Everyone is flocking to Tokyo. But what about a city that offers all the deliciousness, culture, intrigue and beauty, without as much bustle and generally some better prices too?
Osaka is hardly ever the first city most people think of when they start planning their Japan trip. With so many bloggers writing entries about Tokyo or Kyoto, you’d think maybe those are the only two cities worth visiting.
If you’re willing to dig a little deeper and enjoy interacting with locals when you travel, then Osaka is definitely a Tokyo alternative, or trip complement, well worth exploring. Known for its comedians, “Takoyaki” and lighthearted people, Osaka and the greater Kansai region definitely has soul.
Osaka is the major city in the Western half of Japan. Stereotypes of the typical Osakan are shrewd business people who are thrifty, yet have no qualms with blowing their paychecks on food and drink.
It is within that spirit that you find that Osaka is a town that is not pretentious, sometimes gritty, but chock full of affordable but high quality eating and drinking. 48 Hours in Osaka will leave you with a smile and most definitely an expanded waistline.
Arrival Into Osaka
Most visitors to Osaka typically arrive by rail from Tokyo or Kyoto on the bullet train. Osaka’s “Shin Osaka Station” makes for easy connection to downtown via the Osaka Metro(subway), located down the escalators once you exit the turnstiles from the Bullet Train portion of the station.
The “Midosuji Line” is a direct connection to Osaka’s two busiest parts of town, Umeda and Minami (home to Namba and Shinsaibashi)
If you arrive by a direct flight into Osaka, you’ll end up at Kansai International Airport (KIX). From there, if you happen to have a Japan Rail Pass, you can take the JR Haruka Airport Express train to Tennoji or Shin-Osaka station and take the metro or a cab to your lodging.
If the Rail Pass isn’t a factor, the fastest way into town is the Nankai Rapi:t Airport Express which takes 45 minutes and drops you off in the heart of the action in Namba.
Getting Around Osaka
Osaka is a top 3 major city in Japan, and as such the public transportation is very good.
Rail would be your most affordable bet, with the JR Loop Line and Osaka Metro Subway lines getting you to pretty much anywhere worth going while in town. Definitely download an offline version of Google Maps for Osaka before you head out on the streets.
Uber is available but only in Uber Taxi form as of writing.
Where to Stay In Osaka
Osaka has plenty of options for all kinds of budgets and types of travelers. Primarily divided into two areas: The North Ward (Umeda and Kita-Ku) and the South Ward (Namba and Shinsaibash known colloquially by locals as “Minami” which is Japanese for south).
Don’t go looking for a Kyoto style Ryokan in Osaka however; this is a big city! Whether you’re balling out or balling on a budget, you can find a place to suit your wallet.
Hotel Options And More
Starting “North” and heading “South”, Umeda (North) is home to most chains, including a Westin, a brand new Intercontinental, Hilton and Ritz-Carlton.
For solo travelers on more of a budget, you can stay at the First Cabin Nishi-Umeda for a unique experience. Like the different cabins on a commercial airliner, the hotel is divided into First and Business class.
First class has rooms averaging $70USD per night with your own 32 inch Televsion, twin bed, safe and 4.4 square meters of personal space. Business Class is essentially just sliding door opening to a bed with 2.5 square meters of space.
Don’t fret though as there is a TV and a safe built into the bed itself. You do get to experience a Japanese communal bath for a “Onsen on a budget” type of feel.
Getting A Feel For The Neighborhood
A few minutes south of these hotels in Nakanoshima, you will find a quasi brand new Conrad and the Rihga Royal Hotel, which has been around for over 80 years and while considered a luxury hotel, has cheaper rooms often found under $100 on one side of the property.
In Honmachi, which is halfway between the North and South wards, you will find the St. Regis Osaka which has a beautiful terrace, complete with Japanese garden, on the twelfth floor for cocktails.
Honmachi is also home to a plethora of mid-level accommodations as well as business hotels (if you ever see the APA brand of hotels or Mitsui Garden Hotels show up on your travel site those two are safe bets for a clean and tidy room that won’t break the budget anywhere in Japan)
Shinsaibashi is the start of the South Ward/Minami and home to the Nikko Hotel owned by the Japan Airlines group. Rooms can be found for under $200 and while they aren’t the biggest, the location and access to the subway station make this a top choice for those staying around Minami.
Given that this is a highly touristy area, there are many hotels to choose from. By the Namba train station is the upscale Swissotel Nankai, which is also very convenient if you are arriving by air to Kansai airport since the train station is connected to the hotel itself.
What to See & Do In Osaka
Osaka Castle is the primary landmark in Osaka. I’ll give you an insider tip: don’t bother going inside. It’s been gutted and turned into a museum. What you should do is grab a coffee and take a walk around the castle grounds because it is a beautiful outdoor park.
The Osaka Aquarium, or “Kaiyukan” as it is known, is a giant aquarium specializing in fish and species from the Pacific Rim. The prized spectacle here is a nine meter by thirty four meter giant Whale Shark habitat.
