Though the Tokyo Summer Games are still two years away, there’s still plenty of competition around Japan right now. Tokyo, the host city for the 2020 Games, and Osaka, a beautiful destination where a number of athletes will train, are both vying to win you over. With high-end hotels, diverse culinary scenes and tireless activity calendars, each dynamic place stakes its claim for your attention. But let’s take a closer look and see how the two cities match up head-to-head for your traveling dollars.
The Imperial Hotel brand has managed to do something that only a select group has: create a genuine niche in the country’s saturated hospitality market. The Imperial trio — there’s a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star address in Tokyo, a Forbes Travel Guide Recommended getaway in Osaka and the breathtaking Kamikochi Imperial Hotel in the Japanese Alps — has a regality to it. All are prominent properties without a pinch of pomp.
Legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright helped the Tokyo beauty reach its now-iconic heights. Wright designed the hotel’s second-generation Main Building, which opened in 1923 (the first debuted in 1890). The structure had Wright’s fingerprint (tiling done in fascinating geometric shapes, Oya lava stone walls, terracotta touches) all over it, and people could not take their eyes off the place.
Though the “Jewel of the Orient” was dissembled in 1967, reminders of the building can still be found at the hotel’s current residence. Hallways are lined with beautiful tapestries and intricate carvings that would have gained Wright’s approval. Rooms are as unfussy now as they were decades ago with armoires, leather chairs and neutral color schemes. The Old Imperial Bar is a throwback of a lounge with lamps adorned in triangles, Marilyn Monroe photos and an ornamental wall from the original building.
Elsewhere around the hotel, you can still feel the nostalgia, too. Traditional services are held six days a week at the Toko-An Teahouse, an onsite ceremonial chamber that replicates sukiya architecture down to the granular details. And at Nakata, the popular sushi restaurant, chefs prepare bites in an authentic Tokyo style.
Osaka’s Imperial Hotel has made its own bit of history — though the building only dates back to 1996. But even in that relatively short span, the property has hosted political dignitaries, entertainment royalty and anyone else interested in the kind of subdued elegance that the brand has come to be known for.
There’s an Old Imperial Bar here as well. Like the Tokyo outpost, this lounge is ideal for a nostalgic nightcap, with a space paying homage to Wright through patterned stained glass and fabrics.
The property also hosts more than 600 weddings a year in its three chapels: one is done in a customary Japanese fashion; another is a European-influenced hall; and a third is more American in its approach.
Typically, the rooms exude muted refinement through neutral tones, glass-enclosed showers and tempting windows looking out to the sublime, cherry-blossom-lined Okawa River. But with the Doorman Snoopy Package (available through March 2019), things are a bit more animated as towels, linen and robes feature the likeness of the Charles Schultz-created pup and Peanuts-influenced treats are offered during room service.
Head-to-Head Hotel Winner: A Draw
At last count, Tokyo was the most populated metro area in the world. And with more than 37 million people (and countless visiting mouths) to feed, the place needs quality dining options to keep everyone happy. Thankfully, the city answers the culinary call with an array of local specialties and international cuisine to try.
For the former, you won’t have to scurry farther than your hotel. The Imperial Hotel, Tokyo delivers a whopping 18 restaurant and bar options, ranging from fried tempura at Ten-Ichi to the flavors of Kyoto at Isecho.
When it’s time to think outside the bento box, this global city thrives in that department as well. The connection between Japan and Australia is especially strong — according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 385,100 Australians visited Japan in 2017, an increase of 11.8 percent over the previous year — and nowhere is that bond more evident than at the dining table.
Restaurateur Bill Granger is a Sydney native who’s sprinkled Australian flavors through eponymous eateries in Honolulu, London and Seoul. But the chef/cookbook author took his first international steps in Tokyo, back in 2008. He now has four locations around the city. With its easygoing, light-filled dining area, the Omotesando option gets the edge. Once you see the camera-ready ricotta pancakes or take a bite from a wagyu burger splattered in grilled Swiss, you may call it love.
