When we first decided to go to Japan, Tokyo’s baby sister, Osaka, was never part of the original plan. So, predictably, Kyoto and Tokyo were the main attractions. Still, the more I researched, the more Osaka became a must-see destination in its own right – and so it damn well should be! So, here I will give some details on places to visit in Osaka according to my experience.
Osaka is a quick 1-hour flight from Tokyo, and the flight itself gives you fantastic bird’s eye views of Mt Fuji. The city is the third largest in Japan and is split into two main areas – Kita (north) and Minami (south). Kita in the north comprises mainly skyscrapers, including the iconic Umeda Sky Building, and is the central business and retail district. Minami in the south is home to the arts and famous entertainment hubs like Namba, Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori.
Osaka is centrally located, with Kyoto and Nara just a 20-minute train ride away. With just over 2.5 million people, it’s no wonder Osaka has an eclectic mix of traditional Japan and a new world city. It has the energetic buzz you’d expect from a major Japanese city yet still has a sense of being foreign and undiscovered. It’s far less touristy, and the locals proudly show it off. Somehow it seamlessly merges quiet and traditional alleyways you’d expect to find in Kyoto with the eccentric hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
There’s something for everyone here – castles, shrines, temples, cherry blossom-lined parks, shopping for days, Universal Studios, an aquarium, and waterfalls. So if you want to return to the days of Sega and Nintendo, then this place might just be for you.
On a Sunday, there’s an eclectic hive of activity on the grounds surrounding Osaka Castle, including everything from buskers to baseball and punk rock bands to flash mobs. The neon lights and nightlife of Namba and Dotonbori are second to none.
Where to stay
We stayed in Namba at the Swissotel Nankai Hotel directly above Namba Station. It was in the perfect location with Dotonbori and Namba within walking distance. Being above the station meant it was easy to get on a train and explore or travel further afield to the likes of Kyoto. Prices were exceptionally reasonable considering we were there during peak season, and I couldn’t fault the hotel. My first introduction to heated bathroom mirrors (genius) and electronic toilets was officially my first. Cheap thrills.
Popular places to visit in Osaka
Namba & Dotonbori
I highly recommend exploring the streets around Namba and Dotonbori day and night when the bright lights light up the sky. The canal comes alive just after dusk, and the giant neon puffer fish, crab and octopus along Dotonbori ensure you know you’re in Japan.
Umeda Sky Building
You will appreciate this extraordinary 2-tower building for the architecture lovers out there. 173m above the ground below, the observatory deck offers excellent 360-degree views across the city and out to the bay area. It’s pretty windy, and there is no ‘garden’ as they call it, but you can buy a heart-shaped locket to seal your love atop the heart-shaped deck. Awww. At nighttime, the deck is lit with a heap of led lights creating a ‘floating garden’ as its name suggests. My favourite part was the see-through escalators joining the two towers, but I’m weird.
Initially built in 1583, this majestic building has been reconstructed over and over due to fires, wars and new rulers. Its most recent facelift was in 1997. The central castle tower now hosts a museum full of history and information on the eventual ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The museum opens at 9am and costs 600 yen per person. Perhaps the best part about the castle is the grounds that surround it. During cherry blossom season, the grounds are a popular spot to celebrate Hanami. As a result, there is always a hive of activity near the station on a Sunday.
The architecture is one of only 3 styles to be purely Japanese. The entrance to the shrine is the Sorihashi Bridge, a high arch bridge over a pond surrounded by sakura. The steps on this bridge style are pretty narrow, so I wouldn’t recommend wearing high heels. We were fortunate to watch a traditional wedding take place. The grounds are peaceful and far less touristy than Kyoto’s shrines.
Note: If you’re travelling during cherry blossom season (late March – early April), celebrate the Hanami festival with the locals in the park across from Osaka Castle or Sumiyoshi Park. Hanami is a traditional festival celebrating the blooming sakura (cherry blossoms).
