Japan - Getting to know Osaka

Twice capital of Japan and inhabited for at least seven thousand years, it’s little wonder that Osaka is Tokyo’s traditional rival, with each city taking great pains to point out the other’s flaws and differences. To the visitor, there are significant parallels, too - Osaka is another lively sprawl of dense urbanity, an almost overwhelming explosion of sensory input. But this historic merchant city, split by the broad Yodo river and centred on a chocolate-box castle, has a deep-rooted character of its own, and deserves more than time-worn comparisons.

Japan Osaka Travel Guide

If you only have a short stay in Osaka, start with the food and sake, which are world renowned, thanks to a plentiful supply of high quality ingredients from the surrounding region, the city’s port, and long-established merchants with preferential connections. Once home to a high proportion of Japan’s historic merchant class, the city retains a thriving trade and shopping culture, including the longest commercial street in Japan. 

Dotonbori, a tourist hotspot since the 1600s, is the best known district for food and nightlife. Namba and Shinsaibashi are Osaka’s main shopping districts - here you’ll find the international designers and high street favourites - while Den Den Town is otaku-central, with an array of electronics, manga, anime and cosplay. 

The older Japanese performing arts are also well represented; the Osaka region started kabuki theatre, and those distinctive woodblock prints, called ukiyo-e, which many of us recognise as the archetypal Japanese art style. The city also developed several other classic arts, such as puppet theatre and traditional comedy.

All are still performed here, along with more recent phenomena like the philharmonic orchestra and ballet. Sports thrive here, too, with annual professional sumo, and regular baseball. The city is famous as home to the Hanshin Tigers, a baseball team so ardently supported that its fans are known to leap into the canal to celebrate a win.

What to do in Osaka

  • Gorge yourself on local favourite foodie treats like tako tamago (a baby octopus stuffed with a quail’s egg, on a stick), okonomiyaki (filled savoury pancakes) and takoyaki (deep fried octopus-filled batter-balls).
  • If you’re a drinker, try the sake! Some of the best sakes can be found in Osaka. Craft beer also enjoys a strong scene here.
  • After your sake and octopus balls, find a private karaoke booth and sing, screech or howl a few hours away in classic salaryman style.
  • Watch a performance - from puppet theatre to pro baseball, Osakan entertainment is all about putting on a good show.

Getting off the trail in Osaka

  • Osaka Castle has been restored many times over centuries of - well, doing its job as a defensive structure, really, and being set on fire several times in the process.These days the pretty wooden structure seems more charming than threatening, sitting atop sheer stone ramparts and surrounded by cherry trees.
  • Explore the latest trends in chichi streets like Orange Street (Tachibana Dori), where lifestyle boutiques and excellent coffee shops inform the city’s in-crowd.
  • Amerikamura (American Village) is a district of Osaka where American pop culture is absorbed, shaken up, reinterpreted and given a distinctly Japanese twist. You might be wondering why you’d visit Japan just to drop into a burger joint, but Japan’s fascination with Americana goes back to its occupation by US GI’s after WWII. It can be easier to appreciate an unfamiliar country’s culture when you see it reinterpret something you know pretty well, so Amerikamura is interesting for that reason, too.

Shitennō-ji, which was the first Buddhist temple in Japan, is in Osaka