Osaka has always been one of Japan’s most important, largest, and most impressive cities. Now famous for incredible site seeing, fantastic local foods, as well as world famous amusement parks like Universal Studios Japan and Spa World, Osaka has something for everyone, whether they are interested in the glittering neon signs of Dotonbori, Osaka’s entertainment district, they want to have a fun day site seeing unique and fascinating sites like Osaka Castle, the Umeda Sky Building, and Tsutenkaku, or they’d rather explore unique local dishes like Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki, and Fugu.
We absolutely loved our time in Osaka, and I’m so excited to share some of my favorite things that we did while in Japan’s entertainment capital. Read on to learn how to navigate Osaka, where to eat, where to stay, what to do, how to get around, and so much more. If you have any questions about visiting Osaka, I’d be more than happy to help answer them however I can.
History of Osaka
Japan’s second largest city, Osaka has always been an important city throughout Japan’s long history, due to its position at the mouth of the Odo River on Osaka Bay which made it an important port city. In the year 645 Osaka was Japan’s capital, until 654, and again for one year in 744, which isn’t surprising considering how often Japan’s capital city used to change. The city now is famous for its incredible site seeing and shopping districts, plus its colorful Dotonbori street shopping district.
How to Get to Osaka
There are several ways to reach Osaka. Fly into the Osaka Internation Airport (ITM) and then take a train to the Osaka Station (24 min. 1 change by train) or drive from the airport for about 14 min. 13.7km/8.5m by car or taxi. Alternatively, if you are visiting Osaka from Tokyo, head to Tokyo Station and select a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka Station which is about a 3 hour train ride, with 1 change. From Tokyo the drive is about 6 hours or 504km/313m, and very expensive. You’re better off flying or taking the train, plus you get to sit back and relax while you watch the scenery go by. It’s a truly beautiful train ride!
When to Visit Osaka
We visit in late March to early April to see the peak cherry blossom season, and it was truly splendid. The city was alive with cherry blossom festivities, and there were many cultural events going on around the city, like Taiko Drum performances, break dancing competitions, cherry blossom viewing parties, fireworks, and much more. There are lots of festivals all year long, but some I hope to see during our next visit to Osaka would be the Tenjin Matsuri festival at the end of July, which is considered one of the three most incredible festivals in all of Japan (the other two festivals are in Tokyo and Kyoto). Like all of Japan, Osaka is a wonderful place to visit anytime of year, so no matter when you decide to visit, you’re going to find endless enjoyable things to do in the city.
Getting Around Osaka
Since Osaka is such a popular tourist destination, most shops, restaurants, and hotels will have English speaking staff members. The ones that don’t will have at least English menus and signs, underneath Japanese. So, if you’re Japanese isn’t great, brush up on a few basic and polite phrases and rest easy knowing that as long as you’re polite and friendly, the people of Osaka will welcome you with open arms.
When exploring the city, we chose to walk or use the Japanese train system most of the time. You can also find bike rentals inside some hotels or Hub Chari and Cycle Osaka, call taxis (which are pricey), or use the bus system. Keep in mind that if you choose to take a taxi, it is considered impolite to try to tip someone, as it implies they are poor and need “handouts”, or that you feel sorry for them. Instead, thank with a smile and “arigatou gozaimasu!” and be on your way so they can pick up their next client. Also keep in mind that many taxis have automatic doors, that will open once you arrive at your destination without the driver having to get out, or the passenger having to put in any effort. Isn’t Japan incredible?
Osaka also offers a variety of prepaid travel cards called Icoca in addition to Suica or Pasmo cards which are popular all over Japan. We found the city’sEco Cards useful as they offer unlimited travel on subways, city buses and Nankō Port Town line, plus admission discounts for a 24 hour period. The amount we saved buying the card more than paid for the card itself, plus we didn’t have to try to make change or worry about reloading or depleting our other travel cards. There is also the Osaka Amazing Pass (大阪周遊パス; www.osp.osaka-info.jp/en/) which allows you to prepay to see 40 of the city’s most popular sites and enjoy unlimited travel on the city’s buses and trains for only ¥3,600, which is what we did on our second and third days in the city when we did more site seeing. This card is definitely worth it!
Where to Stay in Osaka
We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Osaka, and it was simply magnificent. There’s no shortage of excellent hotels in Osaka, so no matter where you decide to stay, you’re going to have an excellent time. Whenever we look for hotels, we think about what we want to do and how close the hotel in question is to where we want to go, as well as what sort of amenities the hotel has. We also considered staying at the Conrad Osaka, The St. Regis Osaka, and the Dormy Inn which has a large private onsen.
Where to Eat Around Osaka
With 209 Michelin star restaurants including three 3 star restaurants, plus a vast assortment of “uniquely Osaka” dishes like okonomiyaki and crab dishes, there’s no shortage of fantastic places to eat in the city, regardless of what you’re into. On our first evening in Osaka, we tucked into a cozy gastronomic experience at Taian in the Chuo Ward that was the perfect introduction to traditional Kaiseki (multi-course) dining in Japan. We didn’t feel out of place amidst such intimately Japanese surroundings, because both the manager and the chef who prepared our food were so welcoming and kind. It’s easy to see why they’ve earned three Michelin stars. Other restaurants in Osaka that have earned the most coveted Michelin distinction of three stars include Kashiwaya and Hajime, which we hope to visit the next time we are in Osaka.
