Osaka is a massive city in the heart of Kansai on the main island of Japan – Honshu, and is a bustling enigma of start contrasts and cutting edge charm. The 3rd biggest city in Japan, it is widely considered to be the key economic gearbox for the Kansai district and has been for centuries before.
Seeped in history and raw with character, Osaka has a certain intoxicating allure, famous not only for its extremely hard working and unpretentious community, but for its incredible cuisine and vibrant night life.
At first glance, you may be fooled into thinking that Osaka does not indeed have the sophisticated identity of the ever glamorous Tokyo however, you will almost immediately be pleasantly surprised. It has its very own unique energy and enthusiasm that will win you over in a heartbeat. Traditional townscapes jut in and out between dramatic cutting edge architecture that rolls over underground shopping districts and futuristic monuments, with a landscape that is complete with lush vegetation dotted all throughout the city.
The people of Osaka are a significant and distinctive component of the beating heart of this vivacious city – welcoming and bubbly; they certainly know a thing or two about embracing every aspect of the good life. Osakajins consider their warm and unique dialect to be somewhat of a national heritage, and remain immensely proud of their individuality.
Having just undergone some massive changes and improvements, it is clear the modern hand of infrastructure is everywhere, but it has made the city much easier to navigate and to explore the nooks and crannies of resplendent urban Japan.
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Best time to go
The temperate climate of Osaka brings a hot and humid summer, complete with a number of typhoons and a tropical squall or two to keep it interesting. Most of this happens during the months of June and July, and then after a few weeks of break, continues on during September. The best time of the year to visit Osaka is during the season of spring – from about March to the middle of April. It is most certainly the prettiest time of the year to visit, as all the parks are covered in a blanket of cherry blossoms.
If you are planning to visit anytime from the end of April to the beginning of May, you will be lucky enough to experience the Cherry Blossom Festival as well as the Golden Week. But because it is so popular, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can book at the last minute. Make sure you plan your trip well in advance and book your hotel early. There are many festivals throughout the year, but this one is one of the most popular.
Another good time to go is the months of October through to December. The daytime temperatures are cool to mild – about 20 C during the day, dropping off a little at night. Although it doesn’t really snow in Osaka, it does get quite cold during the months of January and February.
Depending how long you intend on staying, there are number of options to help to find your way around the city comfortably and easily. You can purchase an ICOCA Smart card, which is a rechargeable smart card with interchangeable use on any of the rail, bus or subway networks anywhere in Kansai, as well as Hiroshima, Okayama, Tokyo and Nagoya. You can pick them up at any of the vending machines at the rail stations.
If you are just popping through for a week, you might want to purchase an unlimited rail pass for Kintetsu. Offering unlimited travel for 5 days in a row, this covers quite an extensive network of areas.
The best pass for any visitor would probably be the Osaka Unlimited Pass, which comes in one and two day options. It offers selective but unlimited use of public transport, as well as free admission to popular tourist sites, discount vouchers as well as a comprehensive book about route suggestions, information and ideas on places to visit.
The subway in Osaka is one of the biggest in all of Japan, next to Tokyo and with signs in English as well as Japanese it is quite easy to get around underground. Just remember to keep your ticket handy as you will be asked for it when you leave the train.
If you are planning to stay longer that a few weeks, you may want to invest in a bicycle. The terrain is flat and easy to negotiate for the most part, and bike shops will help you locate and register your bike.
Major Attractions and Sights
There is an incredible selection of attractions and sights in Osaka for every age group and every interest. Hop from sky scrapers, museums, shrines, temples, a 400 year old castle and one of the world’s biggest aquariums. And if that is not enough, there is even the Osaka Universal Studios which is most certainly a worldwide attraction all in its own right. Here are some of the top attractions.
The Osaka Museum of History is an incredible showcase of Osaka’s rich 1400 year old history. Every single floor shows off a different era for the city, except for the top floor where there is a recreation of the interior of the Naniwanomiya Palace. This museum is a must see if you are visiting the city, and it is situated very near to another exciting attraction – The Osaka Castle Park.
The Floating Garden Observatory is one of those absolutely breath taking and incredible sites that are most definitely not for the faint hearted by any means. Located in the incredible Umeda Sky Building, the 12th tallest building in all of Japan, the observatory is a platform that connects the two 40 story towers at the rooftop. The views are absolutely unparalleled and the building has become something of a national landmark. Getting there is not bad unless you consider the last 5 floors that the escalator travels up – it crosses over from one tower to another and gives you a creepy sensation of floating in the air. There is also an underground market beneath the building which has been designed to recreate the Osaka of the 20th Century. Browse the beautiful gardens and see all the water features underneath the observatory at the base of the building.
The Osaka Castle is without a doubt one of the oldest populated places in all of Osaka. Having played a major role in the history of Japan in the 16th Century, it remains one of the most famous castles in the country today. Imposing, dramatic and entirely massive, it is a perfect showcase of the most magnificent and sensational architectural feats that were way ahead of its time There is a lovely park around the castle which is great place to relax and enjoy an afternoon with the family.
