When we were planning our trip to Osaka, I tried not to go overboard with the itinerary the way I did it for our 2010 Tokyo-Kyoto trip. (When I jammed so many things to do in a span of a single day without taking into account the fact that we were going to be in a new city where we don’t speak the language or know our way around its public transport system. Brilliant.) We had three whole days to spend in Osaka after arriving late in the evening (the rest of the trip was spent in Kyoto and Nara) and thankfully managed to see some sights, gorge on the local food, and not get blinded by the wild neon lights.
1. Eat! If there’s one thing the folks from Osaka are supposed to be good at it’s food. The country’s third largest city was known during the Edo period as “Japan’s kitchen” and it seems they’re still living up to it in some way as they keep serving great food. And some of them won’t break the bank, too. Have takoyaki while you’re walking around (there are lots of places to get it–from train stations to Dotonbori), teppanyaki for a proper dinner, and drinks with okonomiyaki (Mizuno in Dotonbori gets a pretty long queue), or kushiage (Kushikatsu Daruma has several restos in Dotonbori and Kita-ku).
2. Visit the castle and the grove. Osaka Castle is probably the city’s most recognizable landmark. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt through time, so the one standing there now where all of us tourists get our pictures taken is not a faithful replica (entrance fee, JPY600).
If you don’t find that impressive, the grounds around the castle still make it worth the visit, particularly during spring when the Plum Grove turns into this dreamy cloud of pink blooms lining several paths or when the Nishinomaru Garden overlooking the castle is covered by a cloud of pink cherry blossoms from its 600 trees.
3. Greet the Glico Man in Dotonbori. Here’s another iconic Osaka landmark–the neon Glico billboard of a runner crossing a finish line along the Dotonbori canal amidst a wall of other crazy neon signboards blinking. You can take the requisite photo op at Ebisu Bridge as long as you know how to dodge crowds (the walkway below the bridge, parallel to the canal, is also a good spot and during the couple of times we went back there it was not as crowded).
But there’s so much more to Dotonbori: For all its its touristy trappings, there are numerous great restaurants and shops of all varieties and sizes to fill up on calories and empty your wallet. Don’t forget to explore nearby Shinsaibashi and Ebisu Bashi shopping streets, and for some old-world charm without the loud lights and sound, you must take a stroll down Hozenji Yokocho Alley.
4. Hit a couple of shrines and temples. This is what I didn’t get to do a lot of in Osaka, mainly because we were doing our temple stops in Kyoto and Nara. The closest temple visit we had in Osaka was stumbling upon the small Hozenji Temple in the Hozenji Yokocho Alley. The temple, often visited by local merchants, is in a cozy corner lined up next to some traditional restaurants and izakayas. And if you need to get away from all the noise of this boisterous city, more temple visits might be in order: there’s the Sumiyoshi Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest shrines, which has a picturesque bridge; and Shitennoji Temple, one of the oldest temples, which has a dreamy garden and a pebble-covered courtyard.
5. Get a cuteness overload in a cat cafe. If you haven’t gone to one, it would be an interesting experience. And where else to do it but in Osaka–the first Japanese city that set up a cat cafe. It’s a concept originally from Taiwan, but because many apartments in Japan do not allow pets, the Japanese embraced the concept of going to a cafe surrounded by cats. We found one, a walking distance from Dotonbori, in Amerikamura area and after all the walking in such a busy city, to sit down and have coffee while several cute fat cats
purr around you ignore you was a surprisingly soothing experience.
Cat cafes have an entrance fee, which comes with a drink; some give you access to the toys while others will require additional fee.
6. Outing to an aquarium and a theme park. If you’re traveling with kids, Osaka Aquarium and Universal Studios are popular destinations when in Osaka. Personally, not being a big fan of theme parks, we skipped Universal Studios (and at the time, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter hadn’t opened yet). We opted to just go to the Osaka Aquarium, and while I still have mixed feelings about it, I saw how many of the kids were beyond delighted and curious as they pressed their faces on the glass walls or ran from one end of the hall to the other to follow some of the fish .
7. Take in the city (and have a thrilling elevator ride) from Umeda Sky Building. From Osaka Station you can see Umeda Sky Building towering over some buildings and an expanse of earth in the process of being excavated (more buildings to be built?).
Designed by the same architect behind the steel beauty that is Kyoto Station, the two futuristic-looking 40-story towers seem impressive enough, but you have to go inside and take the speeding glass elevator up (don’t say I didn’t warn you) and then the escalator (try not to think that it’s suspended several stories up the ground) to get to the observatory on the top. There you can take in the view of the city from indoors or from the outdoor viewing deck a few more flights up. (JPY 700 to go up the observatory)
8. Ride a Ferris wheel, go to Joypolis, and enjoy other fun, geeky pursuits. Like Tokyo, there are parts of Osaka that appear to be one big arcade. The shopping mall HEP Five, near Umeda Station, has a big Ferris Wheel on top; you can get on it on the way to the floor of Joypolis, an indoor amusement park featuring arcade games and rides. When we visited , we discovered that a large part of its space was occupied by photo booths (purikura), where throngs of female Japanese students flocked to get pictures taken (and edit it to their kawaii’s heart content!).
Club Sega is another game center worth a visit to get your geek on. You can find a branch in many shopping streets, like in Hankyu Higashi Dori streets in Kita-ku. P found some arcade games in Club Sega, which he hadn’t seen in the arcades here and promptly parked himself in front of them. Everything is in Japanese but I’m guessing, any self-respecting gamer would figure out the ins and out of a game, which P did very quickly.
9. Make your own cup of instant ramen. Have an unhealthy obsession with ramen–even of the instant variety? You can ogle at this Japanese food invention in all its sodium-dizzying varieties at the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. Go through the Instant Ramen Tunnel, get an instant ramen history lesson, and the most popular part of the tour which has Japenese families and kids lining up for, make your own mix of instant ramen. Pick the flavoring and its other ingredients, seal it and take it home. All for free!
10. Get lost (or shop and eat) in Osaka Station. Or Namba or Tennoji. The major train stations in Osaka (like other major Japanese cities) have a maze of eateries, shops and pubs underneath and above ground. They’re also connected to shopping malls and department stores. Popular chains like Isetan, Lucua, and Daimaru are found either in the North or South Gate Buildings of Osaka Station. Happy exploring!