By Hana Melegova
There are hundreds of reasons why you should visit Japan. The ‘Country of the Rising Sun’ has it all – from snowy mountains of charming Hokkaido, through Tokyo’s busy streets and Kyoto’s temples, to pristine beaches of the islands of Okinawa, you can keep coming back many times, yet your experience will be always different. I can understand that people have usually limited time to spend on their holidays, so sacrifices have to be made. You simply cannot fit visiting all the places into one or two weeks. However, it makes me a bit sad to see that travelers often leave Osaka out from their itineraries.
Bay side city Osaka is the third largest city in Japan, after Tokyo and Yokohama. During the World War II. Osaka suffered and was marked by bombings that destroyed the city. However, she raised from the ashes and was rebuilt quite rapidly. Rapidly, and maybe a little a bit randomly, because the truth to be told, Osaka is very urban and lacks picturesque architecture. You will not find here many romantic old streets like in Kyoto, nor natural scenery and Zen Gardens, but there are many other reasons to visit. This article is all you need for a personalized Osaka itinerary. Most importantly, it will you want to visit this cool city!
Osaka itinerary: why you should visit
1. EXPERIENCE “KUIDAORE”
You know a good foodie trip makes our knees weak. Turns out,Osaka is the perfect destination for foodies! It got its nickname ‘The Nation’s Kitchen’ in the 17th century, when the royal capital was Kyoto. Kyoto’s location among mountains makes it quite inaccessible thus the rulers gave an order to collect all the goods in the nearby port city Osaka, from where it was distributed to the rest of the country. This way Osakans got their first dibs on the best ingredients and the local cuisine blossomed ever since.
Cuisine of Osaka can be described as the ‘soul food’ or B grade gourmet. It isn’t high dining, but everything you get here will be delicious. ‘Kuidaore’ is famous saying which means ‘Eat until you drop!’ I would highly recommend spending one evening just hopping from one izakaya (Japanese pub) to another and sampling all the street food. Osaka will always feed you well.
2. EXPERIENCE NIGHTLIFE IN COLORFUL DOTOMBORI
If you should visit only two places for your Osaka itinerary, I would recommend Osaka Castle and Dotombori. Dotombori is a fun district built around the Dotombori Canal that has been welcoming tourists since the 17th century. Today this area is mostly famous for its busy nightlife, clubs, restaurants decorated with massive mascots and colorful neon lights. Dotombori is anything but dull and you’ll love the hustle and bustle of this place.
3. SEE THE WHOLE OSAKA FROM THE HIGHEST SKYSCRAPER IN JAPAN – ABENO HARUKAS
Yes, it is true, the highest skyscraper of Japan is situated in Osaka (note: both Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower are higher, but they are considered ‘structures’, not buildings). Abeno Harukas is 300 metres tall multi-purpose business park with the observation deck located on the top floors. With floor-to-ceiling glass panels all around, you will get the best 360 degrees view over Osaka. Besides the observation deck, you will find here a gorgeous cafe and a souvenir shop.
Abeno Harukas is located near Tennoji station. The best time to visit is for the sunset. An elevator will take you all the way up from the 16th floor, where you can also find a garden terrace with nice view which is free of charge, and the Abeno Harukas Art Museum.
4. PEAK INTO JAPANESE HISTORY IN ON OF THE GREAT MUSEUMS
If a rainy days catches you during your Osaka trip, don’t worry! This city has some great interactive museums, where you will feel like you stepped back hundreds of years. Both Museum of Housing and Living and Osaka Museum of History replicate the Japanese townscapes from the past. You can walk between the houses, peak inside and learn about the history of Osaka. In the Museum of Housing and Living you can also hire a kimono and book a photo shoot.
5. VISIT MAGNIFICENT OSAKA CASTLE
Osaka Castle is one of the most distinctive landmarks in Japan and a popular spot on any Osaka itinerary. Its history dates back to the 16th century, when at that time, it was the largest structure in Japan. It is surrounded by a big multi-purpose park perfect for picnics, biking, sport events and relaxation. It is particularly gorgeous in spring during cherry blossom season. There are approximately four thousand cherry trees all blooming at the beginning of April, creating a dream-like environment.
Besides the park, the castle grounds also feature a moat. Here you can take a boat ride and learn more about the impressive history of Osaka. The Osaka Castle is visually stunning and from its high stone walls you can enjoy some awesome views over the city skyline.
If you are travelling with kids, I also recommend the Science Museum designed for young learners to get real hands-on experience. It spreads through several floors and features also a planetarium.
