If you aren’t familiar with this Japanese city, think London’s Shoreditch, but with the bright lights of Vegas. It’s like the pintxos food scene of San Sebastian mixed with the hipster vibe of Budapest. Actually, scratch that, it’s unlike anywhere in the world because Osaka is unique.
Osaka was known as ‘the nation’s kitchen’ during the Edo period in Japan (1601-1867) for its incredibly fresh sushi; serious foodie credentials.
Despite being the third largest city in Japan, Osaka hasn’t always been a popular destination to visit. However, a recent boom in tourism has proved that it isn’t just Tokyo with pulling power. Boasting a distinctive culture, buzzing nightlife and endless street food vendors, this city was one of our highlights in Japan. Check out my tips on what to do in Osaka, and get some inspiration for your own adventure.
Discover the Osaka Wonder Loop
I don’t often opt for tourist buses, but the Osaka Wonder Loop was the perfect way to see the city in a short space of time. The regular bus service stops at most of the city’s top attractions, with information in English and a voucher book for discounts in restaurants and shops. A two-day pass is only 3,000 yen (Approx £20 at time of writing). It made getting around a lot easier, especially when it rained. As an added bonus we even had a tour guide to point out the sights along the way.
Visit a national treasure: Osaka Castle
One of Japan’s most famous landmarks, this five-tiered castle stands 55 metres tall and offers fantastic views of the city. When it was constructed in the samurai era of the 16th century, this fortress would have been the largest in Japan. 100,000 workers helped to construct the fortification and it became the centre for a unified Japan under Toyotomi rule.
The fate of the castle is somewhat unlucky however, as it was destroyed twice. Once by the invading forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu (a fierce Japanese warrior and founder of the Shogun dynasty) in 1615 and then again in 1665 as it was struck by lightning only 50 years after it was rebuilt.
Though Osaka Castle is a concrete reconstruction, it’s beautifully done and a fascinating place to visit. I enjoyed nerding out here, imagining the sight of 400,000 samurais battling during the ‘Siege of Osaka’. The result of that epic fight led to the Tokugawa family establishing rule over Japan for the next 250 years – it’s like an episode of Game of Thrones! Don’t forget to explore the castle grounds and the pretty Nishinomaru Garden too (very popular in cherry blossom season).
Be humbled by Shitennō-ji Temple
One of the oldest temples in Japan, this is a must for anyone fascinated by history. The temple is reportedly 1,400 years old and though it was burned down a few times, it was always rebuilt to reflect the 6th-century design. The story of the temple begins with Prince Shotoku in 574 A.D. The 16-year-old prince was a supporter of Chinese culture and the new wave of Buddhism that had travelled through the country from India. To help establish Buddhism as the state religion, Shotoku built many temples across Japan, but one of the largest was in Osaka.
There is a stunning five-storied pagoda here, which you can actually climb (there is an admission fee) and if you’re seeking rest and relaxation away from the city streets, the Honbō-teien strolling gardens are a must. The outer grounds are actually free to enter, and there are sometimes flea markets and food stalls to enjoy here. Don’t miss out on seeing the cute turtles that live in the pond pavilion of the Yakushi Buddha.
Enjoy 100 Yen sushi at Isono Ryotaro
When it comes to sushi in Japan, the cost can sometimes be a little eye-watering. However, if you’re a fan of cheap meals and conveyor belt sushi then you’ll be in for a treat in Osaka. Just five minutes walk from Namba station, Isono Ryotaro is a frugal traveller’s jackpot. Succulent salmon nigiri, endless rounds of tuna maki and more crispy tempura prawns than you can shake a stick at. All for $1 each (though they also have more expensive dishes too).
You’ll have to keep your eyes peeled to find it, as it’s on the on the first floor of a shopping complex, but it’s worth it. You can order food, drinks and sides from the touch screen at your table (there is an English language setting) or simply grab something off the conveyor belt in front of you.
Eat a Pablo Mini Tart
Three words. Mini. Cheese. Tarts.
Cue squealing from the Kawaii girls and a flurry of Instagram shots. Pablo is huge in Japan, they have almost 50 stores across the country. Why should I care you ask? In typical Japanese attention to detail, founder of Pablo – Masamitsu Sakimoto – spent half a year just crafting the tart’s recipe before finding his Eureka! moment. The master of confectionery decided that you should be able to eat a tart like you would a steak, by ordering different textures with a rare or medium tart. The result is a rich, creamy filling that’s perfectly paired with its buttery, crumbly base.
