City Guides, Japan, Kansai, Osaka
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Guide to Osaka: Everything you need to know

I first visited Osaka in the spring of last year, to meet up with Kat. She is my best friend from college and ever since I moved away from LA, we hadn’t seen each other in person for almost eight years… even though we kept in touch every day using chat apps. Japan was an easy middle-ground for the both of us to meet as Kat lives in Los Angeles, I’m on the other side of the world in Singapore and we both love Japan.

Since we had such an amazing time catching up in Osaka last year, Kat and I decided to meet up again this year… and long story short I found myself in Osaka again for the third time in just a little over a year! So I think it’s about time I impart some knowledge of this wonderful city.

An Introduction to Osaka

Getting into Osaka is easy

Osaka is one of the largest metropolitan city in Japan, second only to Tokyo. As with other big cities, you’ll find it very accessible and well-connected.

If you are getting to Osaka by Shinkansen you’ll have plenty of convenient local trains to switch to. If you are flying and landing at Kansai Airport (KIX) and will be staying in the city, I recommend taking Haruka line by Japan Rail (JR). This line takes you straight from KIX to the city, stopping at major station Tennoji and Shin-Osaka before going on to Kyoto. From there, you can resume with local trains using your IC card.

If you don’t already own an IC card, I suggest getting the Haruka + ICOCA card bundle at the airport station. This gives you the best price for the express train to town as well as an ICOCA card preloaded with 1,500 yen which can be used for various transactions in Kansai area (I’ll elaborate further). Train rides in Osaka will cost you 180-460 yen, so you’ll easily use up the balance in 2-3 days. You can also get the remaining balance back when you leave Japan.

Haruka ticket

Make sure to check ahead if your accommodation is closer to Tennoji or Shin-Osaka as there is a slight fare difference for the bundles – Tennoji is closer to the airport so it’s cheaper. My roundtrip ticket + ICOCA card to Shin-Osaka cost me 4,600 yen.

Getting around Osaka: What is IC / ICOCA Card?

Getting around in Osaka is pretty much the same as Tokyo (see my Tokyo city guide here) – trains would stop at midnight, and you can use Google Maps to plan your route. The only difference is their IC card is called ICOCA.

IC card is the card you can use for transportation in Japan. IC card allows you to keep a yen credit balance on the card so that you can simply tap in and out of train stations. Makes traveling so much easier because you don’t have to purchase a ticket each time you make a train journey! Furthermore, you can also use IC card to shop at the train station (for food and souvenirs) as well as select merchants outside the train station. I used mine to hire a coin locker inside the JR station as well.

Different areas in Japan have different brands of IC card, but they all work the same across the country. For example, in Kanto (Tokyo) area, the popular brand is Suica or Pasmo. In Kansai (Osaka) area, they are called ICOCA – a play on the Japanese word “ikouka”, which means – “Let’s go”.

If you already own an IC card from a different region (like Suica or Pasmo card from Kanto area), you can still use and recharge them at any station in Osaka. Similarly, your ICOCA card will also work in other regions so if you are planning to go to Tokyo after Osaka, you can still use ICOCA card to take local trains in Tokyo.

Coin Lockers

Coin lockers at JR station

Flying out late but have to check out early from your accommodation? You can leave your luggage in a coin locker! Coin lockers are available everywhere in major stations and they are quite spacious and cheap to rent. I was able to fit my 45L backpack into that tiny 300 yen one at the bottom. There is an English instruction on the machine to rent them – super easy.

Be sure to come early if you are going from a popular station – I tried to do this in Kyoto station around noon but I was not able to find any available locker. In the end, I gave up and had to lug my backpack around all day.

Bonus: See Mount Fuji from above on domestic flight

Mount Fuji from the plane, hiding underneath clouds

If you are flying to Osaka from Tokyo, try to get a window seat on the right side of the plane. You might just get lucky and see Mount Fuji about 30 minutes into the flight. I knew about this before so I picked a window seat on the right side of the plane on my way there, but I wasn’t lucky with the weather. Mount Fuji was hiding underneath all those clouds… :/

Where to stay in Osaka

In Osaka, it’s best to stay close to a major train station – anywhere near Umeda, Shin-Osaka, Namba, Tennoji and Umeda / Osaka station is a great option.

During my most recent trip, I stayed at PremiasA in Umeda which is a mid-range accommodation close to Umeda and Osaka station. I shared the room with 2 other people, we each paid US$42.50 per night per person and it’s worth every cent. I would highly suggest the apartment because it’s much more spacious than other accommodations I’ve gotten in Japan (they have 2 Queen beds!), the amenities are very new, and the location is amazing (~10 minutes walking from Osaka / Umeda station). One thing to note is that it’s a self-operating hotel which means there is no front desk to check you in or let you in if you lost your keys, and you cannot accept packages during your stay.

What to do in Osaka

Osaka Castle

The Osaka Castle and I

This is pretty much a given when you visit Osaka. Personally, I was way more impressed by the area around the castle rather than the castle itself. It’s surrounded by this amazing park and makes for a picturesque stroll especially if you happen to be here during Hanami (Sakura) or Momijigari (Autumn) season.

