Though most foreigners are familiar with Tokyo and Kyoto, many visitors to Japan miss out by not planning some time in Osaka. One of the most populous areas of Japan, the city is home to 2.7 million people, with a greater metropolitan area that includes more than 20 million.
Located in the Kansai region of Southern Honshu, Osaka is home to notable family-friendly attractions like its famous aquarium and Universal Studios Japan, and although it might not be as well-known as Tokyo, locals and frequent travelers know it as a hidden gem where you can find everything that’s great about Japanese culture without being overwhelmed by tourists. Here are just a few of our favorite things about this incredible city.
1. Osaka is the food capital of Japan
Known as the Nation’s Kitchen, Osaka is famous for its large street food scene. You’ll find lots of stalls offering takoyaki, or fried octopus balls. They look like little donuts or hush puppies, but inside is a warm filling with octopus! The city is also known for its own version of Okonomiyaki, the savory pancake that is often described as the Japanese pizza.
Unlike the fine dining culture of Tokyo, Osaka prides itself on offering a wealth of cheap eats. There is even an expression to describe the Osaka food fascination; kuidaore. Kuidaore means “eat till you drop,” so feel free to indulge at places like Kuromon Market.
And of course, Osaka is just a short train ride from the city of Kobe, home to the world-famous Kobe beef. While this delicacy is available in upper-echelon restaurants throughout Japan, there are also many places where you can try a small amount of Kobe beef for as little as ¥1,000.
One under-the-radar spot to check out is Shinsekai, an area of town that was once an old amusement park. There you’ll find eateries specializing in kushikatsu, battered and deep-fried meat and veggies on a stick, as well as doteyaki, a delicious beef stew made with miso, konjac, and green onions.
2. Friendly, outgoing Osaka-jins
Osaka-jin, or the people of the Kansai region, are known for being accommodating and friendly people who are happy to help foreigners. While there are many Western eateries and Gaijin bars, don’t be shy and feel free to step out of your comfort zone and visit a local place.
Since Osaka is a major city, public areas like train stations will usually have signs printed in English. The majority of people in Japan studied English while in school, so it also shouldn’t be too difficult to find someone to communicate with if you’re in a jam. However, they may be shy about their English skills, so it doesn’t hurt to learn a few Japanese phrases before you go.
Osaka is also known for being the comedy capital of Japan. There are many opportunities to see traditional comedy styles such as Manzai and Rakugo if you want an authentic experience. You’re also likely to see some funny items of clothing scattered about in shops; feel free to laugh: they’re in on the joke!
3. It’s a shopper’s paradise
While Tokyo is deservedly famous for pricey areas like Ginza or the nerd-culture mecca of Akihabara, Osaka is ideal for those with a wide range of tastes. Most locals will tell you that the best places to find the coolest threads are in Umeda and Shinsaibashi, which are filled with stores like Journal Standard and BEAMS.
Department stores in Japan are different from those in America. They can include dozens of floors, and contain everything from clothing and jewelry to mattresses and sporting equipment. Some have supermarkets on their lower levels, as well as several floors of restaurants. Umeda, Namba, and Tennoji are all areas where you can spend hours exploring a single department store.
In the north part of town is Tenjinbashisuji, a 2.6-km-long stretch of pedestrian road that is said to be the longest shopping street in the country. Dating back to the Meiji period, it’s where you can find owl cafes, bargain clothing purveyors, and the Osaka Museum of Housing & Living, where you can get your picture taken wearing traditional clothes. Be sure to also try some korokke, a potato croquette snack the area is known for.
A district that is particularly fun for visitors from the U.S. is Amerikamura, which is filled with American-themed shops and restaurants. You’ll find plenty of vintage stores selling used American clothes, including T-shirts, jackets, and sneakers. It’s a ton of fun to root through the racks and find something from your college or state.
4. The city’s ideal location
If you come all the way to Japan and only spend time in the major cities, you’re missing out on much of what makes the country great. Luckily, Osaka is in a perfect base from which to explore the western and southern parts of Honshu island, as well as connect to the rest of the country.
There are three major airports in the area: Kansai International Airport, Itami Airport, and Kobe Airport. The second two are small airports for regional travelers. If you’re coming from overseas, you’ll likely land at KIX, located on an island just outside the city. It’s a simple train ride to get into the heart of Osaka.
In addition to its airports, Osaka has easy access to the Shinkansen. At Shin-Osaka station, you can board a bullet train to quickly get to other parts of the country. If you want to take a day trip to Hiroshima, there’s also the option of a night bus, where you can sleep all night and wake up as the bus arrives in Hiroshima.
You can take a standard train to get to Nara, home of the Todaiji temple, the largest wooden structure in the world, and its gigantic statue of the Buddha. Nara is also home to 1,200 tame deer in its park. Vendors sell crackers that you can feed to the deer, who are definitely not shy if you’re holding treats.
Kyoto is also accessible by standard train (~45 min) or Shinkansen (~10 min). Home to sites such as Arashiyama and its bamboo forest, the Kinkakuji golden temple, Kiyomizu-dera, and Fushimi Inari, you can easily spend a day or more exploring. A group tour can help you get the most out of the journey and learn the fascinating history of the area.
5. It’s a perfect mix of old & modern
If history is your thing, then Osaka has you covered. Perched high above the city, Osaka Castle is a gorgeous building dating back to 1583 and surrounded by a gorgeous park. Inside is a museum full of historical artifacts.
If you’re more of the modern type, you may be interested in the Umeda Sky Building, a two-towered structure with a futuristic design. The Kuchu Teien Observatory on the rooftop is open until 8.30pm, and the West Tower contains the Koji Kinutani Tenku Art Museum.
Tennoji is home to the Abeno Harukas, which stands 300 meters tall and has an observatory where you can look out over the whole city. It’s a perfect spot for pictures to make your friends back home jealous and take in the sheer size and breadth of the area. You can also meet ABENOBEA, the building’s cute bear mascot.
6. The nightlife of Osaka
If you’re in a partying mood but on a budget, don’t worry: Osaka has you covered. Dotonbori is home to a wealth of establishments, including both Western standing bars and traditional Japanese izakaya, spots where you can relax at a table with food and drink, some of which are known as senbero, or places where you can get drunk for less than ¥1,000.
For those who prefer quality over quantity, you can also find craft bars dedicated to specific alcohols. Bar K, a whiskey-based establishment, has been named one of the world’s best bars. And no trip to Japan would be complete without trying sake, or traditional Japanese rice wine, which can be enjoyed cold or hot.
Another beverage that might be unknown to foreigners is shochu, a hard alcohol distilled from various grains often consumed on the rocks or in cocktails. Kawasaki-ya in Kuromon Market has a huge selection for those who know their shochu, but even if you’re a first-timer, be sure to ask a bartender to recommend some before you go home.
One last thing about the Osaka nightlife: with so much to do, time can get away from you, so be mindful of the fact that many trains stop at midnight and don’t start again until after 5 am. If you get carried away and end up stuck waiting for that first train, find yourself a good karaoke bar to relax in until the sun comes up.
These are just a few of the reasons Osaka is a great place to visit. Is there anything we missed? If you’ve been to Osaka, let us know some of your favorite spots; and if you haven’t, tell us where you want to go so we can feature it on the blog!
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Gregg Maxwell Parker is an author and screenwriter best known for the book Troublemakers. Originally from the United States, he moved to Kobe in 2018. Gregg and his wife, Eriko, are the minds behind the blog As Seen In Japan, where they share pictures and stories from everyday Japanese life. They can be found on Twitter and Instagram.
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