Aside from sampling the elegant and enchanting fine dining scene in Osaka, be sure to try Takoyaki, which are octopus balls covered in a sweet and savory vegetable reduction and covered with bonito fish flakes, as well as okonomiyaki, which literally means “as you like it”, which is prepared in a patty style made of shredded cabbage, noodles, seafood, vegetables, or meat, and topped with a variety of sauces, seaweed, and fish flakes. Our favorite takoyaki place in Osaka was Takoyaki Wanaka Sennichimae, and Fukutaro for okonimyaki.
Things To Do in Osaka
Osaka is one of the liveliest cities we’ve ever been to, and there was no end to the things we could have seen and done in the city. First, we climbed all the way up to the Umeda Sky Building, which has an incredible view of all of Osaka from its rooftop, and also a place where lovers can sign a lock and lock it onto the building to symbolize their commitment and eternal love for one another, while overlooking one of the best views in all of Japan. Universal Studios Japan (commonly referred to as USJ) is one of Japan’s most famous and popular theme parks, and is best visited over the course of a couple of days. Those looking to relax will love to learn about Spa World, which is the world’s only “theme park” related to relaxing. At Spa World, you can float or swim in various pools, each with their own healing properties, receive spa treatments like massages and acupuncture, workout in high tech gym rooms, soak in onsen and saunas, participate in guided stretching, and explore how other countries relax and enjoy their own unique spa cultures in their internationally themed “zones” which are at once accurate and educational while still being totally relaxing.
On our second day in Osaka, we visited the gorgeous Osaka Castle, climbed up its 8 floors of museums, history, and observation towers, and then we walked around the castle gardens, and dined one the rooftop of a nearby café as cherry blossom and plum blossom petals from the castle grounds floated through the air. If you feel like renting a kimono to go site seeing in, which is very popular, although not as common as it is in Kyoto where it’s practically a requirement, head to Wasobi Kimono shop and outfitters where they will dress you and educate you on how to properly wear a kimono, and why they are so popular and respected in Japan.
From Osaka Castle, we headed to the Tomb of Emperor Nintoku (Daisen Kofun) to view the keyhole shaped island that contains 49 massive burial mounds which houses unidentified residents, but is believed to be home to one of Japan’s emperors, Emperor Nintoku who ruled from around 319 to 399 AD. It’s the largest tomb in all of Japan, and the largest burial monument in the world, even larger than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. While it sounds a bit creepy, it’s actually very beautiful, and covered in trees and flowers, which were in full bloom during our visit. Visitors may walk around the outskirts of the tomb, which takes about an hour or more and is a beautiful hike, but the interior is mysterious because it has never been excavated, so no one knows for sure who or what is actually buried inside. Or…do they?
The Osaka National Museum of Art, Keitakuen Garden, Dotonbori Shopping Center, Osaka Science Museum, and Asahi Theater are all very popular things to explore in Osaka as well. One thing I really wish we could have done was take a cooking lesson from Sakura Cook Osaka Namba studio, where travelers are welcome to learn how to make traditional Osaka dishes from scratch, in a modern take on traditional cooking techniques. Hopefully we will get to visit again soon to try it out!
Iconic Landmarks in Osaka
View of the gorgeous Seto inland sea
Naniwa-no-Miya Palace Park (Only a park, the palace no longer is standing)
Tempozan Giant Ferris Wheel
Osaka Museum of History
Glico Running Man Massive Neon Sign
Osaka Nippombashi Denden Town
Shinsaibashi-Suji Shopping Street
Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park
Tomb of Emperor Nintoku (Daisen Kofun) shaped like a keyhole
Cultural Considerations & Traveler Etiquette
Be aware that smoking on the street in Osaka is prohibited and punishable by law, except in designated smoking areas. I only mention this because although I hope you don’t smoke, we saw a Russian traveler get a ticket for smoking in the wrong spot and he did not seem pleased about it! Like the rest of Japan, when on public transportation, don’t use your cell phone or talk loudly and definitely don’t have a phone conversation, as many people sleep on trains and they are considered quiet spaces. You will notice yellow pathways around the city covered in yellow bumps. Be mindful not to block or walk on these pathways, as they are used by those who are blind to navigate the city safely.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, tipping is considered rude and condescending in Japan. If you have tattoos, you should strongly consider covering them with makeup and/or clothing, as many establishments will throw you out for having an exposed tattoo, as they are associated with the Yakuza, which is essentially the Japanese Maffia. While this is getting better, we saw a few foreigners kicked out of places around Osaka, as they are less tolerant of it than those in the city center of Tokyo where it’s not such an issue when it comes to foreigners.
Safety in Osaka
Like much of Japan, Osaka is a very safe city, and we never once felt uncomfortable during our time in the city. Always use common sense when traveling and don’t flash valuables, don’t leave bags, wallets, passports, or other belongings unattended, and always be aware of your surroundings, just as you would in any major city.
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