Japan’s second-biggest city, Osaka, can feel like an endless maze to many visitors. While it may not be nearly as big as Tokyo, it’s still tricky to plan an Osaka itinerary. From world famous cuisine to historic castles, you’re guaranteed to have a great time, but it’s important not to be lured in by mediocre sights. Here are the best things to do in Osaka.
There’s a reason the Kaiyukan aquarium is on every ‘Best of Osaka’ list. It is truly one of the top aquariums in the world. Kaiyukan has over 30,000 animals living in 15 different exhibits designed to take the visitor through the varying environments found on the Pacific Rim. It’s relaxing to watch the hypnotic movements of fish darting in and out of coral, but try listening in on a Japanese conversation. Occasionally you’ll hear an oishiso (“looks delicious”) as the fish swim by.
Just a quick 30-minute train ride from Hankyu Umeda station is Minoo National Park. While not technically part of the city, a walk along the road to the park’s main waterfall is an easy way to escape the suburban sprawl. The main path coming out of Minoo Station is a peaceful walk through paths lined with traditional buildings and temples alongside a scenic river. Minoo is one of the loveliest places in Kansai to see autumn leaves and is well known for the bright red maple trees planted in the area. Don’t pass up an opportunity to eat a fried maple leaf sold by vendors on the side of the road. Not only will you be trying the area’s local speciality, you can also add ‘tree leaf’ to your list of foods eaten in Japan.
Hozenji is probably one of the smallest temples you’ll see in Japan, but it’ll likely be the most memorable. Right in the middle of crowded Namba is the last place you’d expect to find solitude, but Hozenji manages to be a serene oasis in the middle of this neon jungle. The Buddha kept at Hozenji is covered with a thick layer of moss because of the constant stream of prayers and subsequent splashes of water thrown in his direction. The alleyways surrounding Hozenji hark back to an older Osaka, with cobblestone streets and noren-cloth-covered entryways.
Tachibana is on the second basement floor of Osaka’s only Kabuki theatre, Shochikuza, and it’s the only theatre with a beer brewery on site (Kabuki is a traditional Japanese drama with highly stylised song, mime and dance). One of the first Osaka-brewed beers, Dotonbori has been around since 1996, and Tachibana is one of the only restaurants to have it on tap. Plus it has an excellent reputation for its seafood and its tofu. Tofu and beer might seem like a strange combination, but in Japan, it works.
Step through the sliding glass door and immerse yourself in the world of sukiyaki at Kitamura. Sukiyaki is a traditional Japanese stew-like dish prepared in a hot pot. It usually consists of thinly sliced meat, vegetables and other ingredients cooked and simmered in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin (sugary rice wine). Have a seat at one of the tatami mat tables and watch your hot-pot meal be cooked right in front of you. It’ll be an unforgettable experience.
Once Japan’s main merchant town, Osaka was the first place edible goods were delivered to before being shipped out to the rest of the country. This unfettered access to the best food in Japan meant Osaka gained a reputation as the ‘Kitchen of Japan’, which remains to this day. There’s a saying that people from Tokyo and Kyoto will spend their money on clothes and shoes, but Osakans will bankrupt themselves on food. This love of food is most evident in classic Osaka dishes like takoyaki (savoury ball-shaped cakes), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables). No trip would be complete without indulging in all three of these not-so-healthy options.
Shitennoji was built in AD 593 and was the first state-funded temple in the country after Buddhism was brought into Japan from China. (Some reports actually state it is first ever Buddhist temple in Japan.) Despite repeated fires over the temple’s 1,400-year history, the grounds remain the same, except now they are surrounded by skyscrapers. While Shitennoji is great to see any time, try to plan your trip around the temple’s flea market. It’s a great place to pick up used kimonos, antiques or perhaps a piece of Japanese pottery.
If there was just one place to visit in Osaka, it would be Dotonbori. This road is the city’s main artery and epitomises Osaka culture. The road is packed full of restaurants and bars trying to lure you in with huge animatronic signs and bright neon lights. At night, the pace is a bit frantic, almost like a scene in a movie, as you’re sucked in and shuffled among the smoking, drinking and gorging crowd. Look for the Kuidaore clown slowly banging his drum and, from the bridge, don’t miss the new LED Glico Man running across the world. Peek into Don Quixote to find every KitKat flavour imaginable and keep an eye out for the host boys with their outrageous haircuts and outfits.
A few years ago, Kuromon Ichiba Market wasn’t really on tourists’ radars. Recently, though, its reputation as one of the best wet markets in Japan has quickly transformed it into one of the most traveller-friendly areas in Japan. Amenities include toilets, free WiFi and a rest area. Kuromon Ichiba is well known for having the freshest ingredients and is the main spot for chefs to shop for their restaurants. If you like seafood, don’t pass up the chance to have fresh-from-the-ocean fish and shellfish grilled right in front of you at one of the fish shops in the shopping arcade. Experience what it was like to shop in Japan before large department stores like Daimaru and Takashimaya opened.
Osaka Castle is the shining jewel among the city’s tourist attractions. One of the most historically significant sites in Japan, the castle was originally constructed in the late 1500s by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Later the site of one of the famous Battle of Sekigahara, the castle would eventually fall to the Tokugawa clan, who were the last of the shogunates of feudal-era Japan. While the castle standing today has been reconstructed many times, there are still many areas of the park that are considered cultural assets, like Otemon gate. The castle is no longer the site of battles, but one of learning and relaxation. The inside has a number of exhibitions dedicated to the history of the area during the 16th and 17th centuries. The park surrounding the castle is a popular spot for locals and travellers alike. In late winter, check out the plum-tree orchard and, then, at the beginning of spring, see the flowers bursting forth in brilliant displays of pinks and white.