Top 10 things to do in Osaka

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).

Osaka's famous street food: takoyaki

Osaka’s famous street food: takoyaki

Or look for a branch of Ichiran and line up for some of their comforting bowls of ramen

Hankering for ramen? Look for a branch of Ichiran and line up for some solo session (you get your own booth) with ramen

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).

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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.

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How to get to Osaka from Kansai International Airport

So there we were with our one large luggage, between platforms 4 and 5, wondering whether we should jump in the train at platform 5 when the JR person informed us a few minutes earlier that the Kansai Rapid Service was going to be in platform 4. My husband pointed out that the train had  Rapid Service blinking across it. Being it our first time to land in KIX and to ride the Kansai Rapid Service, we were not sure if it was the one going straight to JR Osaka Station in Kita-ku or if there were other types of rapid services. It was on a different platform. What if it was the right train? The next train would be another thirty minutes and it was already getting late. We jumped inside with only a few seconds to spare before the door closed.

As we pulled out of the airport station, I was still not sure if it was the right train until the monitor showed station names that I could see in the Osaka Railway and Subway map I got from one of the airport information counters. I could now stop gripping my husband’s hand.

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If you’re heading to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and other parts of the Kansai region from outside Japan, then you’ll most likely be flying into the Kansai International Airport (KIX). From KIX, you have several ways to get to your destination.

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Make your own cup of noodles at the Instant Ramen Museum

Open lid. Pour powder from the packet into cup. Pour hot water. Close lid. Wait for three minutes. Open lid again and have a quick and hot filling cup of instant ramen.

This was how I was introduced to ramen. Since our comforting noodle soups here in the Philippines are of the batchoy and mami varieties (both must-tries if ever you find yourself in the Philippines), my first slurp of the Japanese noodle soup was from a styro Nissin Cup. I didn’t love it but I thought it was genius. No cooking involved! It’s like being 16 and letting that boy you sort of like hold your hand just because you think holding hands is the best thing ever. (That’s acceptable behavior, right?) And then you get to taste the real thing. Authentic ramen from its motherland, fresh noodles, broth that has been deliciously boiling for hours, mouthwatering slices of chashu, the seductive aji tamago… And you fall in love.

On the trip to Japan last March, we made the pilgrimage to Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. As the name suggests, it’s a museum dedicated to instant noodles and cup noodles and to its creator Momofuku Ando. For all my current indifference to instant ramen, I have to admit, it has provided many bellies (mine included) sustenance in a fast and cheap way. We had to pay our respects! Also, my husband likes the stuff to this day.

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Located in Osaka, the museum is around a five-minute walk from Ikeda Station (directions below). We went there on a Sunday and the streets leading to the museum were quiet, empty, and in typical Japanese fashion, very clean. There was just a number of families coming from the museum (the giveaway was that they were lugging around the plastic bag with the instant ramen cup). When we got inside, there were even more families–Japanese parents with their little ones in tow. I guess, the education about instant ramen has to start early on. Continue reading

Staying in Osaka’s Kita (Umeda) ward

Whenever I travel, one of the things I’m eager to see is the neighborhood where I will be staying. In Saigon, it was at the heart of the backpacker’s district where noisy, touristy bars and hole-in-the-wall cafes and eateries lined the street. In Hong Kong, it was along Nathan Road where all you needed was to roll off the bed and you’d find yourself shopping.

In this recent trip to Japan, we decided to stay in the Kita district. Also known as Umeda, this northern part of Osaka seemed relatively not as popular as the Minami area. With flashy Dotonbori in Minami luring droves of travelers especially in the evening, Umeda, the guides write, is more of a daytime destination with a few good department stores, countless restaurants, and the Umeda Sky Building one of its few attractions.

View of Osaka from the Umeda Sky Building in Umeda, Kita-ku

View of Osaka from the Umeda Sky Building in Umeda district in Kita-ku

Imagining Kita to be not as flashy or crowded as the area of Dotonbori or Namba, but still with a respectable number of places to see, I booked a hotel in its Doyama district. (It also helped that the major rail terminal Osaka Station is located in the area, which conveniently serves the JR Kyoto and Kobe lines and the Osaka Loop Line for those planning to make Osaka their base and see the other nearby cities.)

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How to keep the kuidaore spirit alive in Dotonbori

Eat. And eat some more. And it’s easy to do in Dotonbori.

Dotonbori in Minami is probably one of the most recognized places of the city aside from Osaka Castle. Sure it’s crowded, touristy and there’s enough blinking neon signs (hello, Mr. Glico running man billboard) to likely light up an entire town. But it’s also one of the many places in Osaka where you can embrace kuidaore in all its gluttonous glory.

A Japanese word meaning to ruin oneself by extravagance in food and drink, kuidaore has long been associated with Osaka, a city that prides itself for its obsessive love for food.

The Glico Man and the rest of them neon lights welcome you

The Glico Man and the rest of them neon lights welcome you

We get there in the late afternoon after an hour spent in the cat cafe earlier. While there were no crazy neon lights yet, there was already a crowd spilling over from Shin Saibashi-suji and Ebisu Bashi-suji shopping streets. We ducked inside a couple of shops, but there seemed to be more people with the goal to ruin themselves with extravagance in shopping.

Dotonbori has been around since the 17th century when it served as an entertainment district housing several theaters. According to guide books, even back then there were many restaurants to cater to the  mass of tourists and theater-goers taking over Dotonbori every evening.

Walking around

Walking around Dotonbori in the late afternoon as the signboards that line the street start to light up

Minus the many theaters, it seems not much has changed. There’s still a mass of tourists… only this time we’re making the culinary pilgrimage to the birthplace of okonomiyaki (pancakes filled with veggies, seafood or pork), takoyaki (octopus balls) and kushi-katsu or kushiage (deep-fried battered skewers of meat or veggies). Below are where many people stop by to pay their respects…to eat and eat and eat.

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