Oh Osaka! What to do when in Osaka, Japan
Osaka is the second largest metro area after Tokyo, however it is the absolute opposite in attitude and atmosphere.
Where Tokyo is crowded, hectic, full of bright lights and the full glare of modern commercialisation. Osaka on the other hand, feels more like its relaxed younger cousin. No less modern but with a more relaxed attitude and completely confident in itself. Think of it as comparing Sydney to Melbourne or London to Bristol.
With an amazing blend of history and technology, the food, street culture and nightlife mean you can completely relax and immerse yourself in everything Osaka has to offer, without losing your breath!
Mixing it up
During the week that I stayed in Osaka with friends we ate our way around the city, took day trips out to nearby Kobe, Nara City and Kyoto, checked out the shopping and explored the shrines and temples that are scattered all around the precinct.
No day was the same and we didn’t even have to try.
Just grab a map, pick a direction and walk. If we had actually planned exactly what we wanted to see, we more than likely would have missed the street football skills show along Dotonbori and I wouldn’t have found my awesome leopard print Nike sneakers.
It just goes to show that sometimes it is worth not having a strict plan of what to do and where to go, just pick a few things you want to see and take the slow path to get to them!
Hands down Osaka was amazing for food. From the humble (but sparkling clean) street stalls, to underground sushi restaurants, the fish market and hidden okonomiyaki (pan fried batter cakes) and takoyaki (octopus deep friend in ball shapes) shops there was something different that tasted nothing like what we get back home in Melbourne.
The biggest adjustment was a lack of western style breakfast (hotel breakfasts were okay but we wanted local food), and coffee was definitely not like home… while I struggled to balance my sugar levels as most of the food was either completely savory or full of processed sugar. In the end bananas (which were bizarrely wrapped in individual plastic wrap) saved the day!
There was absolutely no fear of eating street food, as every stand was sparkling clean. And it turns out that breakfast ramen was much creamier than the lunch and evening version.
The Osaka Central Fish Market was also a must see, especially the organized chaos of the fish auctions at 4.15am. While we didn’t understand a word, it was incredible to see the focus and collaboration (it seems to be very common for two businesses to bid and buy the same fish and share it). Though I am not sure I am willing to have raw fish for breakfast again anytime soon!
The best day trips from Osaka
It goes without saying that Japan has some of the best public transport around. Fast, clean trains that are significantly faster than driving and signage that is semi-readable for the non-Japanese traveller.
So where can you go from Osaka in a day?
A city best known for the Kobe beef (some of the best in the world). The hike up Mount Rokko was worth the view of Kobe from the top, plus helped work off all the food we ate! Not the cheapest foodie stop, but keep the dish simple (we found a little restaurant that used salt stone grills with simple seasonings) and you will understand why Kobe beef is some of the most expensive wagyu beef around.
This private tour will not only explore Kobe, but you will also get to try some of the best local dishes.
The oldest capital city in Japan, this city is covered in incredible temples and cultural monuments. The best way to get around is to hire a bicycle and enjoy a leisurely cycle through the parks and gardens between each shrine and temple. This is not a destination to race through. Slow down and enjoy the serenity…
Or if you prefer, join a guided tour where you can explore Nara like a local.
In about an hour by train from Osaka, Kyoto is a beautiful town with an old world feel to it. Worth far more than a day trip but if time is limited, please do not skip it! Another place perfect for hiring a bicycle in to reach some of the further out temples (and to save time), or grab a map and follow the shrines.
Must see stops include the red wooden Torii gates at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, wander along into downtown for dinner and then onto Hanami-koji which is where Geisha can be spotted. But please don’t chase, if they are in costume then they are working. Besides, they have learnt to move extremely fast on the streets! You will find plenty of locals dressed in traditional costume in the town who, if you ask nicely, are more than happy to take a photo with you.
A full day tour can show you through all the UNESCO and heritage sites so can you make the most of your time.
Like other cities in Europe and around the world, Hiroshima carries the scars of war and tragedy. Surrounded by living reminders of the effects of nuclear warfare, but there is still an atmosphere of hope and acceptance. Jump on the trams or follow the footpaths to the Atomic Bomb Dome, the museum and the memorial park before exploring the rest of the city.
A walking tour of the world heritage sites in Hiroshima is great way to learn about this city and its history.
Old, opulent, stunning. Think Venice for Asia… the canals and bridges filled with small boutique shops and gorgeous architecture are reminders of the wealth that once flowed through this historic trade center. Perfect for a lazy warm afternoon of exploring, while feeling a world away from the rest of the world.
Himeji Castle (Shirasagi)
A stunning castle built in traditional Japanese feudal style with dozens of towers locked together. This castle needs to be seen to be believed as it really looks like it belongs in a fairy tale story. Explore the serene gardens and ponds around the complex and make sure you wear comfortable shoes… there are over 80 buildings that are part of this castle to explore.
Try this private walking tour of Himeji Castle and learn about its architecture and history.
This is just a short list, there are many more places you can see in just a day from Osaka!
So what should You do in Osaka?
While not the prettiest city in itself, it has a rich history and strong cultural ties to the land and its people. There truly is a bit of everything here so it is definitely worth visiting at least once.
Depending on how long you have in this city, you can spend a few days just exploring the shopping, the food scene and Dotonbori, and a then pick a few day trips to mix things up.
Japan is unique in that its trains are exceptionally fast and clean (and people line up quietly to get on the trains!) so you won’t lose hours trying to explore nearby areas – just don’t be surprised if you fall asleep on the super-fast high speed trains!