by Sanjay Surana | February 15, 2016
Arts, entertainment, food and fashion beckon in Minami, the south district of Osaka, making it the go-to locale for many tourists and foodies. For business, Kita is the district to watch. Umeda is one of Kita's blue-eyed boys in the business and retail arena, and it is currently undergoing rapid change.

Umeda enjoys a strategic location and role as the transportation heart of the city, as it is home to Osaka Station, the largest station in Western Japan, with 2.5 million passengers passing through it every day. What's more, Umeda has wrapped up the first chapter of an ambitious infrastructure project while in the throes of preparing for the second one. The Umekita development completed Phase 1 in 2013, building on former rail depot yards to create offices, retail and convention spaces, hotels, and apartments. 

 Inspired by the theme of knowledge, it was devised through the cooperation and commitment of four sometimes-competing organisations - JR West Railway, Hankyu Corporation, Hanshin Electric Railway, and the newly established Grand Front Osaka TMO - as a place for businesses to come together and exchange information. The development included large-scale renovation and a new building for Osaka Station, purpose-built entertainment, meeting and retail facilities, and the jewel of them all, the Grand Front Osaka tower, a multipurpose complex with a convention centre, retail and meeting spaces, innovation centres, and the beautifully realised InterContinental Hotel.

Thanks to the thoughtful execution of Phase 1, planners are now spoilt for choice for venues in Umekita, even if the city has traditionally been in the shadows of other large Japanese metropolises as a MICE destination. "Internationally, people know Tokyo and Yokohama for business meetings, Kyoto for culture meetings. Osaka is not so well known," said Hironobu Matsuio, a manager at Osaka International Convention Centre (OICC). Before Umekita's Phase 1 development, OICC, locally known at Grand Cube on account of its shape, situated about a 15-minute car ride from Osaka Station, was the de facto choice for large-scale events in the city.

Buzzing events at Umekita Plaza.
 The new Umekita development has now added extra capacity and lustre to the city, with a range of venues - new ones and those already in existence - richly varied enough to accommodate any type of event. These include the Knowledge Capital Congrès Convention Centre (seating capacity 1750), Herbis Hall (1000), Knowledge Capital Theatre (381), InterContinental hotel (272), Hotel New Hankyu Osaka (922), and Ritz-Carlton hotel (292).

Grand Front Osaka has a Knowledge Plaza in the central atrium that can host 100, a beautifully open space, while Billboard Live in the Herbis complex (the complex also has extensive medical facilities, tying in with the city's reputation for medical innovation), can seat 350 and stage live shows or 3-D films. Osaka Station has eight plazas, all featuring clocks. Each can accommodate hundreds of people and ranges from the eight-storey-high Atrium Plaza and the Toki-no-hiroba Plaza that has staged film festival red carpets, to the breezy, airy Yawaragi-no-niwa Plaza, verdant with maple, cherry blossom, and azaleas during warmer months. The Umeda 1-1 building, part of Umekita's Phase 2, will fully open in 2022 and will add a 4,000sqm convention centre to the options.

 Furthermore, as Masasaki Yoshikawa, director general of the business incubator Osaka Innovation Hub, told me, the city has a palpable desire to evolve. "Osaka has the biggest SMEs sector in Japan. There is a lot of energy here, lots of innovation. The student density is the same as Tokyo's, yet living and labour costs are 30 percent less than Tokyo's. The government wants to help local businesses; we, for instance, are 100 percent funded by the city." There is a tangible sense of excitement here, a positive, can-do spirit among city entrepreneurs.

Phase 2, which will officially kick off building in 2016, will focus on greenery and innovation, working on an empty 16.2ha site next to Phase 1, steps from Osaka Station. Four hectares of the site will be given over to green space, while targeted industries will include healthcare, environmental, internet-related companies, strategic economic development and robotics. A new high-speed train line will connect the development directly to Kansai airport. These are exciting times for Osaka, and things are only going to get more interesting. For more information, contact umeda-connect@urban-il.or.jp