New Year’s Eve in Japan is known as Oshogatsu, and if you’re lucky enough to be in Osaka during Japanese New Year, you’ll find Dotonbori to be the craziest, liveliest place to celebrate the new year! There’s a fun, party vibe in the air, and is great for people of all ages to enjoy. I spent NYE in the high-rise cacophony of neon billboards, crushing crowds and outrageously decorated restaurants, and discovered giant crabs, video game dancing, naked swimmers, and much more!
As it started becoming dark, the first crazy reveller jumped into the icy canal from the arching bridge with a splash. A laughing cheer rose from the huge crowd in Dotonbori, the centre of Osaka’s entertainment district. As the poor, half-naked, trembling human crawled out of the canal under the glare of neon lights, everyone must have wondered how spine-chillingly cold that freezing December water must have been. People were certainly letting loose.
New Year’s Eve in Osaka
New Year’s eve in Osaka, just like the rest of the country, is a time for Japanese families to get together and see in the new year. For those that want a particularly electric atmosphere to count down to the new year, Dotonbori is the place to be.
Dotonbori in Osaka’s centre is often considered the entertainment centre of the city. Local food, from fancy restaurants to tiny alleyway noodle bars are there, as well as huge arcades of shopping streets, neon billboards, and even cute canals that bisect the high rises. If you’re in Osaka, this might be the equivalent of Times Square, or Sydney Harbour to count down the new year.
We arrived around lunchtime, and the area was already buzzing with activity. But before any celebrations could take place, we needed to eat!
Food in Dotonbori
Dotonbori might be the place for food in Osaka. The signs and displays to advertise restaurants has been taken to the extreme here; on the walls, oversized models of animals and objects hung overhead. One restaurant had a massive robotic crab the size of a car, its legs crawling and snippers snipping. Another had an enormous pufferfish hanging like a street sign, and down the avenue was a leering face of an angry sushi chef, facing off against a plate of gyoza, each one the size of a couch.
Osaka, Home of Takoyaki
A takoyaki restaurant had a gigantic octopus cartoon wearing a headband and dancing on a red background. Takoyaki is a fried ball of batter, filled with octopus chunks and served with sweet takoyaki sauce (a bit like BBQ sauce), mayonnaise, dancing flakes of bonito, and powdered nori. The result is absolutely delicious, a piping hot and comforting street food to eat on the go.
Osaka is home to the takoyaki, having been invented in 1935 by street vendor Tomekichi Endo. Now, every market across the country will have at least one takoyaki stand; and in Dotonbori, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
One sign is particularly interesting. Suspended on huge steel cables is a row boat filled with fibreglass fishermen balanced above their shop. The restaurant is called Zauo, a seafood restaurant with a twist. When you enter, you’ll see a huge wooden ship in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by a large fish tank.
While you can elect to order a la carte, the best experience is to fish for your own meal! Fishing can be done from your seat on the boat, from the edge of the tank, whilst lobsters and clams can be scooped out of special tanks. Make sure you’re happy with your catch, however, as you pay for what you catch! Zauo often books out, so make sure to make a reservation. The restaurant is located at Chuo Ward, Nipponbashi, 1 Chome−1−13, Sotetsu Grand Frésa, B1F.
Kasuya Hozenji Restaurant, Dotonbori
We found the perfect place after some time, a humble-looking noodle diner with an alleyway entrance and a very long line. Why was this one special? Kasuya served one of Osaka’s specialities, bowls of udon soup, a wheat flour noodle typical of the region.
After a long wait, we sat opposite the chef at a high bench with just half a dozen lucky diners. The soup arrived; thick, salty and creamy broth, with sliced pork and plenty of soba. We slurped down our bowls of (one of) Osaka’s specialities, and headed back out into the excitement.
Activities in Dotonbori
New Year’s Eve in Dotonbori is mostly about finding great food, and exploring the area to take in the festive vibe. But, there are plenty of activities to take part in, too. Arcades are packed out, with video game noises blaring. One particular arcade had attracted a big crowd. A dancing maestro was racking up unbelievable combos as he twirled and twisted on a dance game, the crowd filming and cheering on his every step.
Another game had two friends locked in an epic electronic drum battle. Meanwhile, a VR gamer was swinging his arms around wildly, the screen showing him as a warrior swinging a sword.
In the claw game parlours, two teenagers were trying to catch a prize at one of the many claw games. I walked up to see what they were trying to win. One laughed, whilst the other looked embarrassed when I walked up – it was a pile of boob-shaped stress balls.
Drinking is also a popular activity in Dotonbori, and there are many bars in the area to sip a cold Asahi. Disorderly drunks are managed by the strong police presence on site. We spotted one young, drunk man trying to pick a fight with three towering police officers, whilst his mortified friends held him back. Another group was nursing a girl who drank too much too early, being sick in the bushes.
The New Years Countdown in Dotonbori
Finally, it was the countdown, and we found ourselves on one of Dotonbori’s bridges with a view of Ebisu Bridge. In front of us, the famous Running Man billboard was flashing in blues and whites. As whistles blew to no avail, the police found themselves stuck in the crowd, white gloves waving. Seizing the chance, more rebellious partygoers celebrated the end of the year by launching themselves into the canal.
One of the billboards turned into a countdown of numbers, whilst the crowd shouted them out in Japanese. Everybody cheered, but the new year’s kiss was not really present. And that was it, new year’s had arrived! We didn’t share the same bravery for the cold, so we settled for a new year’s ice cream instead!