Osaka travel guide: what to do in Osaka

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Where is Osaka?

Osaka is a port city on the south coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island. It’s the second-largest metropolis in Japan and the fastest-growing destination city in the world, with a 24% spike in international visitors since 2009.

Why visit Osaka?

Osaka is home to innovative dining, ancient kingdoms and cutting-edge boutiques. From elegant shopping parades lined by illuminated trees to spectacular hiking trails and show-stopping seafood, it’s an incredibly diverse and exciting travel destination. What’s more, it’s a little less well-known that its sister cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, so it’s worth getting in there for a taste of Japanese culture minus the bigger tourist crowds. Also, the food in Osaka is legendary – even by Japanese standards.

What is the weather like in Osaka?

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As it sits towards the south of Japan, Osaka has relatively mild winters and hot, humid summers. From December-March, temperatures hover around the 7°C mark (45°F) and it’s also the driest time of year. From March onwards, temperatures and rainfall both climb. From June to August, the mercury will regularly head into the late 20s°C (mid 80s°F) or beyond, although rainfall tails back a bit in August: making it the hottest, driest and sunniest summer month.

Spring is a really nice time to visit Osaka, with warm yet comfortable days in the early 20s°C (late 60s°F) and cherry blossom season kicking in during the first week of April. The same goes for October and early November, where you’ll still get warm days outside the peak summer season, along with glorious autumnal colours.

What to do in Osaka?

Osaka certainly isn’t short on choices when it comes to finding things to do. Your average day out here might see you doing anything from visiting Osaka Castle to hiking in Mino Park, marvelling at the city’s indie boutiques or chasing down that perfect bowlful of kitsune udon. It doesn’t hurt that Osaka is also magnetically attractive, with neon lights, beautiful sights and game-changing street food that’s as good to look at as it is to eat.

Here are the best things to do in Osaka:

Treat yourself to a food safari

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Osaka is known as a city of “kuidaore” meaning “eat till you drop”. Cuisine is a serious business here, and locals spend most of their wages on food and drink. When you visit, you’ll see why. Downtown Osaka is a searing chorus of regional delicacies that you just won’t be able to say no to. There’s so much on offer here, from elegant fine dining to casual street fare, and everything in-between. The city’s proximity to the sea and the mountains, plus its position on a calm inland channel, means a rich heritage of ingredients are readily available. Plus, the city has historically veered off the tourist map – meaning the foodie scene has developed to satisfy the demanding tastes of a regular crowd first and foremost.

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Start by joining the locals at a tachinomi (standing bar) for cheap and tasty kushikatsu – bamboo skewers of deep-fried meat and vegetables. Panko breadcrumbs cushion these moreish morsels of beef, tiger prawns, tomatoes or even cheese. They’re often served with a punchy tonkatsu sauce, and are literally the best thing you’ll ever taste on a stick. Head to Osaka’s Tsutenkaku district for the best kushikatsu in town. Battered flour-based snacks are also popular on the streets of Osaka: make room in your eating schedule for okonomiyaki (pancakes filled with grilled squid or pork) and takoyaki (delicious dumplings filled with nuggets of fried octopus).

Next up: kitsune udon. You can eat this wheat flour noodle broth topped with sweetened fried tofu anywhere in Japan, but it originates from Osaka and you’ll find it has a distinct and lighter flavour here (especially compared to the zestier palette of Tokyo). Savour the tofu – all fluffy and juicy from being marinated in a sweet, salty sauce – and we challenge you not to go back for more. Locals rate Dotombori Imai Honten as one of the best udon restaurants around.

Sample some fine dining

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For a real experience, try one of Osaka’s kappo restaurants. Kappo – meaning to cook with fire or cut up food with knives – is a Japanese fine-dining concept that features high-end food without the residue formality. Chefs and customers get to face one another across the counter, and guests can ask questions as the cooking wizardry unfolds in front of them.

Expect fancy nosh: grilled barracuda, kinmedai sashimi (made from golden eye snapper) and delicate puffs of tempura are just a few of the beautifully prepared courses that might head your way. And the interactive element is a delight; kappo restaurants typically don’t serve more than 12 diners a night, so chefs can talk to the guests in an intimate, friendly environment. As a treat, book a table at Naniwakappo Kigawa.

Explore a shopping super-mall

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If you thought you knew shopping, think again – because Osaka’s rich labyrinth of boutiques leaves everything else in the shade. This relatively compact city is brimming with unique retail opportunities, some of which are an outing in themselves (no matter what you buy). Take Tenjinbashisuji, a glowing example of Japan’s famed shotengai – covered “market highways”.

Stretching 2.6 kilometres, a stroll around Tenjinbashisuji provides something of a workout and with over 600 stores, it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of undiscovered delights. Although it’s slightly more touristy than other places in the city, you really can pick up anything here – from progressive streetwear to beautifully designed stationery and the proverbial kitchen sink (probably). Oh, and there’s plenty of opportunity for street food, too, should you need fuel for your wanderings.

