Osaka is a bustling city, known more for its shopping and nightlife than for its rich historical elements, though those can certainly be found as well. The third-largest city in Japan, Osaka is home to nearly 3 million people and has a bit of everything, from covered shopping avenues lined with savory street delicacies to the oldest castles and temples in the country. This guide will make it easy for travelers to sample the delights of this eclectic centre of commerce and easily find Osaka hotels for rest and rejuvenation.
Getting around Osaka
This city has travel taken care of, with seven separate train and bus lines waiting to whisk you from one sight to another for modest transportation costs. Japan Rail West, or JR West lines are most common. They run the main loop between North (Kita) and South (Namba) Osaka, and also manage the bullet trains traveling between major cities. In addition, three subway lines, multiple private bus companies, ferries, taxis, and car and bike rentals are also available to help you get around. For visitors, the Osaka Amazing Pass allows for unlimited subway and bus rides, along with free entrance to many popular sites. It is well worth the investment if you’ll be visiting several sites.
Essential Japanese for foreign travelers
While many people–both residents and fellow travellers–will speak English in Osaka, it’s always appreciated when visitors attempt to learn the language of the land. Here are a handful of phrases you can use while visiting hotspots throughout all of Japan.
- Konnichiwa. (kon-nee-chee-WAH) – Hello.
- Hajimemashite. (hah-jee-meh-MOSH-teh) – Nice to meet you.
- Sayounara. (sigh-uh NAR-rah)- Good bye.
- Onegai shimasu. (oh-neh-gigh shee-moss) – Please.
- Doumo arigatou. (doh-moh ah-ree-GAH-toh) – Thank you.
- Hai. (HIGH) – Yes.
- Iie. (EE-eh) – No.
- Sumimasen. (su-mee-mah-SEN) – Excuse me.
- Toire wa doko desu ka?(tah-OY-ray-wa do-ko-DES-uh-ka) – Where is the bathroom?
- And perhaps the most important phrase in Osaka: Ikura desu ka. (ICK-ku-rah DES-uh-kah) – How much is this?
You may have heard that ATMs in Japan are closed after-hours and on weekends, along with other curious facts. The truth is a little trickier than that. While your major credit cards are likely to be accepted by many shops and hotels, you’ll need to access an international ATM in order to get cash needed for tips and smaller stores. You can start out your trip with a sizable exchange at the airport, but running back and forth to banks or exchange counters throughout the city will greatly increase your transaction fees. Instead, look for the ATMs available 24 hours a day at any 7-Eleven or at the Osaka Post Office. (Although, be warned, in Japan even “24 hours” has certain restrictions.)
Well-known for its thriving foodie culture, Osaka is the hometown of a handful of dishes now popular throughout Japan and the globe. In particular, Takoyaki, or grilled octopus, is sold in abundance all over the city. Kushikatsu, skewered foods that are deep fried, Okonomiyaki, a mix of vegetables and pancake batter served at your table, and Kitsune Udon, a serving of fried tofu on top of traditional udon noodles are popular local fare.
Osaka Station City
Osaka Station City is a safe bet for any tourist just arriving in Osaka who wants a bite to eat. It’s also very easy to reach by train, and as the most beautiful train station in Japan, it’s a must-see. Packed with stores, restaurants and activities, as well as providing a practical link to the rest of Osaka, a stop here is a fast introduction to all the city has to offer.
Dotonbori is the best place for dining in Osaka. The bright lights and busy environment is reminiscent of both Tokyo and Times Square, set against the backdrop of an urban river and streets lined with charming eateries as well as affordable food cart vendors. It’s a must-see while visiting Japan, and an easy walk from Shinsaibashi Station.
Nearby, shopping sprees await in Shinsaibashi, one of the largest shopping complexes in the city. The area is home to numerous low-priced shopping options. The covered avenue allows for hours of browsing especially on rainy days. People can truly “shop-til-they-drop,” as low prices, a wide selection of merchandise and a safe, appealing area make for a major tourist attraction.