Places to visit in Osaka to eat & drink
There’s an abundance of dining places to visit in Osaka, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find somewhere that’s not amazing. Some of my favourite places were the izakayas we stumbled across. Still, I can’t for the life of me remember their names, partly because they were just holes in the wall, but mainly because I can’t read Japanese. But I’m sure you’ll have your own experiences, and this is part of the adventure. As a general rule, I refused to eat anywhere with plastic food out the front. Apparently, it’s an ‘art form’, but it just turned me off. Turns out that rule served me well as I didn’t have one bad meal in Osaka.
The ones I did pay particular attention to were:
Shubo An no Ume
We stumbled across this little beauty by pure chance. Unfortunately, it started raining, so we took refuge and warmed ourselves with a little hot sake. Just up the road from the iconic Dotonbori Hotel (heading west), this little gem is one I highly recommend. The owner gave us an in-depth education on sake while his chef cooked some of the best food I’ve tasted. Everything here was done with the attention to detail only a Virgo with OCD like myself would appreciate.
Space Station Bar
Three words – Sonic. The. Hedgehog. Ring a bell? Grab a drink and pull up a joystick because this bar has an extensive range of video games across most platforms (from Atari to PlayStation 4) to play while you sip your shochu. It’s interesting to see just how far computer graphics have come when you see them side by side. Geek. Open from 8pm most nights, this hole in the wall is easy to miss, so look out for the lit upstairs. So sit back, relax, and don’t spill your drink when kicking ass at Mortal Kombat.
If you like your ramen served with a side of quirky innovation, then this place should tickle your pickle. It might be easy to be turned off by the long queues, but the turnover is fast, so check it out at least once. Ichiran is a chain, so they can be found all over Japan. Order your food via a vending machine, take a seat, and the food will magically appear from behind a curtain. Novelty aside, the food is actually pretty damn good too.
Places to visit in Osaka: Choosing your transportation
Every time I go away somewhere, I end up walking. This way, I can see everything and discover off-the-beaten-path places. However, I feel I miss too much when I’m underground on a subway. There is so much to explore in Osaka on foot as one place seems to flow onto the next, and if you’re tired, there’s always a train station nearby.
Another alternative to walking, and perhaps my favourite mode of transport, is to cycle. A heap of bike hire shops scattered around the place, which is super cheap. Most sights have allocated bike parking, and the roads are mostly flat, making for a leisurely ride. Ask your hotel reception for your nearest hire shop. Standard road rules apply, and drivers are very considerate to cyclists.
Taxis are widely available, but I found them to be particularly expensive.
The train system in Japan is world-class. Once you figure out how to use the ticketing system, you won’t need to wait longer than 5 minutes for the next train.
Japan Rail Pass
If you got a tourist visa, you could buy a JR pass with unlimited travel across train, bus and bullet train networks. However, you do have to purchase it online before you arrive in Japan, and it requires activation at the train station. I chose not to buy one of these for a few reasons:
- It wasn’t permitted on all of the metro trains in Tokyo as some lines are owned separately.
- It can only be used on some of the bullet train lines; most notably, it excludes the express lines like Nozomi etc., meaning you have a lot of stations to stop at (what’s the point, right?).
- We walked and cycled almost everywhere, so it wasn’t cost-effective for us.
Buying a train ticket
When you get to a train station, you will see ticket machines near the entrance and above that will be a train line map with numbers on each stop. I wrongly assumed everything would have an English translation in Japan. How ignorant of me. I suggest you print an English copy at home and take it with you – you’ll need it.
Figure out the fee associated with your destination and use that number to buy the ticket from the machine. Unlike the maps, the machines usually have an English option. Simply press the fare number associated with your stop, how many people and pay. It seems simple but our first time doing it, we stood there just staring at it, willing it to do its thing without our input for quite some time before a lady finally helped us.
If you’ve recently been there, I’d love to hear your recommendations of places to visit in Osaka, in the comments below.