Dotombori Canal in Shinsaibashi/Namba area is the number one photo op spot for that “I went to Osaka” photo. Best go at night, when all the neons are lit up. Consider it Osaka’s version of Piccadilly Circus. Bonus points for posing as the “Glico Man” in front of their Neon.
Want that perfect “I Went to a Temple” photo without having to schlep around Kyoto?
Head to Sumiyoshi Taisha. Complete with temples, a beautiful bridge over a pond, and a surrounding neighborhood which is like a walk back in time, Sumiyoshi Taisha is a perfect way to spend a little time in the afternoon.
Tsutentaku Tower is another famous Osaka landmark located in the Shinsekai neighborhood. While known to locals as a seedier part of town, it originally was made to mirror the more posh global cities like New York or Paris (With Tsutenkaku Tower being the Eiffel Tower-like centerpiece of the area).
Things to eat in this part of town? Fugu, or Japanese blowfish, at the famous Zuboraya restaurant and Kushi-Katsu, fried skewers of meats and vegetables but we’ll get to that in the food section below for better options elsewhere.
What Osaka might lack in big ticket tourist attractions and glitz and glamour it surely makes up for in food. Forget Jiro and the notion that Japan is all about exclusive restaurants and bank breaking dinner tabs.
This is a town that’s about giving you maximum bang for the buck and believe me, if you can’t pump out maximum flavor for your yen, savvy Osakans will put you out of business quickly.
For where the locals eat? You can’t miss with hopping around Osaka’s lively Fukushima neighborhood, accessible by the JR Loop line (Fukushima Stop) just west of Umeda in the North. There’s literally hundreds of little restaurants and pubs all around the train station and you can wander around the little alleys and sneak into a few places.
Let’s start with Takoyaki, THE Osaka dish.
It’s a starchy, circular puff filled with a piece of Octopus, some tempura batter and finely chopped ginger and scallion. Smothered in a savory sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and finely ground seaweed and bonito shavings, most neighborhoods in Osaka have street side vendors flipping these for a quick take home meal or a spot to stand and enjoy a beer with friends.
My favorite spot? The low key and lively “Takoya”. Try the “Sauce Mayo” takoyaki for a traditional start on your takoyaki adventure. If octopus isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of other interesting and fun Japanese pub-style plates to choose from as well as some top flight sakes.
What’s a trip to Japan without some top ranked Wagyu?
Also a few minutes walk from the Fukushima station is an amazing Japanese BBQ restaurant, “Ushigatari”. The owner Mr. Yamaguchi, is from a family of Cattle ranchers from Yamagata Prefecture, home to a beef so exclusive, it only makes up for about 5% of all Wagyu consumed domestically and never for export.
Kobe beef? played out. THIS is the real deal. He only uses meat from his family’s ranch and fresh cuts are delivered daily.
Making our way south, in the basement of the aforementioned Rihga Royal Hotel, is an Osaka Sushi establishment with roots dating back to the year 1653. “Sushi Man” specializes in Osaka style sushi, which is different from the Edo-mae (Tokyo) style of sushi (and a conversation to be had with your chef about the differences when you arrive as part of the fun).
Whether its a la carte, or a coursed Omakase, you won’t find pretentious chefs here or the need for a reservation months in advance. You’re welcome.
Heading further South back to the Namba area, another Osaka staple is Kushi-Katsu. Kushi meaning stick, and Katsu being a Japanese-English abbreviation of Cutlet. Meats, fish and vegetables all skewered up, dipped in a batter and deep fried to a golden color is a must-eat while in Osaka.
There’s plenty of places to choose from that are very low key but my suggestion for your first time is “Kushi No Bou” in Namba. It’s a more upscale version than you’d find compared to the street food, standing room only type of places. Here too you can do either a la carte or an Omakase style.
How about some Korean food? Osaka is home to the largest enclave of Koreans and Korean descendants in Japan. If you’re feeling adventurous and don’t mind getting lost in a maze of vendors of Kimchi and BBQ restaurants, take a trip on the JR Loop line to Tsuruhashi station and get lost in the maze of markets below.
Want an easier alternative? Head to ”Shokudoen” just past the famous Dotombori Canal on Soemoncho Street. The place has been around forever and you can get some amazing beef to grill and eat some delicious Korean dishes as well. The place has a a truly unique vibe that is a trip back in time. Can’t miss it!
That’s it! Enjoy Osaka
If you happen to have extra time or a few extra days, Kobe is a great place to visit and close to Osaka. If world heritage sites and buddhism tickle your fancy, you can head south to Wakayama and visit Mt. Koya and stay at an actual buddhist temple as well.
Kyoto on your mind? here’s a pro tip: lodging in Osaka is going to be much cheaper and Kyoto is only a 15 minute bullet train ride away with the rail pass, or a 40 minute commuter train ride away.