A Student’s Guide to Osaka: The Best Cheap and Free Things to Do

Osaka is one of the world's most expensive cities
Osaka is one of the world's most expensive cities | © SATOSHI ONISHI / Getty Images
One of Japan’s top destinations, Osaka is also one of the world’s most expensive cities, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave it with an empty wallet. Here, Osaka’s students share their tips on how to make the most of Osaka on a budget and save your yen for Tokyo.

Osaka draws tourists from all over the world with its bright lights, delicious food, fabulous shopping and endless nightlife options, but it was also ranked the fifth-most expensive city in the world in 2019 by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Cost of Living Survey. While prices can get high, the people who live in Osaka are notoriously frugal, as are the many international students who study here. Martha Knauf spoke to Osaka’s students for their top tips on where to score all the deals, from the best budget restaurants and bars to affordable karaoke and sento (public baths).

Soak up some history for free

One of Osaka’s most famous landmarks is Osaka Castle, located in the centre of the city, just 30 minutes from both Namba and Umeda stations. “I love going to Osaka Castle; it doesn’t cost anything unless you want to go inside,” says Sarah, a CGI and VFX student from Egypt. The castle, which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, has a history stretching back to the 16th century. Admission to the castle’s museum is ¥600 (£4.40), which includes entrance to an observation deck 50 metres (164 feet) above ground with panoramic views of the city below. But just wandering its grounds is a great way to spend your time – the castle is surrounded by its original moat and the second-largest park in the city. People flock here in spring, when plum and cherry trees burst into pink blossoms.

Osaka Castle is one of the city’s most famous landmarks © SATOSHI ONISHI / Getty Images

Design your own ramen

“Osaka has a lot of fun museums, and some are even free, like the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum,” says Emma, a British student studying Japanese. The family-friendly museum is in the nearby city of Ikeda, a 24-minute train ride from Umeda Station. Here you can learn about the history of instant ramen, explore hands-on exhibits, and even create your own cup of instant noodles to take home for an extra ¥300 (£2.20).

Learn about the history of instant ramen at Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum © Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Relax in a park without spending a penny

Osaka may be known as an urban jungle, but between the tall buildings are tonnes of parks that showcase the seasons – plum and cherry blossoms in spring, lush green foliage in summer and momiji (coloured leaves) in fall. “When I feel like I need to unwind, I just bike to Nakanoshima or Utsubo Park. I completely forget I’m in a huge city once I’m there,” says Emma. Nakankoshima, south of the Tenma business district, is actually an island in the middle of the river that runs through central Osaka. Elsewhere, Utsubo Park in Hommachi, another business district, is a perfect rectangle thanks to its past as an American landing strip after World War II. Its immaculately kept rose garden blooms in May. Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park, covering more than 300 acres (121 hectares) in the northwest of the city, is great for families: it has large, open spaces big enough for Frisbee games, a botanical garden, a traditional teahouse and a large pond.

Visit Utsubo Park in May, when its rose garden is in bloom © shimikenta / Getty Images

Visit temples and shrines

Sarah says, “For the most part, temples and shrines are all free. I love one of the most famous shrines here, Sumiyoshi Taisha.” Located in the south of the city, this shrine is known for its vermillion-coloured bridge.

Another temple worth visiting is Tennoji’s Shittenoji Temple, one of Japan’s oldest, which is surrounded by massive grounds that you can explore for free, complete with turtle ponds, picturesque bridges and tree groves.

Pro tip: On the 21st and 22nd day of each month, there’s a popular flea market at Shittenoji where you can score good deals on antiques and vintage kimonos.

Tenmangu Shrine, located in the heart of the busy Tenma business district, is a calm oasis in the middle of the city. The shrine holds Tenjin Matsuri, one of the country’s top three festivals, on 24 and 25 July each year. If you happen to be in the city at this time, it’s a great chance to see some local culture and try cheap and tasty street food.

Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine is known for its vermillion-coloured bridge © Nic Cleave Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Travel on time

To get around Osaka, Sarah says, ”I rely mostly on trains, walking and sometimes buses.” With English signage and straightforward maps, trains in the city are quite affordable, too; you can travel from the top to the bottom of Osaka for just ¥540 (£3.95). Always on time, the trains are also incredibly reliable. Buses are less frequent and harder to figure out, but at ¥210 (£1.50) a ride, they’re even cheaper than trains. Osaka is also a great walking city: sidewalks are wide, drivers are safe and you can discover loads of interesting sights you’d otherwise miss. For a more active transport choice, biking is also a good way to see the city, and you’re allowed to cycle on the sidewalk in Japan. For just ¥1500 (£11) per day, you can rent a bike with English language-friendly service at Cycle Osaka.

Pro tip: Of course, the best travel hack is to get the JR rail pass, which allows unlimited access to all JR trains throughout the city (and country).

