Visiting Osaka, Japan - Tourist Travel Guide & Things To Do

It took me a few days to find my footing in Osaka, but after I started to get a sense of the culture and the rhythm of the city, I was admittedly sad to leave. If there's something you're into, you can likely find it here.

Visiting Osaka, Japan - Tourist Travel Guide & Things To Do
© Nicklaus Walter

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For as long as I can remember, I've always had a fascination with Japan. Perhaps it all started as a young boy when my mom would take me to a Japanese restaurant in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta called Mikado. I was intrigued by the unique food that was served, the utensils they used, the clothing the servers wore, and the option for sitting seiza (to sit on the floor while eating). Later, my appreciation for Japanese culture grew not only from their cuisine, but also to other significant exports such as anime, cameras, video games, vehicles, and well regarded brands that have mastered minimalist design such as Uniqlo and Muji. Anytime one of my friends would visit Japan, without fail they'd come back raving about how great the experience was. All of these things made it a top bucket list contender for me, but as life often does, unexpected opportunities to visit other places took priority and I just never got around to fulfilling this particular dream.

I've been fortunate to visit a few countries in Asia in my adult life including China, Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia. All of these places are incredibly different from one another, and I can highly recommend each one for different reasons. These destinations are indeed wonderful, and kept me occupied enough that perhaps I had forgotten the unique appeal of Japanese culture that had been so prevalent in my formative years. I firmly believe that there's a time for everything, and thankfully I recently had the chance to finally experience Japan for a week with my wife for a much needed vacation. Our first stop was to spend a few days in Osaka to get a feel for what modern Japanese life is like in a bustling city. I didn't know what to expect to be honest, but I was excited to find out for myself.

© Nicklaus Walter

My first impression of Osaka was overwhelmingly positive to say the least. It is the third most populated city in Japan, but unless you're in a famous tourist spot it doesn't feel that way in most neighbourhoods. That is to say, it doesn't have a sense of congestion the way that other large cities in Asia sometimes do. The streets are immaculately clean, and it isn't an exaggeration to say that I couldn't find a trace of garbage anywhere. This is a testament to the thoughtfulness of the local Japanese people, who were also exceedingly polite in every interaction that I experienced or witnessed firsthand. I didn't see an abundance of natural green space in my exploration of the city, but the air was always clean and Osaka Castle Park is full of lush trees and gardens. For those looking for a beautiful forest trail, there's also Minoo Park which is just north of Osaka.

Osaka has no shortage of tourists at any given time, which makes sense because it's very accessible for foreigners. Thankfully, the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, and many other countries around the world do not require a visa in order to visit Japan. At train stations, in city streets, at convenience stores, and in shopping areas you'll find clear signs in English, and quite often in Mandarin, and Korean as well. On subway trains announcements will be spoken first in Japanese and then in English so that there's no doubt of where you're headed. It's worth mentioning that people walk and drive on the left hand side of the street, which may or may not be disorienting for you (it was for me!), depending on where you live. One of the coolest aspects of Osaka is that there are clever designs everywhere to be found. From how seats on the train can be turned around with the pull of a simple lever, to the automated smoothie machines at 7-Eleven, you'll be impressed by the ingenuity and efficiency of Japanese design. Speaking of 7-Eleven (and FamilyMart), it's weird to say but it's one of the best places to go if you're looking for healthy and delicious food that's affordable and ready to go. It couldn't be more different than the 7-Elevens we have back in Canada, and I ended up going to them almost every night for fresh fruits and breakfast for the following morning.

© Nicklaus Walter

Hotel Accommodation & Transportation

The Osaka Metro subway is an incredible transportation system that allowed us to be within mere steps of any place that we wanted to visit while on our trip. The train is available directly from Osaka's Kansai Airport so there was no need to scramble for a shuttle bus or taxi after arriving. Despite having clear signs and announcements in English, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that the train system in Osaka is complex, and unfortunately it can be confusing at times for tourists. That said, it is simply extraordinary in that it can take you anywhere you need to go without other means of transportation or long walks, so it's well worth the learning curve.

The train lines in Japan and other public transport systems use the Suica card which is a prepaid rechargeable contactless smart card and electronic money system. I used a physical card while my wife added one to Apple Pay on her iPhone. Both worked equally well, but the advantage of Apple Pay is that the user can quickly add funds directly from the digital wallet. The physical Suica card on the other hand, needs to be reloaded at a machine with Japanese yen. The Suica card is good for more than just transportation, and can be used as an accepted form of payment at a large variety of stores and services.

Taxis are readily available everywhere, however they are quite expensive in Japan so we opted for the train everywhere we went. Lastly, bicycles ride on designated paths on the sidewalk rather than sharing the road with motor vehicles. This is something I loved seeing, as it makes riding a bike substantially safer and I didn't find it annoying or even inconvenient as a pedestrian.