Grand Front Osaka
The newly opened Grand Front Osaka, a monolithic shopping mall, is easy to access from JR Osaka Station, by train or taxi. The multi-building complex incorporates several large retail installations–such as the three-story Panasonic store where visitors are encouraged to sample the company’s latest advancements–multiple skyscrapers, a 48-floor apartment building and more. Topped with gardens and connected to several other buildings via skywalks, the shopping destination is still in its newborn stages. While as grand as it already is, development isn’t expected to be complete until 2025.
Many cities in Japan have tourist attractions which are almost exclusively historic or religious in nature. While Osaka has its fair share of cultural sites, it also excels in providing tourists and residents alike with modern amenities.
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Namba Park is reminiscent of Chicago’s Navy Pier. A giant Ferris wheel and numerous family friendly stops dot the lane between the shopping district and one of the city’s top tourist features, the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan (pictured above). This world-renown aquarium provides patrons with an immersive experience which makes you feel you’re part of the exhibit. You move through different levels of the aquarium as if you’re descending deeper into the sea. Children can also purchase a passport at the start of their trip, and collect stamps as they move through different exhibits. The aquarium is just a short walk from Osakako station, or it can be the final destination in a walk from thriving shopping and entertainment areas.
Universal Studios Japan
One of the most popular is Universal Studios Japan. The theme park is very similar to other branches found throughout the world, with rides created around popular films of the past. One of the most sought-after experiences is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Special tickets, called Express Passes, are needed to guarantee you’ll get in and that you won’t have to wait all day (literally) in line. Without the Express Pass, entrance to the Harry Potter exhibits and rides are by lottery only.
Floating Garden Observatory
The Floating Garden observation deck located on the top of the Umeda Sky Building sports lush greenery during summertime and spectacular city views throughout the year. It’s especially breathtaking at night, and a perfect spot for taking pictures that embrace the vibrancy and elegance that can be found in Osaka. In the basement of the Umeda Sky Building, visitors will find themselves transported back to the 1920s, strolling through Takimikoji, a recreation installment featuring restaurants, shops and other quaint elements hailing back to a much simpler time in Japan.
The National Museum of Art, Osaka
Taking a jump back to the future is easy with a trip to The National Museum of Art, Osaka. The exhibits consist mainly of Japanese art in many styles, with foreign work from contemporary masters. The exterior of the building is a masterpiece in itself. Built in 2007, it’s wire-frame structure is meant to mimic the growth of another national treasure, bamboo.
Kids Plaza Osaka
The Kids Plaza Osaka opened in 1997–the first children’s museum in Japan–dedicated to helping kids learn through hands-on exploration. The site is several stories high, and hosts impressive interactive exhibits that allow kids the chance to relax and unwind while tackling some of the toughest questions of our time. Critical thinking at its most comical, the popularity of the Kids Plaza says it all. Servicing up to 400,000 kids every year, the facility offers plentiful opportunities for free play as well as scheduled events, like cooking classes.
Roman baths and water parks? They’re rolled into one at Spa World, the largest natural spring complex in the world. This comes through in the number of services they provide as well. Come for a soak or spa treatments like haircuts and shaves (for men), hot and cold baths, saunas, steam and salt rooms, or visit a themed room highlighting other famous spa locales around the world. Just be warned that men and women are separated here, everyone is expected to go nude and there is a strict policy against tattoos. The best part of Spa World, however, is not found indoors; you can find kids of all ages enjoying splash pads and water slides at the water park on the roof.
No trip to a Japanese city would be complete without delving into exciting history and culture of the area. Here, again, Osaka has so much to offer.
Osaka Castle (pictured above) provide guests with a walking tour of ancient articles, displayed through a mix of traditional exhibits, 3D and hologram technology. Though enjoying the exterior, moat and gardens here are free of charge. It makes for a relaxing day where kids can be allowed to run themselves weary at the playground found just inside the entrance. However, from just outside the castle, you can enjoy spectacular 360 degree views of the surrounding city, including the cherry blossoms crowding the castle in spring.
Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Japan, and you may note it has a unique design. Constructed before the influx of Buddhism, the architecture here is uniquely Japanese. Besides the main shrine, many smaller structures are dedicated to popular spirits. The area provides guests with a quiet spot in the mornings, but many locals come here to pray and to host religious ceremonies, including weddings. You can keep an eye out for the on “Taian” days. Stop by, ring the bell, pray for good luck or pick up a “blessed” maneki neko charm (lucky beckoning cat) after stopping by the small cat shrine on the grounds. Because it’s near the Hankai Tramway, it makes a wonderful tourist trip to a laid-back area steeped in early Japanese architecture and culture.
Shitennoji Temple is the oldest in Japan, and has an architectural style named after its symmetrical design. Built over 1400 years ago, the 5-story pagoda is still strong enough to allow people to climb to its top. The area is quite serene, and the interior is filled with intriguing sculptures and fine art.
For one of the most unique shrines you’ll see anywhere in the world, head to the Namba Station and head toward Namba Yasaka. This small shrine makes a tremendous impression. The structure surrounding it is sculpted to resemble the head of a Japanese Lion, its jaws opened wide, cradling everyone and everything inside between its teeth. The Shinto Tug-of-War festival is held here every year in January, too, with thick, eight-stranded rope lengths used in competitions between rival groups.
National Bunraku Theatre
Dedicated to traditional Japanese puppet theater, the National Bunraku Theatre offers masterful storytelling, music and productions using puppets still made using old-world methods. English translation is available through headphones in the ticket area, though beware, one performance can last all day. Tickets are purchased per act, with a long intermission between them. Throughout the performance, there are a few short breaks for stretching your legs, or to eat your packed lunch in the lobby, as many locals do. It’s most advisable to get seats up front, to the right of the stage if possible, and to take advantage of the long intermission by stretching your feet. During the summer, there are early, shorter shows for children that also demonstrate how the puppets are made and used.
The cherry blossoms
As cherry trees bloom every spring, the entire country of Japan explodes in a flurry of soft, pink petals and soft fragrances that waft through the air. Osaka is one of the choicest spots in the country for experiencing this annual arrival, and not surprisingly, there are top spots in the city for watching the blooms unfold.
The park surrounding Osaka Castle is home to over 4000 cherry trees, and in early April they surround the ancient structure in a cloud of blossoms. The ethereal effect is a favourite of photographers, and the image has become iconically associated with this special time of year.
Expo 70 Commemorative Park
Expo 70 Commemorative Park marks the spot of the 1970 World Expedition. Held in Osaka, the site was later cleared for public use, with the grounds rimmed with 5000 cherry trees. A series of lights highlight the trees, making for a spectacular nighttime presentation.
Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park was established at the site of a flower exhibition held in 1990. A series of small gardens was created throughout the property, with cherry trees strategically placed for providing shelter and accentuating the other displays on the grounds. Tsurumi Ryokuchi is a popular place for romantic picnics and lazy days spent relaxing. Both nature and garden lovers will find this a popular place for taking pictures.
Along the Okawa River, you will find over 5000 cherry trees lining the promenades of Kema Sakuranomiya Park (pictured above). This is an especially popular site for tourists. While there are wide swaths of areas perfect for picnicking near seemingly endless waves of blossom-bearing branches, river tours also take advantage of the early spring scenery. The park is also the site of the Japan Mint, where coin currency is made in Japan. Tours are available of both the mint and attached museum. In addition, there are 300 cherry trees specially planted to bloom in mid-April, once the other blooms in the area have started to fade.
Busy streets and tasty treats can be found throughout Osaka. The cornerstone of the Kansai region, it offers travellers some of the best shopping available in Japan–from luxury brands to bottom-dollar bargains–as well as a generous offering of arts and entertainment, historical treasures and natural beauty. It’s the perfect destination with which to kick off your trip to Japan or bring an end to your adventures.