The second largest metropolitan area in Japan, Osaka is the capital city of the Osaka Prefecture in the Kansai Region, located on the southern-central region of Japan’s Honshu Island. The city was known as a merchant city back in the olden days, serving as the country’s main hub for rice trade. These days, it’s also all about the food — and it’s multi-coloured flashy walking streets, and the contrast of towering skyscrapers surrounding old-charm castles and temples of the ancient Japanese capital.
I was visiting Osaka with my mother and my brother, and we spent a couple of days in the city, with day trips to the many other cities in the region in between our stay. Getting around Osaka to visit the sights and attractions was pretty convenient with the city’s well-connected rail system — I used my JR pass (which I had been using to get around the Kansai area) for the JR train lines, and the ICOCA card for the other loop. So here’s sharing with you my top 10 favorite things to do in the city — I’m sure you’ll love Osaka as much as I did.
1. Osaka Castle
The most important landmark in Osaka is the Osaka Castle. Steeped with 450 years of history — the castle is not only visually stunning, it also played a big role in the 16th century reunification of Japan. It was built in 1583, rebuilt in 1620, and reconstructed again in 1920. The present look of the 5-storey castle is from a refurbishment in 1997. There is a lift that takes visitors straight up to the 5th floor — and from there, we slowly made our way down while exploring the many floors that is now a historical museum. It showcases the castle’s history, and those of its ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
The castle grounds are also worth exploring — it is surrounded by a moat, citadels, gates, turrets, stone walls, and a beautiful park. Entrance to the castle costs JP¥600 (US$5.5). The Osaka Castle Park is free to roam (it is a hot spot during cherry blossom season) — and it was beautiful in autumn too.
A visit to Osaka is not complete with a visit to the lively entertainment district of Dotonburi. It is home of the ‘Glico Man’ on the confectionery company’s billboard, which bears so much significance and meaning that it has become a notable landmark in the city since its installation in 1935. You can’t say you’ve been to Osaka until you take a picture with the ‘Glico Man’! Dotonburi refers to the streets and the canal that run through the place — and is filled with neon signage, colorful lights and gaudy statues that adorn its restaurants and shops; as well as the narrow stone-paved lanes from the city’s olden days… all that makes Osaka, Osaka.
And while we were in the Dotonburi area, we also visited the Hozen-ji Temple — famed for the Fudo-myo Buddhist spirit statue that is completely covered in a beautiful thick green moss (from years of a ‘splashing water over the statue’ ritual). I stopped to say a prayer, and helped water the moss too!
Shinsaibashi is Osaka’s most famous and busiest shopping street. Spanning a history of 380 years, it was already a popular shopping area back in the olden Japanese era — and runs from Dotonburi to the Nagahori Dori Street and Midosuji on the other side. The shopping street is great for hot and rainy days, as it is shielded by a roof that runs for 600 meters — with retail shops, branded outlets, fashion boutiques, department stores, restaurants and cafes in its approximately 180 stores.
The Shinsaibashi street was extremely packed during our visit on a late autumn’s afternoon — but we had so much fun window shopping, and stopping by many of the popular cafes for snacks and desserts, most notable being Pablo and Luke’s Lobsters (more in the food point No.10). Do explore the side streets as well — like Amerika-mura for the latest young trends, or you can head to Midosuji for some luxury shopping.
4. Umeda Sky Building
In the Umeda district in Osaka’s commercial centre of Kita-ku, it’s hard to miss the shiny glass and steel structure of the Umeda Sky Building. Completed in 1993, the 173 meters tall building is not one of the city’s highest, but it is definitely recognizable — its two towers are connected by a “Floating Garden Observatory” and they rise over the other buildings in the vicinity.
During our visit to Umeda, we decided not to head to the top of the building but rather walk about at the base. There happened to be an outdoor food market running while we were there, and the urban garden beside the building with trails and fountains was lovely during late autumn. I felt that the Umeda Sky Building is best admired from below or from afar. The tickets up cost JP¥1,000 (US$9) per person, so if there was one high-rise in Osaka I’d wanna visit — it’ll be the next one on this list!
5. Harukas 300
It is easy to get lost in the Abeno Harukas — the tallest building in Japan, completed in 2014. Connected by two train stations, the entire building houses the Abeno Harukas Kintetsu Department Store (largest in Japan), the Abeno Harukas Art Museum, the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel (on the 38th-57th floor) and the observation deck.
The observation deck, named the Harukas 300, is located on the top 3 highest floors (58th-60th floor) of the 300 meters tall building — with huge floor-to-ceiling glass panels for a completely unobstructed 360 degree view of Osaka. Unfortunately for us, we visited on a rainy, cloudy afternoon; so the view was obstructed by heavy mist and we didn’t get to admire the full beauty of the city. On a bright, clear day — it must be absolutely breathtaking! There’s also a cafe and souvenir shop at the top. Entrance cost JP¥1,500 (US$13.5) from the lifts on the 16th floor.
6. Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine
If there is one temple or shrine that you should visit in Osaka — it’s the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine. Founded in the 3rd century, the shrine is one of three “purely Japanese” shrines that exist in Japan, and one of the oldest. While the Sumiyoshi Taisha houses the Shinto Gods for sea protection, the grounds of the shrine features many other smaller shrines for specific ritual and prayers — like the Cat (Maneki Neko) Temple for prosperity and success; Tanekashi-sha for conceiving children, and Omoto-sha for matchmaking, among others. There are also stone rituals that can determine whether your prayers will actually be answered! Entry is free.
I also dropped by Shitennoji Temple, founded in 593 — one of Japan’s oldest as well, and the first official one in Osaka. Roaming most of the grounds is free, but entry into the main temple area costs JP¥300 (US$3). There’s a beautiful garden in the vicinity to explore too — Gokurakujodo Garden.
I really enjoyed walking around Shinsekai. The colorful and gaudy signboards and lanterns add so much character to the area, with the iconic Tsutenkaku Tower (2nd highest in Asia when it was built in 1912 — and then rebuilt in 1956) looming over the streets and shops in the district. Shinsekai holds the reputation of being Osaka’s most seedy area due to the amount of homeless (and working women) around the place — but we visited in the daytime, held our wits about us, and managed to truly soak in the quiet (almost secluded) atmosphere of a district that once flourished before the WWII.
The district’s most famous dish is the kushikatsu (deep fried skewers of breaded meat and vegetables) — with restaurants mostly found along the Janjan Yokocho. There’s also a Spa World in the vicinity, and the Tennoji Zoo, Tennoji Park, and the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art is right next to Shinsekai.
8. Tempozan Harbour Village
The Tempozan Ferris Wheel at the Tempozan Harbour Village is beautifully illuminated at night — lighting up Osaka Bay with its myriad of colors. We visited at night, so we had a beautiful night view of the city while soaring almost 112 meters at the highest point of the ferris wheel (it is said to be one of the world’s biggest). The ride takes about 15 minutes (for one loop) and costs JP¥800 (US$7) per person. We later had dinner at the Tempozan Marketplace — the mall right next to the ferris wheel.
The Tempozan Harbour Village is also the site of the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. I’m not a big fan of aquariums (I’d rather see the sea creatures in the sea), so I decided to skip the attraction — but if you have kids, the aquarium would be a great place to bring them to while in Osaka.
9. Universal Studios Japan
I can’t leave out a visit to Universal Studios Japan! This is the place to let loose and bring out your inner child — go crazy on the popcorn and fizzy drinks, scream your lungs out on the thrilling roller coasters, dance with the adorable yellow Minions, face the T-rex in Jurassic Park, and challenge someone to a wand duel at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Just let all your imaginations fly as you watch all your favorite movie characters come to life.
I had a fantastic day exploring the world of movie-making in Universal Studios Japan, and you can read all about my experience here:- My Visit to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.
10. Delicious Japanese Food
Last but not least, you have to eat your heart out in Osaka. To me, the food is what defines a place, or a country — and you can never get enough of Japanese food. In a big city like Osaka, it’s easy to get your hands on the popular Japanese eats like sushi or ramen; but a special mention goes out to the best okonomiyaki I have ever tasted at Ajinoya Okonomiyaki. This restaurant along one of the side streets of Dotonburi gets long snakey lines outside during lunch and dinner — that’s how popular it is.
I also enjoyed my dining experience at one of the Kushikatsu restaurants in Shinsekai — where we got to sit down at a bar-like table with the locals and have deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables. If you are fan of takoyaki (like me) — head to Yamachan Takoyaki in Tennoji; and while you’re exploring the busy Shinsekai — don’t forget to drop in for a delicious cheese tart (and shakes) at Pablo Cheese Tart, and get your hands on the lobster rolls at Luke’s Lobsters. Yummilicious!
SPECIAL MENTION: Side Trips
I have to mention that Osaka is a great base to make day trips to the other cities of Kansai, as well as cities further afield. Head to the popular cities of Kyoto (which I suggest you allocated a few days) to admire its stunning temples, Nara to run around with the wild deers, and Kobe for a meal of the delectable Kobe beef. And don’t stop there — venture beyond the prefecture and visit the shimmering white castle of Himeji, or explore the wonders and beauty of Okayama.
To me, each and every city offered a new perspective of Japan, and I can’t choose which one I loved most! You can read more about my adventures in some of these cities here:-
Mynn’s Top 10 Reasons Why I Fell in Love with Kyoto, Japan
One Day in the City of Kobe, Japan
Mynn’s Top 10 Reasons to Visit Okayama, Japan