In terms of accommodation, we opted for less expensive hotels so that we could use our money on experiences and shopping (of course). Luckily, even cheap hotels in Osaka are of a high standard. You aren't sacrificing quality as you might in North America, but you are giving up physical space. Here are the hotels we stayed in Osaka during our trip:

  • Hotel Keihan Namba Grande: This hotel is great because it's in close proximity to Namba train station which goes directly to Kansai airport. It's also steps from Osaka Takashimaya department store, and the lovely Sennichimae Doguyasuji shopping street.
  • Hotel Keihan Yodoyabashi: A centrally located hotel that's a short walk from the Yodoyabashi train station which is a direct train line to Kyoto with no transfers needed. It's also close to many tourist attractions including Osaka Castle Park.
  • Welina Hotel Premier Nakanoshima: Close to the subway train as well, and only one stop away from Umeda shopping center, which is one of the main shopping districts in Osaka.

There isn't a lot of room to move around in the rooms at these hotels, but the beds are clean and comfortable and the bathrooms are always nice. Each one had pleasant amenities in the lobby that you can take back to your room such as tea bags, towels, toothbrushes, etc. Service from the hotel staff is top notch as well, leaving little to be desired. There's also a public gender segregated bath (minus the swimsuits) in each hotel if you're feeling adventurous.

© Nicklaus Walter

Shopping

Osaka is by far the best city for shopping that I've ever been to. These days it takes a lot for me to want to go shopping, but the malls here have such a deep breadth of stores and specialty shops that nearly everyone will find something hard to find that they've been looking for or something unexpected that they didn't know they wanted in the first place. It's a little bit too easy to get lost in one of the dozens of massive shopping malls that has everything from Uniqlo to Leica boutique shops, to entire floors dedicated to restaurants. In my case, I was taken aback by the overwhelming selection of cameras (at very good prices no less), video games, and the Tsutaya Books store had English titles that immediately piqued my interest such as a tasteful selection of Magnum books.

Used items can easily be found in mint condition and available for an incredibly reasonable price in Osaka. Generally speaking, Japanese people take extremely good care of their belongings so buying a secondhand item in Japan tends to be a uniquely positive experience. From electronics, to bicycles, and even retro anime toys, the vast majority of what you'll find for sale is just like new. All of the used cameras I looked at were immaculate. Though I didn't plan on it, I even bought a used Canon EOS 1N film camera in perfect condition for half the price of what they're being sold for on eBay.

It's easy to pay for goods and services as a tourist as well. In addition to the Suica payment card I mentioned earlier, nearly every business accepts major credit cards and digital wallets such as Google Pay, Apple Pay, WeChat Pay, AliPay, and LINE Pay. Some shop owners will only accept cash, but they were few and far between in my experience. Another incentive that will surely have you parting with your money is that the option to shop tax free with your passport is available at many stores.

There's too many worthwhile malls and shopping areas in Osaka to list here, but these were some of our highlights:

  • Osaka Takashimaya: Conveniently located at Namba train station, this flagship department store has a rich history spanning over a century. This shopping center has an exhaustive list of luxury stores, top beauty brands, and iconic fashion staples all under one roof. Baggage storage, stroller rentals, and currency conversion services are all available on site.
  • Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street: A charming and totally unique shopping area where you'll find authentic Japanese pottery, cookware, kitchen utensils, and artisanal souveniers that have a sense of quality to them.
  • Shinsaibashisuji: A bustling covered shopping street (great for rainy days) of epic proportions, both in terms of selection and in the number of visitors it draws in on a daily basis. This is another historic shopping area that dates back nearly 400 years. Here you'll find a great mix of current global fashion and beauty brands, as well as traditional goods such as kimonos and other specialty stores found only in Japan. Make no mistake though, this place gets very busy!
  • Yodobashi Camera Umeda: The Umeda district is just plain awesome! There's so much to see and do all concentrated in one area. There are several large malls, a giant ferris wheel, great restaurants and many unique tourist attractions at Umeda. However, I fell in love with this place because of Yodobashi Camera Multimedia Umeda. If you're into cameras, videos games, electronics in general, home appliances, beauty products, or even bicycles, you'll be blown away by the selection and just how massive each of it's six floors are. My wife and I are into vastly different things, and we both came away with items we'd been after for some time. The prices were far better than what I could find in North America as well.
© Nicklaus Walter

Food & Restaurants

The food in Osaka was nothing short of an exciting adventure! Although we did try Thai and Korean food a couple of times, it was absolutely refreshing to explore the local cuisine that Osaka has to offer. We frequently ate standard delicious Japanese meals such as breaded pork cutlets with curry over rice and sushi, but we also found a few gems that might even change the way you think about food:

  • Kaettekita Miyatamenji: This one totally blew my mind. This ramen restaurant offers a very basic menu, with seemingly simplistic wheat noodle options along with a small cup of soup to dip the noodles into. Doesn't sound like much right? Well, that's what I thought too until I tried it. I won't spoil it for you, just go or you'll seriously be missing out on a national treasure.
  • Tsuruhashi Fugetsu: A restaurant chain in Osaka where the food is prepared on a hot grill right in the middle of your table. We had heard about their famous seafood and cabbage omelette, as well as their pork and beef omelette so we tried both. Each perfectly seasoned dish was unlike anything I'd ever had before and I miss their sauce already.
  • Kuroge Wagyu Yakiniku Ichi Shinsaibashi: Japanese barbecue at it's finest! Although it took us a while to find this restaurant, it was well worth the trouble. The staff were incredibly friendly and the food itself was so satisfying. Try their nearly raw thin sliced beef that's quick seared for only a few seconds and enjoy a dish that you'll be talking about long after your trip.
© Nicklaus Walter

Tourist Attractions

It would be an understatement to say that Osaka has a lot to see and do. While it feels like we only scratched the surface of must see hotspots that can be found, here are some of our favorites that we can recommend:

  • Namba Yasaka Shrine: A shrine unlike anything you've likely ever seen before, here you'll find a giant lion head shaped shrine, distinct torii gates, and beautiful cherry blossoms. It's not a large area and it can be quite busy with tourists but it is sight to behold. Highly recommended if you need a break from the shopping areas and want to see something different.
  • Osaka Kizu Market: A special wholesale food market with 300 years of history. This market is popular with locals and includes roughly 150 shops including, restaurants, fruit shops, a supermarket, and fresh seafood. It's been recently named a "Food Culture Museum" by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, so it's definitely worth a visit.
  • Shinsekai Market: A memorable shopping street with affordable eateries, souvenir shops, and retro video game arcades. The street has plenty of eye candy to keep things exciting and you'll see the famous Tsutenkaku Tower prominently towering over the area.
  • Osaka Castle Park: A lovely large green space with hundreds of cherry trees, and the historic castle tower which is surrounded by stones walls and a moat. It's definitely worth a visit, but I recommend going early if you want to get nice photos as it gets absolutely packed with tourists in the afternoon.
  • Fujita Museum: A stunning museum both in its minimalist architecture and the pieces they show in their exhibits. This is an absolute must see if you're looking to take a closer look at Japanese history in a relaxed environment. They also have a wonderful tea experience that's under $4 USD and prepared right before your eyes. It comes with a delicious cup of the tea of your choosing, along with one sweet and one savoury snack on a stick. You don't want to miss out on this one.
  • Dotonbori: A visually stunning district that comes alive at night thanks to the massive digital billboards, restaurants, nightclubs, and the famous river canal that runs right through it. This is a tourist hotspot, so you can expect a large crowd and lively street entertainment to round out the vibrant experience. It's definitely worth a visit to get a feel for Osaka nightlife.
  • Kuromon Ichiba Market: A fantastic food focused covered market that's known as "Osaka's Kitchen" by the locals. You can find fresh fish, seafood, meat, produce, and fermented foods here. The market also has a nice variety of street food vendors, making it a tourist hotspot. It gets very crowded in the afternoon, so go early for an enjoyable experience.
© Nicklaus Walter

Essential Travel Items

We didn't actually need to bring that much when coming to Osaka to visit which was definitely a blessing. The Suica card that I mentioned previously is essential for how convenient it makes the transit system and makes getting around the city a seamless experience. Google Maps and Google Translate are two indespensible apps that you'll be using throughout each day, so I can't recommend them enough. With Google Translate, use the camera function and it will convert Japanese text into English, making it trivially easy to read menus, signs, and packaging. As helpful as those apps are, the most important item that I brought on our trip was the Wise Visa debit card. This card is a must have for international travellers and digital nomads alike, because it allows you to be charged and withdraw money in the local currency of where you are. This way you can avoid those annoying currency conversion fees that tend add up after a vacation. My favorite aspect of the Wise Visa debit card however, is that it allows you to receive money in 9 different currencies including USD, CAD, EUR, and GBP. For example, Decaf Journal is part of the Amazon US affiliate program which unfortunately does not pay into Canadian bank accounts (which I have). With the Wise Visa debit card, I'm able to receive USD payments from Amazon into my Wise account without any trouble by using the US wire transfer details that Wise provides. It essentially breaks down international banking barriers that can be endlessly frustrating when abroad. Lastly, the option to use a digital Wise card from your online account and / or add your physical card to Google Pay and Apple Pay immediately makes it a versatile travel solution for banking.

© Nicklaus Walter

I will say that it took me a few days to find my footing in Osaka, but after I started to get a sense of the culture and the rhythm of the city, I was admittedly sad to leave. We visited in early March, but I would recommend visiting in late spring to avoid cold weather and see more of the beautiful vegetation at the parks and gardens. Osaka is a place that I highly recommend as it has something special that isn't found elsewhere. Just be careful, you might end up finding your favorite niche store and opening your wallet all too willingly like I did. That's also part of what makes Osaka so charming. If there's something you're into, you can likely find it here.

© Nicklaus Walter

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