Cycling is a great way to see Osaka © Fabrizio Cortesi / Alamy Stock Photo

Eat like a local

Osaka is known as “Japan’s kitchen”, and it has the pantry to prove it. There’s no end to the city’s food options, many of them priced to keep both your stomach and wallet full. Neighbourhoods surrounding Namba, such as Dotonbori and Shinsekai, hawk Osaka specialities; a local favourite is kushikatsu (battered and fried vegetables and meat served on sticks), which sell for ¥100-¥200 (£0.75-£1.50) per stick.

Japan does fast food well: it’s cheap, tasty and often healthier than the Western version. Sarah says, “I go to Sukiya and Matsuya a lot… I also like Marugame for cheap udon.” At Sukiya, you can get a set meal of gyudon (beef and onions over rice), miso soup and salad for ¥460 (£3.35); at Matsuya, a barbecued beef set meal will set you back just ¥600 (£4.40), while bowls of Marugame’s delicious udon start at just ¥290 (£2.10).

“When I go out, I opt for cheaper izakayas,” says Maya, a Swedish student of human sciences. Izakayas (Japanese-style pubs) are some of the best places to eat and drink on the cheap. Torikizoku, a Japan-wide chain, sells everything for only ¥298 (£2.20), including a wide selection of alcohol – beer, wine, umeshu (plum wine) and highballs. They specialise in yakitori (skewered chicken), but have everything from hard-boiled eggs to fried cheese. For only ¥50 (£0.40), you can get a bottomless bowl of crispy cabbage dressed with soy sauce.

For a fun dining option, kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi is a cheap traveller’s dream. And it’s great for those who can’t speak Japanese: you don’t have to read a menu or communicate with a waiter – just pick the sushi you like off the moving conveyor belt. A colour-coded system indicates how much you pay per plate, which is usually ¥100-¥200 (£0.75-£1.50). Try local chains like Kura Sushi or Genrokuzushi, where kaiten sushi originated in 1958.

Osaka is known as “Japan’s kitchen”, and it has the pantry to prove it © Malcolm Fairman / Alamy Stock Photo

Party on the cheap

There are plenty of deals around the city to ensure you won’t wake up with empty pockets on Sunday morning after a night of partying, particularly in the neighbourhoods of Namba and Shinsaibashi, such as Dotonbori and Amemura (American Village), where the streets are filled with revelling youth on any given evening. Cinquecento, a bar in Dotonbori, has an extensive list of martinis and cocktails for only ¥500 (£3.65). Amemura’s Space Station has a huge selection of old-school video games (all free) and a menu of affordable drinks named after games.

“At Bar Moonwalk in Shinsaibashi and Umeda, all drinks and cocktails are ¥200 (£1.50),” recommends Elie, a robotics student from Lebanon. “And Jankara Karaoke in Shinsaibashi has all-you-can-drink for ¥1000 (£7.30).” That’s right – karaoke bars like Jankara, a local chain with locations all over Osaka, serve food and drinks, often at super-low prices. Karaoke Rainbow in Namba even features a free make-your-own soft cream (frozen yogurt) bar complete with toppings.

“Try going to Voyager Stand,” says Ahmad, a bioengineering student from Lebanon. “It’s a game bar in Namba. If you follow them on Instagram, you enter for ¥1,000 (£7.30) nomihodai (all-you-can-drink).”

Without a doubt the cheapest way to drink is to buy your favourite beer or chuhai (fruit-flavoured liquor) from the konbini (convenience store) and drink it while people watching on the sidewalk or in a park – it’s legal in Japan.

Plenty of deals mean you can party on a budget in Osaka © Kristina Blokhin / Alamy Stock Photo

Dress for less

Neighbourhoods such as Amemura and Nakazakicho are filled with vintage shops, but used isn’t always synonymous with cheap in Japan. A lot of the more trendy clothes are shipped from the US and Europe by buyers, and their price tags show it. However, there are a few affordable stores where you’ll find trendy local hipsters scrounging for finds. “For affordable clothes, I like to shop secondhand at 2nd Street or Kinji,” says Maya. Kinji, a Japanese chain that sells both vintage and contemporary used clothes and accessories, has one shop in Amemura. 2nd Street, as close to a charity shop as Japan gets, has a handful of locations in the city, including shopping hubs Shinsaibashi and Umeda. The clothes here are cheap but clean and in impeccable condition.

Shinsaibashi is one of Osaka’s shopping hubs © Photo Japan / Alamy Stock Photo

Indulge at an affordable spa

“Going to a sento is a must,” says Emma. “You get to experience local culture while also getting a cheap spa experience.” Sentos (public baths) are located all around Osaka, and range from very small, retro baths to large super sentos. Try Taihei-no-yu in the Daikokucho neighbourhood south of Namba for an authentic and relaxing experience. It’s a super sento, meaning it’s a large complex with multiple baths – including some outdoor tubs on the roof – relaxation rooms with massage chairs and a restaurant where you can try local specialities. At ¥800 (£5.85) for unlimited access all day, it’s much cheaper than your average spa.

Relax at a sento in Osaka © David Kleyn / Alamy Stock Photo