Japan’s second city, Osaka, boasts a less formal and more down-to-earth vibe than Tokyo, but it is no less dynamic than the great capital. Osaka’s appeal comes in the form of an open-minded and laid-back populace, a multi-faceted cultural and subcultural landscape, and a culinary tradition that earned it the nickname of ‘The Nation’s Kitchen’, a title it has held for hundreds of years.
Most of Osaka’s places of interest revolve around the two urban centres of Kita (more commonly known as Umeda) and Minami (or Namba), and we thus suggest that you dedicate at least one full day to each area.
Day 1 – Umeda
9.00 – 10.00: Osaka Castle
Get an early start to your first day in Osaka by taking a stroll through the Osaka Castle Park, whose expansive grounds cover over a hundred hectares. We weren’t there to witness the fabled 600 Somei Yoshino cherry trees blossom in Nishinomaru Garden (located on park grounds), but the park merits a visit any time of year, if only en route to its splendid showpiece and the city’s symbol – Osaka Castle. As the legend goes, Japanese feudal lords from all across the nation once competed to display their devotion to ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi by carrying the exact boulders that today make up the castle walls.
If time permits, pay a visit to the museum inside and see Japan’s most extensive collection of authentic artifacts dating back to the Azuchi–Momoyama age (ca. 1570-1600), go up to the top floor observation deck, and get your picture taken with a period kosode kimono, surcoat and helmet on.
10.30 – 12.00: Osaka Museum of Housing and Living
Extend your encounter with the past at the aptly named Museum of Housing and Living (Tenjinbashisuji 6-chome subway station). Go up to the 10th floor observatory first to see the life-size Edo-era settlement from above, then descend to floor 9 and walk the streets of 1830s Osaka (then Naniwa) clad in a yukata kimono (available for rent at reception). Floor 8 contains scale models of dwellings from Japan’s Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods (ca. 1868 – 1950). The exhibition hall hosts seasonal displays, and themed workshops (origami, toy making, tea ceremonies, etc.) are held fairly frequently.
12.00: Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Arcade
Upon exiting the museum, we found ourselves right next to the northern entrance to Tenjinbashisuji – Japan’s longest shopping arcade, a bustling commercial adventure land of sorts, with shops, small markets, pachinko parlors and eateries left and right, all for an incredible 2.6km on end. It takes an estimated 30-40 minutes to simply walk through at a slow pace; longer if you intend to poke around for a while.
13.00 – 14.00: Sushi lunch
As lunch time rolls around, see if any of the street food stalls look good and grab a bite on the go (takoyaki are always a great bet), or follow in our footsteps and join the queue leading up to the inconspicuous entrance to Harukoma Sushi (about half-way into the arcade), a celebrated local sushi restaurant where some waiting time is to be expected. Once in, scout the menu (available in English) for personal favorites or go for the Toro (fatty tuna belly), Uni (sea urchin) and Saba (Mackerel). Natto (fermented soy bean), although beloved by the Japanese, is a stranger to the Western palate – do give it a try if you’re not easily spooked by unusual textures.
14.00 – 15.00: Nakazakicho
After lunch, continue on southwards along the arcade, or escape through one of the many side exits if the shopping is done with. From here, start making your way west to the high-rise Umeda, passing through the quaint neighborhood of Nakazakicho, home to a few houses that managed to escape the tragic fate of being leveled to the ground during WWII. Some of the surviving buildings were refurbished and now house artisan cafés and boutiques (try the Sakura building at 1-6-36 Nakazakinishi for vintage clothing, and grab a coffee at iTohen gallery, run by an Osaka graphic design company SKKY).
15.30 – 16.00: Umeda Station City
You’ll notice the mood change as you approach Umeda Station City at JR Osaka Station. So, why even bother making time for a train station, you ask? The answer, as odd as it may sound, is to have a quiet moment. Make your way up to the 10th floor of North Gate Building and enjoy the stunning view (featuring the Umeda Sky Building, our next stop) from open-air Yawaragi no Niwa (Healing Garden) and Kaze no Hiroba (Wind Plaza).
Continue on to the 11th floor (stairs are outdoors, next to the coffee shop) and pay a visit to the station’s own Sky Farm (Tenku no Noen) – a green space where fruit and vegetables are grown dozens of meters above ground level. On your way down, shop around at Lucua (the shopping complex that occupies the majority of North Gate Building), and continue on to the South Gate Building for more shopping – highlights include the Pokemon Centre (floor 13) and Tokyu Hands, as well as the Daimaru department store occupying the building’s 17 floors.
16.00 – 17.00: Umeda Sky Building
Our next stop, the spectacular Umeda Sky Building (also known as the Floating Garden), is an impressive structure made up of two skyscrapers with a circular hanging garden and 360-degree panoramic observation deck at the top. Reaching the top-floor Sky Walk is quite a ride – the escalator (encapsulated in a glass tunnel) leading up to floor 39 cuts straight through the skies, an engineering ambition at least partly responsible for the building being named among the world’s top 20 architectural structures by The Times.