6. OSAKA IS HOME TO SOME GREAT SHOPPING STREETS AND MALLS
Osaka has some really great shopping districts and kilometres of shopping arcades. Besides the world-renowned brands, you will find here many local designers and smaller Japanese labels. Shopping here combines upscale high fashion with inexpensive thrift shops, discount chains and specialty boutiques. Even if shopping isn’t your main goal while traveling, observing the highly fashionable youth is still an experience: please do add it your Osaka itinerary.
For the lively shopping streets that seem to never end, head to Shinsaibashi-Suji and Ebisubashi-Suji nearby Namba. Orange Street will offer you the best from local designers, while in Grand Front Osaka next to the Osaka Station, is a great commercial complex featuring gardens, shopping, restaurants and entertainment. In a walking distance from Grant Front, there is Hankyu Department Store featuring a Ferris wheel to make your shopping day more fun!
7. LEARN ABOUT THE HUMBLE ORIGINS OF WORLD FAMOUS CUP NOODLES
Who hasn’t tried cup noodles at least once in their life? During my college years it was the staple dish in my cupboard. They are quick, cheap, convenient and strangely comforting. The story behind this simple food, however, is not simple at all and it is quite interesting! The very first instant noodles (or instant ramen) was created by Japanese inventor Momofuku Ando in a small town Ikeda, just a short train ride from Osaka.
Today, there’s a museum dedicated to his biggest invention and to his life. For example, besides the creation of instant noodles he also helped creating meals for astronauts. Quite impressive, don’t you think? In the Cup Noodles Museum, you can also create your own personalised cup noodles, however you have book this activity in advance. Otherwise the entrance is free of charge.
8. VISIT ONE OF THE BIGGEST AQUARIUMS IN ASIA
Kaiyukan Aquarium is one of the most amazing and the biggest aquariums not only in Asia, but in the world. It is located in Osaka Bay and it hosts 17 interactive exhibits, which will take you on an educational journey from Arctic, through Pacific Rim, to the Ecuadorian jungle. The water tanks have truly impressive size and you will walk for over a kilometre to see it all. The most impressive creatures here are definitely whale sharks and manta rays, but you can also see penguins, sea otters or capybaras.
9. IT’S A BIG CITY WITH A SMALL TOWN WARMTH
Osaka has always been a city of merchants with laid-back relaxed vibe. The people here are engaging. They have great sense of humor and speak their own dialect that often cannot be understood by people from other cities. They are not afraid to approach you in an izakaya and engage in a conversation, even though their English is rusty and you cannot speak Japanese. Osaka is a real concrete jungle, but somehow it kept the small port town vibe. The locals, as well as expats will all tell you the same – this city is like a different world within Japan.
10. IT’S THE PERFECT BASE FOR EXPLORING KANSAI REGION
Osaka is a port city with a very convenient location. Within an hour from Osaka Station, you can get to other famous cities – Kyoto, Nara or Kobe. I recommend spending more than one day in Kyoto, because it has really a lot to offer. However, both Nara and Kobe are perfect for a one day trip.
Nara is famous for its free roaming deer and ancient temples. Kobe has similarly to Osaka an amazing food scene, cool harbor and is surrounded by green mountains. Both are definitely worth your time!
MORE THINGS TO DO IN OSAKA
Osaka has truly a lot to offer to its visitors. Here are some more activities to do in this cool city to create a busy Osaka itinerary.
- Umeda Sky Building is an architectural gem that will please anyone with a sense for design. This unique skyscraper, not far from Osaka Station, features an outdoor observation deck with epic views over the city and the river.
- Shintennoji Temple is the oldest, officially administrated Buddhist temple in Japan. The temple is truly impressive. Every month on the 20th and 21st there’s a market with local crafts held within its grounds.
- Universal Studios are the perfect place to let out your inner child and have fun! Did you know that Universal Studios in Osaka are the first Universal Studios ever built outside the United States?
- Bike tour – Osaka is a city ruled by bicycles and renting a bike is an ultimate experience to have here! If you don’t feel like riding through the streets by yourself, there are plenty of bike tours to choose from and they will take you to many interesting places around the city.
- Cooking class – As I mentioned before, Osaka is the Nation’s Kitchen. If you would like to learn how to prepare some Japanese dishes, here you can learn from the best! Again, there are plenty of cooking classes, but they all usually offer two types of course – one that will teach you how to make street food dishes, or home cooking.
WHERE TO STAY
Osaka has great range of accommodation options for every budget – from tiny capsule hotels, through traditional Japanese inns – ryokans, to the luxurious 5* hotels, you can really find here everything. The real question, however, is which area to stay in. Osaka spreads wide and far and you really want to stay somewhere close to “all the happening”.
The best areas to stay in are Dotonbori, Namba area, and Kita district (around Umeda). All these areas are located close to the main stations, from where you can take different trains or metro. Other good place to stay is nearby Osaka Castle, which is a little bit quieter and relaxed.