The park at Osaka Castle

I would recommend to enter from the South West corner of the park (closest station is Morinomiya on Chuo line) and walk through the park before finally getting to the castle. The walk from this point would take about 20-30 minutes, so be sure to plan your time accordingly if you want to enter the castle.

Dotonbori

Street full of people and takoyaki stalls

Dotonbori is the center of everything “Japan” in Osaka. You can find a 24-hour Donki (Japanese variety shop), Restaurants, Arcades with Gashapon machines, drug stores, vertical neon-light billboards and most importantly for me: Takoyaki! You can read more about takoyaki on the “what to eat” section below.

Den-Den Town in Namba

If you enjoyed Akihabara in Tokyo, you’ll love Den-den town. It’s basically Osaka’s hub of everything geeky – electronics, Anime goodies, Gashapon machines, comic book stores and video games. You can also find decent shopping here at Japanese variety stores like Loft and Donki.

Gashapon Galore

If you don’t know what Gashapon is, you must try them while you are in Japan! They are these capsule toy machines that you can find all over Japan. The machine dispenses small toys or figurines in a capsule. Each machine has different themes with 4-5 possible option of toys that you can get, but you won’t know exactly which one you get until you put in your yen coins and turn that knob. It’s the literal definition of cheap thrill – each capsule toy costs only 200-400 yen.

Osaka Aquarium

Whaleshark at the Osaka Aquarium

The Osaka Aquarium is one of the most impressive aquariums I’ve ever visited so far. They have an intensive collection of marine life sourced from different parts of the world, including a pair of whale sharks in a massive tank along with other species like Manta Ray, Nurse Sharks, and Eagle rays. However, as an avid diver, I have to admit this made me uncomfortable… especially seeing highly intelligent animal like dolphins in captivity. On the other hand, I can see how this is a great educational opportunity for kids and adults alike.

See the city from above

My friend Kat at the Ferris wheel in HEP FIVE

If you like seeing a city from high up, I suggest visiting Umeda Sky Building (Umeda / Osaka station) or Abeno Harukas (Tennoji station). Both provide a birds-eye view of the city and would cost you around 1000-1200 yen to visit. For a cheaper option, you can take the Ferris Wheel at HEP FIVE near Osaka station – It’s small but it’s only 500 yen per ride, you get a private car to yourself and the wait wasn’t very long.

Cup Noodles Instant Ramen Museum

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Also known as Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, the gentleman who founded Nissin Food Products – the company that makes Cup Noodles. I didn’t get to do this on my visits (yet!), but if you’re like me and lived off cheap instant ramen in college, I reckon this museum warrants a visit. You can even decorate your own instant ramen cup!

Day trips outside Osaka

The thing that makes Osaka great is its proximity to many other amazing destinations, most of them under one hour by train! Here are a few of my favorites:

Go back in time in Kyoto

Fushimi Inari in Kyoto

Kyoto needs no introduction – it is definitely a must-visit when you’re in Osaka. The city is an easy 30-minutes on the rapid local train or 15-minutes on the Shinkansen. Although I filed this under day trips outside Osaka, you actually need 2-3 days to properly visit Kyoto – there are so much to see and do here that it warrants a separate post by itself. I would recommend staying in Osaka because accommodations are cheaper, set aside one day to visit the Arashiyama side of Kyoto (west), and 2 days to visit the temples (east side of Kyoto). I’ll write a dedicated post on Kyoto soon!

Get friendly with Sika deer in Nara

Playing with Sika deer in Nara

Nara is another popular trip to take from Osaka due to its proximity – only 30 minutes by local train. The city is quite small, but they have a huge park where you can walk and interact with the free-roaming wild Sika deer population. The Sika deer are considered a national treasure of Japan. They are very used to humans and not scared of us. You can purchase some Shika-senbei (Deer rice crackers) to feed them. Once you have this, the deer would just come running to you – in fact, the hungry ones would chase you down if they know you have some Senbei, and eat them straight off your hands.

Take a walk at Akame 48 Waterfalls

One of the waterfalls at Akame 48

Akame 48 Waterfall is about an hour out of Osaka by train. It’s a short, easy trail following the main river which forms many small waterfalls. There are actually less than 48 waterfalls, but they used 48 in the name to signify endless waterfalls. Though it’s probably good to visit all year round, I highly recommend visiting during Momijigari season, which tends to be mid to end of November. Momijigari is the term Japanese use for admiring the autumn foliage, and this place has plenty of them! You can read my post about Momijigari for more information on Akame 48.

Visit Kobe for a day

I have actually not made a trip down there yet, but Kobe is also 30-minutes away from Osaka by train. Kobe is well-known for… well, the delicious Kobe beef – you can watch Mark Wien’s video on Kobe beef for more information. Aside from the beef, Kobe is known for the Chinatown area, the Kobe ropeway and Nunobiki waterfall.