From here, another curious architectural decision can be seen – the TKP building, cut straight through by an actual highway (!) between its 5th and 7th floors.
17.00: Dinner in Takimi Koji Underground Eat Street
For dinner, descend to level B1 of Umeda Sky Building and take your pick from the abundant selection of Takimi Koji Underground Eat Street – a life-size recreation of Osaka’s Showa era stone-paved alley, complete with a traditional pump well, a Shinto Inari shrine, and stylized eateries. Take the chance to try one of the city’s specialties – okonomiyaki – a savory pancake containing eggs, flour, shredded cabbage, with meat and/or seafood.
We opted for negiyaki, a variation on the okonomiyaki theme with lots of green onions (and considerably larger in size).
18.00 – 20.00: Yamamoto Noh Theatre
After dinner, catch a show at Osaka’s renowned Yamamoto Noh Theatre. Opt for the “Kamigata Night” programme to acquaint yourself with all of Kansai Region’s traditional performing arts, such as the famed Kabuki, Bunraku Puppet Theatre, Rakugo, and, of course, Noh. The stylish theatre hosts shows in both English and Japanese (the latter are often accompanied by explanatory materials in English, Chinese and Korean). Check their website to see what’s on when you’re in town.
20.30: River Cruise from Yodoyabashi to Dotonbori
Once built on wetland, Osaka remains an ‘aquapolis’ of sorts, with 5 major waterways traversing the city. Take a walk along the water in Nakanoshima, or – better yet – join an evening river cruise bound for Dotonbori, and continue on to explore Osaka’s booming craft beer and live jazz scenes.
21.30 – 22.30: Craft beer
As night falls, Osaka’s many craft beer bars become populated by jolly parties of locals. A good place to start is Sankyubashi-suji Street, or one of Osaka’s many craft bars. Our haunt of choice was the hip Garage 39 (2-5-15 Awaji-machi, Chuo-ku), serving a regularly updated selection of the 15 finest crafts from all across Japan.
For live jazz, try the Chuwa Dixie Building (5 floors worth of music bars at 1-6-18 Namba) or Umeda’s many fine haunts.
23.00: Ohatsu Tenjin Ura-Sando
If, like us, you’re still not ready to call it a night, hit the alley of Ohatsu Tenjin Ura-Sando (2-10-9 Sonezaki, Kita-Ku) for a late-night snack and drink at one of the street’s several assorted bars (choose from Japanese, French, Italian – and more). Most establishments operate past midnight (some till as late/early as 4am), and spirits remain high throughout.
Day 2 – Namba
9.00 – 10.00: Shitennoji Temple
Start your second day with a bit of serenity at Shitennoji Temple, one of the country’s oldest temples, dating back to the year 593, which helped mark the introduction of Buddhism into Japan. The temple’s outer grounds can be enjoyed for free, but it’s worth paying the small admission fee to explore the interior of the main Golden Pavilion and ascend the 5-storey pagoda. The temple, along with the nearby Tennoji Park, provide spaces of tranquility in the otherwise bustling metropolis.
While visiting the temple, take the chance to pick up a sweet Osaka specialty: vegetable-shaped candy. These one-of-a-kind treats are meticulously manufactured by hand using natural juice essences extracted from fresh produce, and they make for a unique and thoughtful gift. As they are such a local specialty, Shitennoji Temple is one of the few places they can be found.
10.00 – 12.00: Ota-Road
It’s time to leave the past behind and experience a taste of Japan’s radical contemporary pop culture. Walk just a few minutes to the northwest toward Ota-Road, the home of Osaka’s otaku culture. Anime, manga and video game enthusiasts crowd the narrow walkways and scour the wide array of specialty shops in search of memorabilia, cosplay, retro gems and rare collectibles from their favorite franchises (a favorite of ours was Super Potato, a retro-gaming haven with a very high nostalgia factor and a wealth of games and merchandise you’re unlikely to find anywhere else anymore).
Be sure to step into one of Japan’s famous multi-level gaming arcades to participate in a bit of gaming culture, or simply to gape in awe at the bright lights, loud buzzers and exceptionally proficient rhythm game masters at work.
For lunch we think it’s time to splurge on one of the area’s most exclusive delicacies: Matsusaka beef. Considered by some to be even superior in taste to the famous Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef is high in fat content and extremely rare, as only about 2,500 cows meet the high standards each year. Said cows are said to be fed sake and beer, as well as receiving regular massages, to stimulate their appetite. We highly recommend Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M, located in Hozenji Yokocho, for this experience.
