553km (343 miles) W of Tokyo; 42km (26 miles) SW of Kyoto; 339km (212 miles) E of Hiroshima

Although its history stretches back almost 1,500 years, Osaka first gained prominence when Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the most powerful lord in the land, built Japan's most magnificent castle here in the 16th century. To develop resources for his castle town, he persuaded merchants from other parts of the nation to resettle in Osaka. During the Edo Period, the city became an important distribution center as feudal lords from the surrounding region sent their rice to merchants in Osaka, who in turn sent the rice onward to Tokyo and other cities. As the merchants prospered, the town grew and such arts as kabuki and bunraku flourished. With money and leisure to spare, the merchants also developed a refined taste for food.

Today, with the legacy of the city's commercial beginnings still present, Osaka is known throughout Japan as an international and progressive business center and is the mover and the shaker of the Kansai region. Capital of Osaka Prefecture and with a population of about 2.6 million, it's the third-most populated city in Japan (after Tokyo and Yokohama). Osakans are usually characterized as being outgoing and clever at money affairs. (One Osakan greeting is "Are you making any money?") It's also known for its food, castle, port, underground shopping arcades, and bunraku puppet theater, and boasts the oldest state temple in Japan, one of the nation's best aquariums, and the only Universal Studios outside the United States. Because of its international airport, it also serves as a major gateway to the rest of Japan. Indeed, some travelers base themselves in Osaka, taking day trips to Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and Mount Koya.