Osaka, Japan, and the surrounding Kansai region are the country's spiritual heartland. The site of one of the earliest capitals of the country, Osaka remains a vital center for trade and entrepreneurial culture. Tokyo may have political and financial clout and Kyoto may be the repository of ancient tradition, but Osaka is the nation's honest heartbeat.

In the mid-1990s, Osaka city officials embarked upon a long-term commitment to overhaul the city's grimy and nondescript image. The skyline has since risen dramatically, and so has its profile as an international city. Stylish high-rise apartment and office buildings are no longer an oddity (particularly in Umeda, Osaka's north-central district). The architectural renaissance is bolstering Osaka's role as one of the world's most energetic cities. Indeed, it has a vibrancy that is seldom matched elsewhere in Japan.

The historic areas—the castle and the shrines—are modern reconstructions, but that cannot negate Osaka's long contribution to Japanese arts and culture. The tea ceremony, flower arrangement (ikebana) and the performing arts of Bunraku, Kabuki and Noh all have their roots in the city. Osaka is known for its writers, artists, musicians and comedians.

And so Osaka's true character lies in its people. In Japan, Osakans have a reputation for being straightforward and even brash. They're hardworking but just as intent on having fun, and it is among them that the true appeal of this fascinating city can be found.

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