On your way there be sure to stop by Hozenji temple, a tiny and very intimate 17th century Buddhist temple hidden among the area’s busy streets and looming buildings. Unlike in other temples around Japan, worshippers do not toss coins at Hozenji, but rather douse the now moss-covered statue of the deity Mizukakefudo with a splash of water from the fountain.
14.00: Kuromon Market, Amerika-mura & Shinsaibashi
After lunch start the afternoon off with a spot of shopping at one of Namba’s diverse shopping districts. The Kuromon Ichiba Market, which has historically served the freshest produce and seafood, is a great place to start for a peek into Osaka’s food culture. Stroll along the stalls and let yourself be tempted by rows of nigiri, sea urchin, and if you’re feeling brave, puffer fish.
More fashion-minded visitors might prefer to head west towards Amerika-mura, a lively shopping and entertainment area that showcases a more intense side to the city’s youth culture. Shops display flashy clothes and accessories, rare books and records, and a slew of alternative second-hand items.
Just minutes away from Amerika-mura lies the district of Horie, a slightly more upscale and refined shopping district with interesting boutiques and cafes that lend the area more of a hipster vibe.
Last but not least, stroll through the city’s most notable covered shopping arcade district of Shinsaibashi. Clothing stores, restaurants, souvenir shops and pachinko parlors line these seemingly endless arcades, which have become synonymous with Osaka shopping.
16.00 – 17.00: Maid cafe
Take a break from your afternoon of shopping at one of the area’s many maid cafes. A uniquely Japanese experience, maid cafes feature kawaii maids serving fluffy pancakes and sweet desserts, while entertaining, singing and playing games with customers. We opted to visit the especially family-friendly PopID, just a few minutes south of Kuromon Ichiba Market, which not only offers the full maid cafe experience, but is also something of a training grounds for aspiring ‘aidoru’, boasting their own pop idol trio Pigu, which occasionally performs on the café’s small stage.
After a healthy dose of retail therapy, it’s time to indulge in perhaps the greatest pleasure of a trip to Osaka: food. To be dubbed the ‘kitchen’ of a nation already renowned for its cuisine is no small feat, and Osaka dining lives up to the hype. Dotonbori, the city’s busiest and most popular nightlife district, is home to some of Osaka’s most iconic scenes and landmarks (such as the famous Glico man and the giant food displays outside most restaurants).
It also happens to be the best place to experience the city’s food culture. The numerous restaurants and stalls offer all of Osaka’s signature dishes, most notably takoyaki (small balls of batter filled with octopus and topped with different sauces), and stay open well into the night. The giant food displays found in front of Dotonbori’s restaurants signify what can be found inside, so let them guide you as you stroll from place to place sampling the city’s finest offerings. Most dishes can be taken out and enjoyed by the banks of the Dotonbori canal, amid the dazzling city lights.
Another option we highly recommend is Shinsekai, another popular food and entertainment district, this one with a bit of a nostalgic feeling to it due to its pre-WWII construction. It is the place to go to try kushikatsu, another city specialty consisting of deep-fried skewered meats and vegetables.
21.00: Misono Building
Osaka’s nightlife is wonderfully eclectic, from tiny izakaya to lively jazz pubs, hip craft beer joints to karaoke, video game-themed bars and all sorts of fun. Many of the districts mentioned so far offer great nightlife options, but we had our most memorable after dark experience at the Misono Building in Ura-Namba.
Alluringly dilapidated, the Misono building encompasses different venues, including a basement ball room and a small hotel, but head to the second and third floors to find rows of tiny bars lining the long, shabby hallways. The bars are all small and intimate, and some have rather interesting themes or gimmicks (our favorite was a Nintendo-themed bar, with retro gaming consoles and screens set up at regular intervals along the bar). Find one that appeals to you, or hop from one to the next (note that some have a small cover charge) for a drinking experience you can’t quite find anywhere else.
Choosing where to stay in Osaka can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not sure whether you would prefer to stay near Umeda or Namba, which are separated by a fair distance. You can’t really go wrong either way, but if you’re looking to find a place conveniently located somewhere between the two areas, you can’t do better than Shinsaibashi. Though admittedly closer to Namba in the south, this area can serve as a perfect base from which to explore the whole city.
We stayed at the Trusty Hotel Shinsaibashi, an excellent mid-range hotel, conveniently located just meters away from numerous convenience stores, restaurants and shops, and crucially, just minutes from the Shinsaibashi metro station with easy transfers to Namba, Yodobashi and Umeda stations. There is a buffet breakfast available, with Western and Japanese options, and the hotel is widely praised for its both its location and value for money.
Mind that even if you follow this itinerary to the letter, there is still plenty more to see and discover in Osaka, including the impressive Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium and Universal Studios in Osaka Bay. For more on what to do in Osaka, as well as flights, hotels, activities and tours, visit the new ArrivalGuides and join our exclusive Travel Club to get the best travel deals and lowest prices.
Our special thanks go out to the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau for their invaluable help in planning our trip to Osaka.