The third largest city in Japan, it's most famous for its tasty local delicacies. It's also the perfect antidote to the fashion-filled buzz of Tokyo or the quaintly traditional Kyoto.
The smallest prefecture in the country also has one of the biggest personalities and largest populations (second only to Tokyo).
The friendly locals speak the colourful Kansai-ben dialect (if you can understand Japanese!) as they bustle along the city streets illuminated with over-the-top 3D neon signage. Contrast this with 16th century Osaka Castle at the city's heart, a five-layer traditional donjon, and you've got a good mix of modern Japan alongside traditional architecture and culture.
Bypass traditional tourist options for a taste of modern Japanese living with bustling street life, tasty eats and good times.
- Enjoy some of the region's finest architecture and get a glimpse into the life of the Japanese Royal family with a day trip to Japanese Castles
- Take a private day-trip to Kyoto and Nara and see some of the area's historic capitals
- See what the city is most famous for and indulge in an evening street food tour of downtown Osaka
- Experience a national obsession, Wafuku, or Cosplay, and have your photo taken in popular Anime costumes
- Visit the picturesque World Heritage-listed Shirakawago village with its famous farmhouses and traditional Japanese archtiecture.
With two major city centres (Kita to the North, and Minami to the South) and four major train stations there are plenty of areas to see and enjoy the best of Japanese culture.
The cultural centre of Osaka, the area is dominated by the impressive Osaka Castle, built by the pre-eminent warrior, samurai and politician Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1583. A visit to this 5-story castle is a must, with important artworks and spectacular architectural references all around.
This is also the area to head to in Spring if you don't have the chance to leave the city to see the stunning cherry blossom displays. Head to the riverside Kema Sakuranomiya Park where you can stroll amongst the 4,700 cherry trees and spend a very happy few hours.
South of Osaka Castle are the remains of the Naniwa-no-Miya Palace. Supposed to have been finished in 652, it's said the be the oldest palace ruin in Japan.
Kita and Minami
The northerly of the city's two centres, Kita is a thriving business hub with plenty of shopping, restaurants, hotels and entertainment options. If you're after some shopping there are several department stores and underground shopping malls where you can give your credit card a workout.
The area has recently been going through a redevelopment and now boasts light, bright and modern architecture with the facilities you'd expect from a 21st century city. Highlights to look out for include the Umeda Sky Building with its twin towers and open-air observation deck 173m in the sky. If that sounds a little too modern, head to Kitashinchi District where you'll find a more traditional feeling with its hundreds of bars, restaurants and clubs.
The city's most well-known entertainment district offers plenty of dining and shopping options. The area's most famous street is Dotonbori, and a place where you'll hear the local phrase kuidaore (eat 'till you drop). Look out for the famous Glico Running Man sign and Kani Doraku crab sign.
Shoppers should set their sites on the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, the city's destination shopping hot spot. Roughly 600m long, the strip combines chain stores and trendy boutiques alongside expensive department stores and designer labels. If it's electronics you're after, head for Den Den Town in the Nipponbashi area, comparable to Tokyo's Akihabara.
Culture aficionados can get some local inspiration at the Shochikuza Theatre or National Bunraku Theatre. The Kamigata Ukiyoe museum meanwhile is the only museum in the world to house a permanent Kamigata Ukiyoe exhibit, traditional woodblock prints of kabuki actors.
Home to Japan's tallest skyscraper, Abeno Harukas (300m high), the district offers several malls with a range of shopping options. Other highlights to look out for are the Shitennoji Temple - one of Japan's oldest and the first ever built by the government - and Tennoji Park with its own zoo and art museum. West of the park lies Shinsekai, a uniquely Osakan dining and entertainment district.
Beyond Osaka: Kyoto
Kyoto is the traditional bigger sister to the slightly wilder and more chaotic Osaka. One of the most visited cities in Japan it was the centre of Japanese politics and culture for over 1,100 years.
Culture vultures will have a field day (or multiple days) with 17 World Heritage cultural sites including the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Nijo Castle. Definitely worth a visit. Walk the streets of Gion district and you may meet some 'maiko', young dancing entertainers who wear long-hanging sleeved kimono. Across town the Nishijin district is a great place to pick up some traditional 'Nishijin-ori' textiles with vividly coloured threads.
Things to do in Kyoto:
- Visit an onsen (a hot spring). The most famous is Arashiyama Onsen (Ashiyu in Arashiyama station). The ashiyu uses Arashiyama onsen water which is known for healing nerve pain, muscle pain, chronic digestive disease, fatigue, and so on. Bathing for about 10 minutes is most effective.
- Go to Samurai school
- Visit the Kyoto Nishiki Food Market
- Take the Truck Train and Boat ride on the Hozu-gawa River
- Stay in a Machiya - a traditional wooden townhouse
- Visit a karensansui or Dry Landscape Garden - made of sand, gravel, rocks and occasionally grass or trees but no water.
Yen (JPY, ￥)
The best times to visit Osaka are October/November (autumn) and March/April/May (spring), however you can visit at any time of year because the weather is temperate. Summer (June/July/August) in Kyoto is hot and humid. Winter (December/January/February) in Kyoto is cold.
From the airport
Kansai International Airport
There are a number of train options from the airport. The one worth taking is the 'Haruka' limited express trains between the airport and Tennoji, taking roughly 30 minutes. Foreign tourists can take advantage of the 'Icoca and Haruka' ticket meaning you can travel by non-reserved seat for a discounted price.
In and around the city
Osaka has over seven different railway and subway companies serving the city. The main ones and most useful to foreign visitors are the ones operated by JR West. Look out for the Osaka Loop Line as well as options to Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and Universal Studios.
For travel in the city centre it's worth getting an Osaka Amazing Pass which provides unlimited use of subways and buses within the city on one or two consecutive days, plus free admission to many of the city's most popular tourist attractions.
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