But when it comes to cooking, Osaka also plays to win. Imperial Hotel, Osaka, for instance, crafts delicious fare across seven restaurants. And while we’re sure you’ll enjoy meals at the formal Jasmine Garden and modern Osaka Nadaman, make sure to save time for Kamon, a teppanyaki-style establishment that delivers a great show and even better food.
Once you’re away from the hotel, you’ll see takoyaki (flour-based balls usually stuffed with diced octopus) being served on street corners and relaxed family eateries. Part of the fun with these flavor-packed snacks is in their preparation — take them off the griddle too quickly and you’ll have a runny mess; let them cook too long and you’re left with an extra set of golf balls. If you can get to Takonotetsu, a tiny spot parked on a busy street in Osaka’s Umeda district, you won’t regret it; the place personifies the takoyaki experience with always-moving ladles and happy, talkative tables.
Head-to-Head Cuisine Winner: Tokyo, by a takoyaki ball
The Japan Sports Council opened the main Olympic stadium’s construction site to the local media on July 18 to show off its progress. You probably won’t get a good peek until next November. But even with that future attraction off limits, there are so many other things that captivate around Tokyo. Like Paris’ Eiffel Tower or Rome’s Colosseum, Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest intersection, has to be experienced in person.
After you take your requisite walk, save some time in the immediate area for shopping (Tokyu Hands is a stationery lover’s paradise) or sipping (Nonbei Yokocho, or “Drunkard Alley,” is great for Instagram-worthy snaps of tiny bars that only seat a handful of people).
After trying this bustling area out, find some peace and quiet at Meiji Jingu. This well-kept, 247-acre park sits is in the city (just a three-minute ride from Bills, in fact), yet it’s shielded from the neighboring commotion by massive trees that seemingly stretch to the clouds. Here, you can walk among the foliage, pray at the shrine, write out a wish and purchase a few charms at the souvenir stand.
If you’re looking for something unique to bring back home, you could always purchase a furry keepsake at Harry Hedgehog Café, where the prickly (but super cute) mammals are for sale. If you can’t make the long-term commitment, simply buy some food, don a pair of gloves and play with the little fellas for 30-minute intervals. The company also has otter- and owl-focused cafés around Tokyo.
We noticed a few critters around Osaka’s Dōtombori district also, but they were mostly plastic crabs and painted octopi on various business signs. But that’s precisely the vibe around this touristy area — loud advertisements, neon lights and fair-like rides. Pose for a picture in front of the famous Glico Running Man sign and stroll around the colorful blocks for an authentic slice of present-day Osaka life.
When it’s time to turn back the clock, you have two spectacular options. The first is Koshien Hall, a former hotel, navy hospital and military accommodation that has become the Mukogawa Women’s University and a can’t-miss attraction for design enthusiasts. If the building’s high ceilings and symmetrical patterns evoke Wright, it’s for good reason — the hall was designed by Arata Endo, a disciple of the iconic craftsman. These Western influences harmonize well with the Japanese traditions (sliding ceilings, green glazed tiles), creating one of Osaka’s most inspired spaces.
Museum Meiji-Mura is the other landmark to make time for. Like a theme park for history buffs, this 250-acre playground (and one of the largest open-air museums in the world) is dedicated to Japan’s industrializing Meiji period of the mid-to-late 1800s. This progressive time is reflected upon here through architecture, interactive exhibits, theater and steam locomotives. Go on a guided tour to learn about the era’s machinery or hear details of the massive relocation effort of Imperial Hotel, Tokyo’s original main entrance hall and lobby to the museum in 1985.
There’s no need for supervision once you get to the barracks, a part of the museum filled with games, a gift shop and archery stalls. You probably won’t be good enough with the bow to make the 2020 Olympic team, but you can surely have a blast trying.
Head-to-Head Activities Winner: Osaka, by an arrow’s tip