Get to know the buzzing Minami district

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Love to explore and hunt down a treasure or two? Don’t miss a visit to Tokyu Hands in the heart of the buzzing Minami district. This cavernous shopping kingdom is home to a whole realm of things you never knew you needed. In the dental health area alone, there are over 400 varieties of toothbrush on display. Lose yourself in colourful aisles lined by giant spools of fabric, admire gleaming state-of-the-art Japanese cooking knives or stock up on some of the best gadgets known to mankind.

This is a real haven for art-and-crafters: whether you’re after specialist brush pens or work equipment, you’ll find it here. While you’re there, grab a few of the store’s “hint files”; free takeaway life hacks that cover such burning dilemmas as, “how to thoroughly clean a kitchen” and “useful ways to tie knots”.

Market-wise, hit up Sennichimae Doguyasuji for all the kitchenware you could possibly want, and Nipponbashi Denden Town for electrical appliances.

Pop by Midosuji Street

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While you’re in Minami, make a beeline for Midosuji Street, a wide tree-lined boulevard that has been likened to Japan’s version of the Champs Elysees. This parade reaches across four kilometres of central Osaka, connecting Minami with the equally popular Kita neighbourhood. Picturesque ginkgo trees line either side of the street, lighting up at night and turning yellow during the autumn – so shoppers are framed by a wealth of billowing ochre ribbons.

This is the destination of high-end brands: think Dior, Chanel, Armani and a flagship Apple store. But even if you don’t plan on splashing the cash, it’s worth a visit for the glorious urban landscape alone. Better still, you can admire dozens of sculptures by world-famous names, including Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Kotaro Takamura.

Browse the indie boutiques of Horie

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For something a little different, take a stroll around Osaka’s peaceful Horie district. Enveloped by rivers on all four sides, Horie has a relaxed and youthful air away from the typical downtown hubbub. This is for you if you like discovering little one-off boutiques and ateliers. Interior design shops sit side-by-side with cafes and quirky clothing stores – many of which have been renovated from former apartment complexes and tenant buildings, giving the place a creative, start-up feel. You’ll also find America-mura (American Village) packed with vibrant streetwear here.

Visit Osaka Castle

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Osaka Castle is a great example of just how diverse Osaka’s scenery can be. This gleaming beacon stands in relief to the contemporary urban landscape: a sprawl of moats, turrets and walls created by a 16th Century warlord. The main tower rises up majestically amid hectares of cherry trees, plum orchards and pristine gardens. Climb up the tower to see Osaka, in all its noise and bustle, spilling out below you. Drink in the panorama before exploring the gorgeous park, with potted plant markets here and open-air concerts there.

During spring, the park comes alive with the pink and white sea of cherry blossom, while autumn sees the onset of picturesque koyo (colourful leaves). Climb aboard a golden Gozabune boat to admire Osaka Castle with new eyes. This is a lovely way to travel, and you’ll get to explore the moats and stone walling up close, too.

Hike your heart out in Mino Park

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A popular hiking trail for locals and visitors alike, Mino Park lies 30 minutes’ north from the city. Meander your way through the wooded valley before arriving at the Mino waterfall, a spectacular wonder fringed by mountains, a pretty red bridge and trees that glow rouge and amber during autumn months. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could head further into Mino’s scenic natural park. Or, walk along the pathways to one of the inviting lantern-lit terraces that line the riverbank for an evening aperitif.

See the neon lights at Ebisubashi bridge

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Back into the heart of the city, and the iconic Ebisubashi bridge pivots across Osaka’s Dotonbori Canal. Known as “pick-me-up bridge” for its fabled romantic qualities, the landmark is put to better use as a point from which to admire the city’s mesmerising infusion of neon lights. Vintage theatre signs compete with restaurant motifs, flashing advertisements and, of course, the legendary 33m Glico Man illumination.

Together, they form an all-flashing, dazzling cityscape that wows at every turn. While you’re here, pick up some okonomiyaki or takoyaki from a nearby street stall and settle in for a spot of people-watching: worth every second.

Watch the sunset at Abeno Harukas

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No visit to Osaka would be complete without a visit to Abeno Harukas in the Tennoji district. Japan’s tallest skyscraper hovers at 300 metres, with a mall, art museum and an observation deck right at the top. “Harukas 300”, as its known, boosts floor-to-ceiling windows that spread across the top three floors of the tower. Open till 10pm daily, make this your evening spot as the lowering sun bathes the city in a pinkish glow.

Flash Pack’s Japan itinerary covers everything from mountain hiking to lunch with a sumo wrestler, and includes a pit stop in Osaka. Discover more about it here.

Images: Shutterstock, Unsplash

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