If you are visiting during the Cherry Blossom Festival the park is filled with vendors, musicians, food stalls and festivities in an open air market. And the best part, is admission to the castle grounds itself are free.
The Osaka Science Museum is an incredible museum that shows visitors into a world of science and energy. With one of the biggest planetarium screens in the world, this is one journey for all ages that must not be missed.
The Osaka Aquarium or Kaiyukan is without a doubt one of the biggest marine aquariums in the world. More than 15 tanks, 580 species of marine animals, almost 5 and half tons of water, and over 30,000 exciting animals from all over the Pacific Rim makes this one of the must see attractions of Osaka. They even have a giant whale shark in their tanks – which is the largest fish on earth.
The Sumiyoshi Taisha Grand Shrine is the most famous out of all of the 2000 Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. This one being the oldest, dates back to the 3rd Century.
Osaka does not really have a good reputation for the best place to buy all of your specifically Japanese goods. However, if you are in the market for lots of modern electronics, toys, clothes and other fancy items you are in luck, but the actual handicraft selection is pretty dismal.
The shopping district is generally divided into two areas – one around Osaka and Umdea stations, and the other around Namba station. Here in both areas, you will find lots of shopping districts, arcades, retailers, big department stores and some small boutiques.
The most famous shopping area is Shinsaibashi. Here you will find everything and more of everything – lots of high end designer stores from the west, lots of clothing shops, very trendy, hip and expensive. But you can also find a lot of local very inexpensive shop that offer some great deals on electronics, computers and lots of gadgets.
If you are looking for a great book shop with international as well as Japanese books, there are two great options – Kinokuniya at Umeda Station and Junkudo at Osaka Station. Osaka City Hall
Known for their culinary feats, there are an abundance of great places to eat and enjoy the local food all over Osaka, so many that it would be impossible to list them all. The mantra of Osaka gives a clue to the food culture here. “Kuidaore” or eat yourself into a stupor, will indicate that you are about to enjoy the feast of your life. Using seasonal and only the freshest ingredients around, you can enjoy some of the finest seafood as well as octopus, eel and even the lethally poisonous and huge delicacy of blowfish or fugu. Then there is the local sushi made in square wooden moulds – zushi and dumplings with ginger, octopus and spring onions – takoyaki.
If you are on a budget, you are in luck; there are loads of street vendors who can whip up the most mouth-watering deal for next to nothing. There is so much to choose from you might just have to try everything.
Then there is the Okonomiyaki, or DIY meal styled menu that you can find at some of the smaller restaurants, and you may enjoy the unique and interesting way to try some of Japan’s most delicious food. All the tables have built in hot plates in the middle and when you order, you receive your ingredients in a bowl – completely raw. And yes, you will be expected to cook it yourself. If you really can’t manage, the staff usually will oblige and give you a hand, all you have to do is ask.
Although the nightlife here in Osaka is perhaps not as exotic as what you may find in Tokyo, you will be delighted to know that you are still completely spoilt for choice. And depending on what you are looking for, there is plenty of entertainment to enjoy every single evening, provided you have not over eaten somewhere and need to go back to your hotel to lie down.
In the districts of Minami and Kita there are a number of energetic and festive bars, pubs and nightclubs, if you are looking for a serious night out on the town, with a bit of dancing, loud music and bright lights.If you are after something completely different, and you happen to be visiting in the month of March, you can get tickets to one of the 6 national sumo wrestling tournaments which are held here. And grab the chance to be able to see what goes on with this fascinating and unusual wrestling sport.
If you are not after either one of those and would like to spend an evening with something a little more traditional, a bit quieter and something more cultural, then Osaka won’t disappoint. Known far and wide as the best place to see the traditional art of Japanese puppet theatre, or bunraku, you can get tickets to see performances at the Osakad National Bunraku Theatre. You can also book to see kabuki here, or at the Sho-chiku-za Kabuki Theatre, and there is an exciting schedule of plays and other cultural events throughout the year.
Anything of local interest
Cherry Tree Blossom Festival – Spring
Every year marking the beginning of springtime in Osaka, and as the city explodes into a carpet of Cherry Blossoms, there is a festival that is held from March right up until the middle of April. The Osaka Castle Park is well known for being one of the premier places in all of Osaka for viewing the blossoms, and the park that is open 24 hours is filled with stalls, vendors, drummers and loads of people who gather here to experience the festivities. Entrance to the park is free of charge and you can even pop in and view the blossoms at night.
Shinno Matsuri Festival – Fall
At the end of November for two days, the Shinno Matsuri Festival is held. One of the small Sukunahikona shrines will be overwhelmed with people who will be arriving to give thanks in a celebration, honouring the momentous occasion in 1822. There was a massive outbreak of cholera and the government distributed all of the medicine for cholera to the public. Now considered a Shrine of the Health and Medicine gods, this is one of the most important festivals in Osaka. When you go, don’t forget to buy a little paper tiger charm that is intended to protect you from diseases.