It was my third visit to Japan. I had been to this part of the country on my second visit — but upon arrival at the Kansai International Airport, I whisked off straight to the imperial and temple-filled city of Kyoto. It was only on this visit to Japan (with my mother and brother in tow) that I finally made a stop to Osaka; and we spent three days in the country’s third largest city. Third time’s a charm!
Osaka is known as Japan’s merchant city — it was mainly occupied by merchants and traders back in olden Japan. The city then was Japan’s main hub for rice trade, and considered the country’s major economic center. Located on the southern-central part of Japan’s Honshu Island, this capital city of the Osaka Prefecture in the Kansai Region is now a booming, bustling metropolis. These days, it is known for its multi-colored flashy walking streets and towering skyscrapers; as well as its old-charm castles and ancient temples. And food! Yes, definitely the food too.
Arriving in Osaka
I arrived in Osaka late at night, after spending a few days exploring the cities of Okayama and Himeji towards the western side of the Kansai Region. My mother and brother had already arrived in Osaka a few hours before; and I joined them at our accommodation in Tennoji. It was pretty convenient traveling around on the city’s well-connected rail system — I used the remaining days on my JR Kansai WIDE Area 5-Day Pass (which I had been using to travel in the wide Kansai area) to get around in Osaka; and then used the ICOCA card the rest of the time.
Accommodation – Khaosan World Tennoji
We stayed at Khaosan World Tennoji while in Osaka. The hotel/hostel is located in the district of Tennoji, southeast of central Osaka. We decided to stay slightly outside the city center as prices cost slightly less, and with Tennoji Station being one of Osaka’s largest transportation hubs, we were still well connected to anywhere in Osaka we wanted to go. Khaosan World Tennoji is only a 5-minute walk along the main road from the station.
We had a comfortable stay at the hotel. While it is mainly a ‘hostel’ providing individual beds in 9-bed dormitories, we booked ourselves into the private Japanese-style room for 3 persons. I wanted both my mother and brother to experience Japanese living with paper sliding doors, tatami mats and futons on floors — and Khaosan World Tennoji gave us just that. The room was spacious and clean, with an attached bathroom and ample cabinet space. It also has all the facilities that hostels provide — a common space, shared kitchen, coin laundry, free coffee and juice, and even an onsen footbath in the lobby!
Day 1: Main Sights of Osaka
We woke up early on our first day in Osaka because there’s so much to explore! We decided to dedicate the day to visit all the main sights in Osaka — so if you only have a day in the city, this one day itinerary would be enough to cover all the must-visit spots. From our accommodation at Khaosan World Tennoji, we walked towards the Tennoji Station and took the rapid transit Metro line to the Tanimachi-4-chome Station. Our first stop of the day was the Osaka Castle.
The Osaka Castle opens at 9am, so I timed my visit to arrive just as the castle opened its doors for the day. From the Tanimachi-4-chome Station, it is a short walk towards Osaka Castle, passing by the main Otemon Gate at the park’s southwestern corner. I believe it is the best approach as it showed us some of the prettiest view of Osaka Castle from afar, as well as gates, citadels and the moat that surrounds the castle grounds. It was beautiful in autumn (and is a hot spot during cherry blossom season).
It took about 20-minutes before we finally arrived at the foot of the castle. The Osaka Castle is the most important landmark in the city — it is visually stunning, and steeped with 450 years of history. After buying the ticket to enter the castle for JP¥600~US$5.5, we took the lift that takes visitors straight up to the highest floor of this 5-storey castle. 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, as well as the story of its ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
After completing our tour inside Osaka Castle, we walked towards the northeastern part of the castle grounds — passing by Gokurakubashi Bridge, the Osakajo Plum Grove, and several halls to arrive at the Osakajokoen Station. From there, we took the JR loop line to our next destination.
Lunch at Umeda
It was noon by the time we arrived at the Osaka Station on the JR loop line. We were famished from all that walking and decided to hunt for lunch in the Kita (Umeda) district. Being the transport and business hub of Osaka, the area is packed with restaurants inside and outside the Osaka and Umeda train stations. We strolled around both stations for a little while, practically got lost, and then randomly walked into one of the many restaurants. I ordered a soba set for lunch.
Umeda Sky Building
After lunch, we decided to drop by one Osaka’s most recognizable skyscrapers — the Umeda Sky Building. It took us about a 15-minute walk through the commercial center of the Umeda district to reach the base of the building. Completed in 1993, the Umeda Sky Building is made up of two 173 meters tall glass and steel towers that are connected by a “Floating Garden Observatory” in the middle.
