kobe Line to Juso and Sannomiya, trains to Ibaraki, Takatsuki, Katsura, Sai-in, Karasuma and Shijo Station on the Kyoto Line, and services to Toyonaka, Ishibashi and Takarazuka on the Takarazuka Line).
The Hanshin Main Line connects Umeda Station with Sannomiya Station in Kobe via Amagasaki, Koshien, and the Kobe suburb of Ashiya.
Osaka Station City has JR Line trains to Kobe and Kyoto on the Tokaido Main Line, Osaka Loop Line trains, and trains on the JR Takarazuka Line.