If there was ever an award for the most underrated city in Asia, Osaka would be the clear winner. When we told other travellers we met that we had spent a couple of days in Osaka, most told us that they weren’t going to visit because there is nothing to see there. I’ve visited Osaka twice now and it’s my favourite city in Japan (yup, I said it, I like Osaka better than Kyoto and Tokyo!) It’s a pretty misunderstood place but one that’s definitely worth a few days on your Japan itinerary.
These are the things that you can’t miss on your Osaka trip….
Seeing the Bright Lights of Dotonbori Arcade
Take the bright lights of Tokyo’s Shinjuku, put them on steroids, and you’ll have a fair idea of what Dotonbori Arcade looks like. Osaka was the first Japanese city I ever visited and I felt like Lost in Translation had been set in the wrong place when I walked down this street. Visiting 2 and a half years later, the culture shock still hadn’t worn off!
Even if you only have 1 hour in Osaka, go straight here for a visual treat.
Posing for a Photo with the Running Man
Every city has one of those cliche places where tourists flock to take photos. In Osaka, that would be the running man! Is it cheesy? Yeah, a wee bit. But nothing says Japan like neon lights so embrace it!
If there’s one definitive reason to visit Osaka, it would definitely be for the food. The Kansai region is home to some of the best food in all of Japan. My favourite? Okonomiyaki!
Okonomiyaki is often described as being like “Japanese pizza” but I think that’s a pretty unfair comparison. Go there expecting pizza and you’ll be like, “WTF is this!?” Go expecting a plate of Japanese yumminess and you’ll be well pleased.
The dish consists of batter made of flour, shredded cabbage and egg, combined with a whole variety of fillings. Usually you’ll find pork, seafood, green onions and even cheese in there! It’s cooked up on a grill right in front of you and served with mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (which is like a sweet Worcestershire sauce), bonito (dried tuna) flakes and ginger. I’d go as far to call it Japanese bubble and squeak!
Lots of places will be happy to make you a vegetarian okonomiyaki since they can make it on the spot- just ask!
Making your Own Ramen
I love finding fun, unique “cultural” things to do in cities, so I was excited to visit the ramen museum in Osaka. You might be thinking that there’s nothing cultural about noodles but this is Japan, and ramen is life! Did you know that there are now cup noodles that can be eaten in space?!
The best part of the museum, though, is getting the opportunity to design your own ramen. You can choose your flavouring, fillings and even decorate the cup. I went for curry soup (which is one of my favourite things ever), kimchi, cheese, spring onions and sweetcorn. While my fchoice of filling was spot on, the same can’t be said for my drawing skills!
If you’re looking for something unique to do on a budget, this is a great option. The museum is free to enter and it’s only 300 yen to make your own noodles!
Marvelling at Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle is one of the most important castles in all of Japan so it’s a must see place while you’re there. The park area around it would be the perfect place to hang out on a summer’s day and I can imagine it would be beautiful during cherry blossom season. Japanese castles always look so majestic and are really different to the castles that I’m used to seeing in The UK. You can pay to go inside but we just enjoyed the views from outside.
Visiting “Yankee Town”
Amerika-mura (literally, American Village) started out in the 1970s as a place where people sold imported goods from America. These days, it’s a bustling area full of street art, vintage clothing stores and trendy bars and restaurants. It even has it’s own mini Statue of Liberty!
Finding the Iconic “Tsutenkaku”
Osaka’s Tsutenkaku might not reach dizzying heights, but it’s an iconic sight with lots of charm. Go at night and see it all lit up. You can pay to go up and enjoy a modest view of Osaka or you can be cheapskates like us and just appreciate it from ground level.
Geeking out on Anime Street
Osaka has lots of the things that Tokyo has but on a more condensed level, making it a much easier city to explore. While Tokyo has the giant neighbourhood of Akihabara, Osaka has Nipponbashi Den Den town. The district is much smaller (and a bit less crazy) but a great place to visit for an insight into Japan’s unique youth subculture.
You will also see some Maid Cafe’s in this area but I urge you not to visit. This might sound a bit hypocritical since I visited one in Tokyo but, at the time, I didn’t know much about the industry. I’ve since found out that a lot of these maids are underage school girls who are often coerced into prostitution. Read Donna from Haute Culture’s informative article and do your homework before visiting these seemingly innocent but extremely seedy places.
Eating all the Food
You might be tempted to jump into the enticing restaurants on Dotonbori Arcade with their famous 3D displays while you’re in Osaka. However, I’d definitely explore elsewhere.
Our kind guesthouse owner advised us to try out an area just a few blocks south of Dotonbori Arcade to eat where the locals eat. We found an awesome sit down sushi restaurant with really reasonable sets meals.
This is a universal tip but, when you’re looking for restaurants, head off the main strip for good food and prices. The best places will be full of locals. It’s pretty difficult to find a bad meal in Japan so you won’t go too far wrong!
Where to Stay
We stayed at Oshiteruya which is a gorgeous guesthouse set in a 70-year-old traditional Japanese house. The rooms, including dorms, are all elegantly styled like a traditional ryokan so it’s perfect for someone looking for a more atmospheric stay. You can read my full review here.
Travelling throughout Japan?
Don’t miss my popular article, Don’t Leave Tokyo Without, filled with lots of tips about places to visit in Japan’s energetic capital city!
Let me know, have you ever visited Osaka? What else is a must see in the city?
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