We decided not to head to the top of the building, but to walk about at the base instead. 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. If you decide to head up, entry costs JP¥1,000~US$9 per person.
After visiting the Umeda Sky Building, we walked back towards the Umeda Station and took the rapid transit Metro line to the Shinsaibashi Station. Our next stop for the day was at Osaka’s most famous and busiest shopping street — Shinsaibashi. Shinsaibashi runs from Dotonburi to the Nagahori Dori Street and Midosuji on the other side, and has a history spanning 380 years. The shopping street is shielded by a roof that runs for 600 meters; covering retail shops, branded outlets, fashion boutiques, department stores, restaurants and cafes in its approximately 180 stores. We planned to spend the entire afternoon walking the streets around the area.
Shinsaibashi was packed with people during our visit that afternoon — but we had a great time window shopping and stopping by many of the popular cafes for snacks and desserts. I especially loved the lobster rolls at Luke’s Lobsters, and who can say no to the delectable cheese tarts (and yummilicious shakes) at Pablo! We just walked, and ate, and walked, and ate the entire time.
I think it took us about 2 hours to cover that (not so) long Shinsaibashi stretch. Too many stops, and too much snacks! We finally reached the other end of the street that connects to the lively entertainment district of Dotonburi. Now, Dotonburi is the one place in Osaka not to be missed — it is home to the ‘Glico Man’ on the confectionery company’s billboard. The billboard is probably the most photographed landmark in the city since its installation in 1935, and you can’t say you’ve been to Osaka until you’ve taken a picture with the ‘Glico Man’! Dotonburi itself is a great place for a stroll — the streets and canal that run through the place is lined with restaurants and shops with gaudy and colorful signage.
Hozenji Yokocho + Hozenji Temple
From Dotonburi, we headed into the stone-paved lanes that run parallel to the canals. This area is called Hozenji Yokocho, and the narrow pathways and small food shops and cafes that line it made me feel as if we’ve just stepped back in time — to ancient Osaka more than a hundred years ago. The reason we were there was to visit the Hozen-ji Temple. The temple is famed for the Fudo-myo Buddhist spirit statue that is completely covered in a beautiful thick green moss, from years of a temple ritual of splashing water over the statue after a prayer. I said a prayer too, and then watered the moss as well.
Dinner at Ajinoya Okonomiyaki
It was just after 6pm when we decided to head to Ajinoya Okonomiyaki for dinner. Located along one of the side streets of Dotonburi, I heard about this restaurant that serves delicious okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) and just had to try it out. It really was the best okonomiyaki I have ever tasted. We ordered the mixed okonomiyaki that had a combination of pork, beef, octopus, squid and shrimp — and it was cooked on a flat iron grill right in front of us. We were lucky that there was no queue when we arrived, because when we left — the queue was so long it ran from the entrance of the restaurant on the first floor all the way onto the street.
It was dark by the time we finished dinner. We walked around Dotonburi to revel in the colorful neon lights that brighten up the area; before taking the Metro from Namba Station to Tennoji Station, and back to our hotel. It was a long and fun day exploring Osaka.
Day 2: Tennoji and Tempozan
On the second day of our visit to Osaka — we spent most of our day exploring the district of Tennoji and its beautiful temples; and then heading towards the harbour-side area of Tempozan at night. Our accommodation at Khaosan World Tennoji is right in the center of most of the attractions we visited that day — so we actually had time to head back to our hotel for a little rest before heading out again in the evening.
At about 8am in the morning, we took a 10-15 minutes walk from our hotel towards the Hankai Tramway in Tennoji. We hopped on the tram at the Tennojiekimae Station and alighted at the Sumiyoshitorii-Mae Station, right at the entrance of our first stop of the day — the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine. The trip took us about 15 minutes, and cost JP¥210~US$2 per way (payable on ICOCA).
Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine
The Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in the country — it was founded in the 3rd century, and is one of the three “purely Japanese” shrines that exist in Japan. The shrine mainly houses the Shinto Gods for sea protection, but the grounds feature many other smaller shrines for specific ritual and prayers. During our visit, we passed by the Cat (Maneki Neko) Temple for prosperity and success; the Tanekashi-sha for conceiving children, and Omoto-sha for matchmaking, among others. There was also a stone ritual that can determine whether your prayers will actually be answered! It was all just really fascinating, but I didn’t carry out any of the rituals/prayers, in fear of doing something wrong! We were one of the first visitors that day, so there was hardly anyone around except for a couple of worshipers. Entry is free.
