I loved Osaka.
I didn’t know much about it before we left. Everyone I’d spoken to had said they’d found it the most boring of all the cities they’d seen in Japan, and the only real thing to do there was eat (which is hardly a bad thing!)
But actually, there is SO much more to Osaka than just food.
It’s not cultural like Kyoto, or cosmopolitan like Tokyo, or naturally stunning like Fuji, but it’s got its own interesting and gritty character that makes it stand out from the rest. It’s vibrant, friendly, filled with color, light, and tons of interesting little things to look at.
The French have a great word which I think describes the culture in Osaka perfectly: flâneur. According to Google, it means: a person who saunters around observing society.
Well, Osaka is a city made for sauntering. It’s a city made for wandering, exploring, people-watching, shopping, and yes, it’s a city made for eating. Forget your guidebook and your schedules, this is a place to get lost in.
So to help get you started, I’ve put together quick mini-guide with tips on how to get there, where to stay, what to do, and (of course) what to eat.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can fly from Heathrow to Kansai airport with several airlines. We booked our £420 return tickets with Air France on the KLM website, which meant we had a quick 3 hour stopover in Paris both ways.
When you arrive at Kansai, you’ll have to take the train into Osaka city. (Unless you can afford the £90 taxi…)
We asked a very helpful lady what train we should take, and she pointed out (in perfect English) the station closest to our hotel, and the best route for us. It cost us all of about £8.50, and got us there in under an hour.
Osaka is connected to the rest of Japan via their fantastic rail line. Kyoto is just half an hour away by train, and you can reach Tokyo by fancy bullet train in under three hours.
It’s also a great base from which to visit other smaller cities in the area. Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kobe, Himeji and Nara are all easy and quick to get to from central Osaka, and all are worthy of (at least) a day trip.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at the Ibis Styles Osaka*, which is a lovely budget hotel in a truly fabbbbbb location!
It’s quietly tucked away behind the canal, with a 7/11 convenience store attached (very conveniently) to the bottom floor.
Dotonbori is just a 5 minute walk away. The neon lights and colourful 3D billboards make this area one of the most recognisable places in Osaka, and it’s an absolute must-visit in the evening.
You’re also within walking distance of the main shopping district, two subway stations, and Amerika Mura: one of my absolute favourite areas of the city.
The staff are friendly, and the rooms are cosy and clean (if a bit old-fashioned in decor). They serve both Japanese and Western-style breakfasts on the top floor of the building, which gives you a STUNNING view of the city.
What more can you ask for?
WHAT TO DO
OK so let’s start with Dotonbori: the main foodie area of the city. Head there during the day for colorful views, giant robot crabs, and yummy snacks. Then go back at night for the neon light displays, a stroll along the canal, and a delicious dinner at one of the many restaurants lining the streets.
Shinsaibashi is the best place for shopping. It’s a long (longgg) indoor hall, housing everything from Uniqlo and H&M, to absolutely batshit crazy Japanese beauty stores and super cheap 100 yen shops. I spent a lot of money here. Mainly on clothes, but I also picked up some great artwork and souvenirs!
Amerika Mura (Ame-mura) was my favourite area of Osaka. It’s the place to visit for street art, hipster coffee and vintage shopping.
Hozenji Yokocho is another great area for exploring: a wonderfully traditional place full of tiny alleyways, parked bicycles and red lanterns. It’s the quietest part of the city we saw, with a stunning temple, as well as several excellent little restaurants.
We went up the Umeda Sky Building at night, which I personally thought wasn’t really worth it, but I know the other girls loved it. It’s marketed as a “Floating Garden Observatory” but it’s basically just a plain platform at the top of a very tall building. However, I was also hideously and ferociously jetlagged by this point, so it’s possible that was the reason I didn’t enjoy it!
We didn’t have time for much else, as we only spent two half-days in the city, but Osaka Castle is on the list for my next visit. It’s modelled after the nearby Himeji Castle and meant to be beauuutiful.
Also, the Universal Studios theme park has a GREAT Harry Potter section, if you’re that way inclined, and is only a 30 minute train ride away.
But other than that: just walk. Wander down side-streets and through alleyways. You’ll find tiny shrines, traditional restaurants, and lots of beautiful and interesting things to see.
Like I said, Osaka is more about flâneur-ing than proper sightseeing!
WHAT TO EAT: OSAKA SPECIALTIES
TAKOYAKI. Round dumpling balls, about the size of a golf ball, made with fried batter and chopped octopus. Crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, they’re usually eaten as street food. Usually they’ll be served hot, with mayo, a special takoyaki sauce, and a sprinkling of bonito flakes. They are DELICIOUS, and a huge part of Osaka’s foodie culture. Plus it’s super fun to watch the chef flip and shape the tiny pancakes with just a pair of chopsticks.
OKONOMIYAKI. There are several variations of okonomiyaki throughout Japan. The Osaka-style one is a pizza/omelette/pancake hybrid, made with flour, eggs, water, shredded cabbage and dashi (fish stock). They also usually mix in other ingredients like pork, chicken, octopus, squid or other vegetables, then top it with okonomiyaki sauce (a kind of fruity BBQ-ish sauce), mayonnaise, and spring onions.
JAPANESE BEEF. Wagyu beef is famous the world over, and in Osaka you’ve got the added bonus of being just half an hour away from Kobe. There, the cows (apparently) receive daily massages and are kept on a diet of beer, local grains, and classical music. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it is true that Kobe beef is considered the absolute best in the world. I didn’t get a chance to try it, but Charlie went to Kobe for lunch the day before Erica and I arrived, and said it was worth every single penny (and she spent a lot of pennies!)
PUFFER FISH. Puffer fish (fugu in Japanese) is lethal to humans, unless it’s prepared in a very strict and specific way. Chefs have to hold a special licence to cook it, and our sushi chef in Tokyo told us that getting the licence is a super long process. It involves 3 years of studying and tests, followed by an examination that has just a 35% pass rate. So if you’re going to order this delicacy, absolutely 100% make sure you check the chef’s credentials first!
NOTES ABOUT OSAKA
* STAND ON THE RIGHT. If you’re going on the subway in Osaka, you’ll need to stand on the right-hand side of the escalator. It’s the opposite to Tokyo, so worth keeping in mind!
* PLASTIC FOOD. Photos of food outside a restaurant is usually a big no-no for me. The idea of 3D plastic models of food outside was laughable when I first heard it. But actually, it’s a huge part of the food culture in Japan. I think it started as a way of us foreigners being able to figure out what to order, but it’s a proper Thing now. There are actual shops where you can go and buy models of food, and a LOT of the restaurants in Japan use them. Don’t let it put you off!
* DON’T EAT AND WALK. This is true throughout all of Japan, but it’s especially worth noting in Osaka: do not eat and walk. If you buy a snack, you have to stop and eat it by the side of the stall. Ice cream is the only real exception to this rule. It sounds silly, but it’s seriously frowned upon and the locals will properly glare at you for it!
* DON’T TIP. Tipping is a big no-no. Waiters will genuinely chase you down a busy street to return your 10p change. I’m not even joking.
* PABLO. Pablo cream cheese tarts were one of our favourite snacks in Japan and if you’re there you must try them. We bought one (or two) every time we spotted a branch, because they are YUM. You’ll find several in Osaka, including one opposite the famous Glico running man billboard (below).
*Our stay at the Ibis Styles Osaka was complimentary.