TRAVEL SIM CARD
Even though it may seem sometimes that Japan is living in the future, internet connection is not always the best. It’s not so common to find wifi in public areas. Being online is essential, because you will really need those Google Maps to find your way around the city (and all Japan).
Getting yourself a travel sim card at the airport is quick and convenient. There are several providers to choose from. I got Softbank travel sim card with 10 GB and I was able to use it for 3 months.
Another option is pocket Wi-Fi: a small device that you can literally carry all day in your pocket and be on Wi-Fi. These are generally more expensive. However, it’s something to consider if you are travelling with a bigger group of people and everyone can chip in for use.
GETTING AROUND THE CITY
Taxis are generally very expensive in Japan and Osaka is not an exception. Taking a taxi from Kansai airport to the city can cost you from 200 to 500 USD and the drivers can’t speak English very well. Google Maps are very reliable when it comes to navigating between confusing metro and train lines. Within a couple of days, you’ll get used to the organized chaos.
The stations have always signs also in English. As long as you know the name of your train line or the color of the metro line, you will not get lost. Google Maps will also tell you the number of the exit you have to take in order to get to a particular place. (For example: to get to Dotombori, you need to take exit number 14 on Namba station).
One of the things that really surprised me when I first arrived to Japan was the facts that people were leaving their bags full of their belongings on tables in cafes or restaurants. They do this to reserve their spot when ordering coffee or food. No one is afraid here, because the crime rate is incredibly low. Of course, anything can happen and you should be aware of your surroundings, but Osaka has been announced as the 3rd safest city in the world (1st was Tokyo, followed by Singapore) and you can really feel it here.
TIPPING IN RESTAURANTS
While travelling around Japan, you will find your wallet full of 1 or 5 yen coins and you’ll be thinking how to get rid of them… If one of your ideas is leaving them as a tip, don’t. Tipping is not polite in Osaka, nor is it anywhere in Japan. Japanese service and hospitality are always impeccable, but tipping is not common and actually considered rude. They love to deliver special service to everyone and they don’t understand why people should pay them for it. So even if you have spare change: keep it and rather donate it in a temple or shrine.
It’s always thoughtful to learn some basic vocabulary and customs of the country you are about to visit. In Japan, I would say, it’s especially important to know some basic rules and follow them. In Osaka some rules are not followed persistently, but it’s always polite to show your respect by doing what is expected from everyone (even if it may be hard to understand for Western people). Here are some of the rules for you to know, so you can avoid looks of disapproval:
- Don’t walk and eat/drink/smoke – streets of Osaka are very clean and you can meet people taking care of them daily. Walking while eating or drinking is considered very rude. You can eat on the street, but just stop and wait until you finish, then continue your sightseeing. Another thing to remember is that there are almost no trash bins around the city. Take your rubbish with you and throw it away at your hotel or by a convenience store, as they usually have bins at the entrance.
- No phone calls in public transport – trains and buses are quiet places in Japan. Try to avoid speaking on the phone to anyone and if you have to, keep your voice down as much as possible. Listening to loud music is also considered very impolite and people may get upset.
- Take your shoes off – especially if you staying in traditional ryokans or temples, notice if there is change of floor (timber to carpet for example, or a small step). If so, that means you have to take your shoes off! This is very important to keep in mind, because again, it shows disrecept to walk around in shoes in places where you shouldn’t.
- Where to stand on an escalator – not a rule, just a fun fact. People in Osaka stand on the right side of the escalators, while the rest of Japan will stand on the left. Why you may ask? There’s no real scientific explanation, but it is believed that the roots of this custom lay in the past. Osaka has always been a city of merchants, while Tokyo and the whole Kanto region was famous for its samurai classes. Samurais preferred to stand on the left and be approached from the right so they could draw their sword more easily. Merchants of Kansai region would carry their money in their right hand, so to protect it, they would naturally stand on the right and be approached from the left.
This is Osaka as I know it – tough, urban, sprawling, iconic, laid-back, always hungry and utterly unmissable. An Osaka itinerary is therefor never complete. I have been living here for a year now and I have been enjoying it since day one. People smile more, they don’t blindly follow all the rules or latest fashion trends, they are always willing to help you and they appreciate good food like religion.
All of Japan is amazing, but Osaka has definitely a special place in my heart and I hope you will consider visiting. It’s definitely worth the long flight. If you have any questions or remarks, please let us know in the comments below!
About the author
Hana Melegova is a passionate traveller and travel writer. She was born in Slovakia but her passion for travelling and far-away destinations sparked in her since early childhood. After living in Australia for 5 years, she is now based in Osaka, where she works as an English teacher. You can follow her travels on her blog Hana’s Travel Journal or Instagram.