This neon-lit city is a world away from the traditionalism found in Kyoto, packing its streets instead with food from ‘izakaya’ pub-style restaurants and locals who embrace the ‘kuidaore’ – eat until you drop – ethos. Buzzing energy is in abundance, with vibrant markets, squeezy ‘kushiage’ – deep-fried skewer – spots and a thriving nightlife scene featuring comedy clubs and karaoke bars. If you want to soak up the atmosphere of a big city in Japan without a strict sightseeing itinerary, Osaka is the place to visit.
Join TRIPS by Culture Trip’s small-group adventure Japan Rising: From Neon Lights to Rural Ryokans to get an insider-led insight into Osaka.
What’s the vibe?
Like all Japanese cities, Osaka is a winning pick for solo travellers. From kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi bars to ramen joints, the dining scene is often informal and centred around bar-stool-style eating, making it well-suited for single diners. Also, thanks to a good metro network, the city is generally safe and easy to explore.
A solo trip overview
As with many big cities, you could spend weeks in Osaka getting under its skin, but for most visitors, a couple of nights is about right. Book in for longer if you want to take things especially slow or if you want to use Osaka as a base for exploring the Kansai region. Big hitters such as Kyoto and Nara are only a quick train ride away, and you may find accommodation cheaper in Osaka than in these smaller centres, where supply often outstrips demand, especially during busier periods. The sakura cherry blossom season (from late March to early May) is one of the most popular times to visit, with the pale pink blooms appearing throughout the city parks and around Osaka Castle.
Where to stay in Osaka as a solo traveller
Most accommodation in Osaka is contemporary and geared towards business travellers. There are a handful of luxury options, but it’s also good to look at local Japanese chains such as the New Otani, OMO7 or Okura. It’s possible to find ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), but in truth, you’ll find more charmingly old-world experiences in nearby Kyoto or Nara or the surrounding countryside.
If you’re looking for nightlife – and you should when in Osaka, as it’s a city highlight – then the Namba district is where you want to be. This neon-clad area is packed with karaoke bars and izakayas (pubs), and it always has plenty of people around, even into the wee hours. Shopaholics will love the affordable stores nearby, too.
Osaka may not have the world-renowned heritage sites that Kyoto or Nara has, but there’s still a throw-back atmosphere to experience, especially in central Morinomiya. The rambling grounds of Osaka Castle Park are on your doorstep, while the 10th-century Osaka Tenmangu Shrine is only a little further afield. The riverside Fujita Museum, featuring Japanese calligraphy treasures, is within easy reach, too.
Japan has some of the best shopping in the world, and if you want to fill your bag to its bursting point in Osaka, then Shinsaibashi is where you want to be. Off tree-lined Mido-suji, you’ll find an array of leading Japanese shops, from quirky homeware and cosmetic favourite Don Quijote to the swish Parco department store. International designer shops such as Dior and Dolce & Gabbana are also part of the mix.
Want to use Osaka as a base to visit nearby Kyoto and Nara? Book a stay in Umeda, the area surrounding the main rail station in the city, and you can get to either by direct train in about half an hour. There are plenty of restaurants and shops in the area, too, and the best observation deck in Osaka, the Umeda Sky Building, is within walking distance.
What to do in Osaka as a solo traveller
Even if you choose an extended stay in Osaka, you won’t have time to pack everything in. But no matter how long you visit, there are certain highlights you shouldn’t miss.
First constructed in 1583 – and rebuilt many times since then – Osaka Castle, now a museum, is one of the most famous landmarks in the city and a highlight on Culture Trip’s Japan Rising small-group adventure. Come not only for the impressive wood and stone architecture but also the grounds, dotted with cherry blossom trees and carved by moats. The view from the top of the castle is worth the admission price alone.
Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street
Osaka has some great markets, including Doguyasuji, often called “kitchen street”. The name is fitting; at this covered shopping arcade, you’ll find every kitchen item imaginable, whether it be knives, frying pans, dishes or even the detailed plastic food models commonly displayed in Japanese restaurants. Prices can be astonishingly low, so save plenty of room in your suitcase if you’re an enthusiastic cook.
Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts
There are many museums in Osaka – even one dedicated to instant noodles. However, if you want to discover the great names in Japanese art, including printmaker Hokusai, the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts should be on your list. First opened in 1936, it has a tranquil Japanese garden for wandering and reflecting on what you’ve seen – a masterpiece in itself.
Eat and drink in Osaka
Like everywhere in Japan, you can find the greatest hits you might recognise from home, including excellent sushi, ramen and soba. However, there are some dishes in particular that Osaka is known for – and most of them tend to be fried.
The traditional Japanese pancake okonomiyaki is one example. At many restaurants, the cabbage-stuffed batter – featuring seafood or meat – will be presented to you raw, allowing you to cook it yourself on a personal table grill. It’s interactive and fun, as well as delicious.
Takoyaki (balls of pan-fried batter stuffed with octopus) is another local favourite, and you’ll often find it at street-food stalls. Then there’s kushiage (deep-fried skewers of vegetables, meat or fish), frequently served with pots of dipping sauce and washed down with cold beers.
Osaka is often named as a spot for fugu (blowfish). However, keep in mind that blowfish is at its best in winter and can be rather expensive. If you still want to indulge, look for a specialist restaurant where you will find the best quality.
Stay safe, stay happy
Japanese cities, including Osaka, are generally safe. However, when travelling on your own, especially at night, exercise the same caution you would in any major international centre.
Osaka is an enormous, sprawling city, so it’s best to rely on public transport rather than trying to drive yourself or walk between neighbourhoods. Time your evenings out to catch the last train; otherwise, you might overspend on pricey local taxis.
If visiting a Japanese onsen (hot spring) or sento (thermal bath), keep in mind that tattoos are usually banned due to their local associations with the yakuza (mafia). Therefore, if you have a visible tattoo, you may be asked to cover it with a bandage or be denied entry.
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