Suntory Yamazaki Whiskey Distillery

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If you are a whiskey lover, a trip to this distillery is a must. They are located about 30 minutes from Osaka / Umeda station. You can visit the Yamazaki Whiskey Museum for free and do some whiskey tasting (not free). If you’re interested to learn about the whiskey-making process then they have tours that cost 1000-2000 yen. Either way, make sure you book your slot ahead here.

What and where to eat in Osaka

Takoyaki (Octopus Ball)

Takoyaki in the making

When visiting Osaka, eating Takoyaki is a must. Takoyaki is one of the most well-known street snacks in Japan. It’s a ball-shaped snack made from a wheat-flour based batter with chopped up juicy octopus tentacles and other ingredients such as ginger and green onion, grilled in a pan with hemispherical holes to help shape it into a ball. Once done, it’s served with takoyaki sauce and Japanese mayo, then topped with crispy bonito flakes. Although you can find this all over Japan, it was popularized in Osaka.

The one I tried is from Konamon Takoyaki Museum in the middle of Dotonbori and it was delicious! The batter is crispy on the outside yet juicy on the inside. The bits of octopus is also quite generous. Best of all, they’re always made fresh on the spot! If you see a queue forming, fret not. They’re just waiting for the next batch and once that’s done, the queue moves fast. I ended up eating a dozen of this by myself…

Konamon Takoyaki Museum 
Nearest Station: Namba (Midosuji Line)
Direction: Google Maps

Japanese Cheesecake from Rikuro Ojisan no Mise

Rikuro Ojisan no mise means “Grandpa Rikuro’s store”. You might have seen this store making its round in social media. Popular for the fluffy cheesecake that “jiggles” as it comes out fresh out of the oven, Rikuro Ojisan cheesecake originated from Osaka and for a while could only be found in Osaka and Kobe, though I heard there are now branches in Shanghai and Beijing. Their cheesecake is different from the ones you get in, say, New York, which tends to be very rich. Rikuro’s cheesecake is very fluffy in texture and light in taste – much like other Japanese desserts, it’s not too overly sweet. I only got a slice but I feel like I could have eaten an entire cake on my own.

Wobble wobble wobble #osaka

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Yakitori at an Izakaya in Namba

Yakitori dishes with draft beer

Visiting an Izakaya for some yakitori is a must when you’re in Japan. There are tons of them in near Namba station, in the south-west side. Izakaya is popular among corporate men and women as an after-work watering hole because they serve cheap small plates of various grilled skewers that goes well with alcohol. My favorite is called Yakitori Nambatei, a small hole-in-wall restaurant where each plate costs 300-400 yen and comes with 3 skewers. I recommend having their draft beer as well!

Yakitori Nambatei
Nearest Station: Namba (Midosuji Line)
Direction: Google Maps

Naniwa Omurice

Standard Omurice with Demi-glace sauce

Trivia: “Naniwa” is the old name of Osaka from the 6th century. The earliest record of the city being referred to in Osaka dates back to 14th century.

In Japanese cuisine, there are plenty occurrences of “japanized western food” aka yoshoku, where the Japanese have adopted western dishes and made it into their own. Omurice is a popular example of this and has become a staple comfort food for many Japanese households. It’s usually made by a mother for their small children as it’s fun to eat and tastes good.

Omurice can be served in tomato-based sauce, or demi-glace sauce (savory beef sauce). I prefer the latter. Naniwa Omurice serves both styles and you can add more toppings such as kaarage (Japanese fried chicken), fried prawn, pork cutlet or cheese.

Naniwa Omurice
Nearest Station: Shinsaibashi (Midosuji)
Direction: Google Maps

Fishing Boat Restaurant Zauo

Me failing at fishing for our dinner

If you want a bit more drama with your dinner, try visiting Zauo at Namba. At this restaurant, you can catch your own fish and they will prepare them for you in any style you want. It’s not for the faint of heart though – I for one couldn’t bear to fish because I felt so bad for them… while fishing, you can really feel the hooks dragging against their scales and I just couldn’t do it. So, I let my friends do the hard work and enjoyed the catch later 😡

Zauo Fishing Boat Restaurant
Nearest Station: Namba (Midosuji Line)
Direction: Google Maps

Zundouya Ramen

Zundouya Ramen with Straight Noodle

Buying the ramen from the vending machine at the entrance

Zundouya Ramen specializes in Tonkotsu ramen, a type of ramen where the broth is made from boiling pork bone for hours until it turns white. It’s originated from Fukuoka but you can enjoy it all over Japan these days. Zundouya is one of those ramen shop where you order outside the shop at a vending machine, then bring the voucher in and they’ll make your order for you. You can customize the noodles (curly or straight), the done-ness of the noodles (al dente, regular or soft) and the intensity of the broth (light, regular, or strong / fatty).

There are a few locations in Osaka but the one I went to is near Umeda / Osaka Station.

Zundouya Ramen
Nearest Station: Umeda
Direction: Google Maps

Alright, folks! That’s all from me on Osaka. Let me know in the comment below what you think and if there is anything else you want to know. I’ll be happy to answer your question as best as I could.

I’ve written a LOT about Japan. Check out the ‘Japan’ category for more posts!

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