The melt melt-in-your-mouth characteristics and the aroma of freshly baked tarts mean you can wait for a while to get your hands on one of these cheesecakes: but you will not care. Much of the popularity of the tart is due to the focus on ‘odorokashi’, which is a Japanese play on words that means a ‘dessert with an element of surprise’. Head to Dotombori to get your sweet fix and Instagram shot for the day.
You can’t help but notice these golden batter balls being fried by the side of the street pretty much everywhere in Japan, but most especially in Osaka. Each of the flour and wheat balls contain a small piece of octopus and they are a beloved street food snack.
I wasn’t convinced at first that this was the dish for me, but after biting through the crunchy exterior to reach the soft inside and the tender octopus I was persuaded. It also helps that they top takoyaki with spring onions, Japanese mayonnaise, soy sauce and (if you are brave enough) dried fish shavings.
Swing by trendy Amerikamura
It’s a testament to the obsession Japan has with the USA that this quite bizarre place exists. Way back in the 70’s this quiet district was mostly just warehouses. A turning point came when interior designer Mariko Higiri opened the uber trendy café, LOOP, transforming the area into a hotspot for young, stylish kids. The surrounding parking lots and warehouse space quickly got snapped up as people started to sell imported goods from America like jeans, T-shirts and records. The area soon gained a reputation as a place where fashion trends are born.
Now dubbed Amerikamura, the community here is still creative, young and vibrant – but there are also heaps of cool bars and clubs now too. Kasha and I couldn’t resist indulging in a few ridiculous food fads, like the Long Soft Cream, an enormous soft serve ice cream about the length of my arm (and before you ask, no, I didn’t drop it). If you have an exceptionally sweet tooth, you can also swing by the Totti Candy Factory next door for a multicoloured cotton candy stick bigger than your head. Some other fun things to do in the area include a button-mashing session at the Video Game Bar Space Station or hunting down the imitation Statue of Liberty that looms in the sky above.
Oh Osaka and your many delicacies! This dish, sometimes called a Japanese pancake, is incredible. Made with simple ingredients like flour, eggs, tempura bits, cabbage, sliced pork and Japanese mayonnaise – it’s the perfect meal for everyone. And before you go saying I’m exaggerating, let me explain that its very name means ‘Grill As You Like’. Okonomi – ‘as you like’ and Yaki – ‘grill’.
There are countless variations that you can enjoy with okonomiyaki: shrimp, noodles, octopus, mushrooms – the list goes on! For a unique dining experience, find a restaurant with a teppan (iron griddle) built into the tables and watch as your food is made before your eyes. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, okonomiyaki is definitely one of the country’s most underrated dishes – it would be a sin to leave Japan without trying it.
Eat all the foods at Torame Yokocho
Have you ever wanted to be able to experience all of the food that Japan has to offer under one roof? Well, Torame Yokocho is for you. Sushi, yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), ramen, tempura, okonomiyaki and even pizza and Hawaiian. In all, there are nine small restaurants that surround a food court style seating arrangement. There’s an English language menu and you can order whatever you want from the various stalls – it’s the perfect way to taste all the local specialities in one place. Good value, popular and a lot of fun – it ticked all my boxes.
Dotonbori shopping street
It wouldn’t be a trip to Osaka without a visit to the massive neon lights of Dotonbori. This area is a dizzying maze of backstreets, karaoke bars, restaurants and canal ways: it’s undoubtedly the heart and soul of Osaka. First things first, make sure to do a really awkward running pose on the Ebisu Bridge in front of the Glico Man sign, a world-famous graphic of an athlete in a victory pose that has been on display for some 80 years. Bizarrely, Glico is actually a confectionery company who produce the delicious Pocky snacks, and the story behind this sign is that it was used to promote a new candy caramel in which they had added glycogen from oysters. The product reputedly gave you the energy to run 300 metres, and so this running mascot was chosen.
Another essential – yet unmissable – sight in this neighbourhood is to spot all the 3D over-sized street signs that almost leap out at you. Most famously there is Kani Dōraku, a crab restaurant with an enormous crab above the door with moving legs and pincers, or the giant blowfish outside Zuboraya.
If you’ve visited Osaka what were your favourite experiences? Is there any awesome Osaka activities that I missed? I’d love to hear about it, so comment below!
Our experience visiting Osaka was supported by the folks at Osaka Wonderloop, but as always any opinions expressed are my own!