After spending an hour or so exploring the grounds of the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, we took the tram back to the Tennojiekimae Station. From there, it was a 15-minute walk towards the northern part of Tennoji to arrive at the Shitennoji Temple. Founded in 593, the temple is the first official temple in Osaka, and one of the oldest in Japan. We decided not the enter the paid sights of the temple (main temple area, garden and treasure hall cost about JP¥300~US$3 per entry to each location); and spent most of our time just roaming the grounds and visiting some of the other smaller temples/shrines around it instead.
From Shitennoji Temple, we decided to take a slow stroll in the lovely autumn weather towards Shinsekai. It took us almost half an hour, passing by several local attractions like the Isshinji Temple, Tennoji Zoo, Tennoji Park and the Osaka City Museum (you can drop by for a visit if you have more time in Tennoji). However, I was aiming to arrive in Shinsekai just in time for lunch!
Once in Shinsekai though, we spent quite a bit of time walking around to admire the gaudy multicolored signboards and lanterns in the area. That, and the iconic Tsutenkaku Tower (2nd highest in Asia when it was built in 1912 — and then rebuilt in 1956), gave the entire district so much character and allure. I read that Shinsekai is one of Osaka’s most seedy area due to the amount of homeless (and working women) around the place, but during my visit, it had such a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. We felt quite safe walking around its narrow lanes.
For lunch, I just had to hunt for the district’s most famous dish — kushi-katsu (deep fried skewers of breaded meat and vegetables). Most of the popular restaurants for kushi-katsu are found along Shinsekai’s Janjan Yokocho. Almost all the signboards are in Japanese — so we randomly chose a partially packed restaurant and grabbed a seat along the long bar-like table. I noticed that all of the diners were Japanese; and just as I was trying to figure out how to place my order, the chef passed me a menu in English. I ended up pointing to the menu for the choice of skewers I wanted, and telling the chef the amount with my fingers. Now, this is the kind of dining experience I like — as local as I can get!
Harukas 300 Observatory
It was about 1pm when we made our way from Shinsekai’s Shin-Imamiya Station to the Tennoji Station. It’s just one stop between the stations, but there was a slight drizzle that afternoon so we decided that we’d be better off arriving inside the Tennoji Station that connects to the Abeno Harukas, our next destination of the day. The Abeno Harukas is Japan’s tallest building, completed in 2014. 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. It was unfortunate that 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. There’s a cafe and souvenir shop at the top, so despite the bad weather, we spent some time chilling on the highest point of Osaka. Tickets cost JP¥1,500 (US$13.5) and entrance is from the lifts on the 16th floor.
Gamba Osaka Stadium
After our visit to the Abenos Harukas, we made a quick stop back to our hotel at Khaosan World Tennoji to wait out the rain, and rest our weary feet. It was towards the evening that we decided to head out again — I promised my brother (who is a huge football fan) that I’d accompany him to the Panasonic Stadium Suita, home of the Gamba Osaka football team. It really was quite a journey to get there as the stadium is located up north from central Osaka in the Suita District. From Tennoji Station, it took us almost an hour to get to Kishibe Station (with one train change); and then another taxi ride all the way to the stadium. Once there, we visited the stadium gift shop for some souvenirs, and then dropped in the mini-museum that showcases all the trophies won by the football team, as well as other memorabilia. To be honest, it really wasn’t my thing, but it was still an interesting visit.
Tempozan Harbour Village
And from the Panasonic Stadium Suita, it was another hour back to central Osaka again. I wanted to make one last stop before we ended the night — so from the stadium, we walked towards Yamada Station, and took the train to Osakako Station, the nearest station to the Tempozan Harbour Village. It was dark by the time we got there — but that was the main point, as I wanted to see the Tempozan Ferris Wheel beautifully illuminating Osaka Bay with its myriad of colors. We got on the ferris wheel for a single 15-minutes loop at JP¥800~US$7 per person. We were greeted with beautiful night views 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 Tempozan Harbour Village is also the site of the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. I skipped the attraction because I’m not a big fan of aquariums (I’d rather see the sea creatures in the sea), plus it was already closed at night. After our ferris wheel ride, we had a simple dinner at the food court in the Tempozan Marketplace — the mall right next to the ferris wheel.
That was how we ended our second day in Osaka. From the Osakako Station, we had a train change at the Betencho Station, before arriving back at the Tennoji Station (and back to our hotel) in about half an hour.
Day 3 and Other Days: Universal Studios Japan and Side Trips from Osaka
On our third day in Osaka, I allocated an entire day to spend at Universal Studios Japan — a definite must-visit when in the city. It was one of the highlights of my trip because I love roller coasters, and I love Harry Potter. Find out how to get there, other information and all the fun we had:- My Visit to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.
But if theme parks are not your thing, 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 deer, 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 really can’t choose which one I loved the most!