The modern city of Osaka is a popular tourist destination for visitors to Japan. There you’ll find attractions both ancient and modern, alongside activities both energetic and relaxing. Osaka has far more to see than you could fit into a week or two, so you’d be wise to have some idea of what you don’t want to miss before you travel.
For Culture Vultures
If the cultural aspect is unmissable for you, you’ll probably want to start with Osaka Castle. The first castle was built here in 1583 but as a fortified area it goes back nearly a century before that when a temple and monk’s quarters were constructed, with fortifications to defend it against warring factions in the locality. Eventually it came into the hands of one of the warlords, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who built a castle here and used it as his base to unify Japan.
Its various incarnations did not survive later battles and lightening strikes. The current tower was reconstructed in 1931, survived the air raids of the second world war, and now houses a museum about its history. Around the tower are various other structures enclosed by high stone walls that rise from a wide moat.
In the Nishinomaru Gardens that are part of the Osaka Castle Park, Japanese families come to practice the custom of hanami – viewing the cherry blossom during it’s season, the height of which is usually early in April. This is only one of the spectacular hanami locations in Osaka. The Okawa River is lined with around 5000 cherry trees. The Kema Sakuranomiya Park and Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park are other such venues.
If your visit doesn’t coincide with the spectacular panorama of the cherry blossom, these parks are still worth a visit. The latter is on the site of the International Garden and Greenery Exposition of 1990, which was then turned into a park where flowers would bloom all year round. It has a rose garden that boasts around 450 varieties.
The park’s 106 hectares are also home to wildlife on farmland, rice paddies, lakes and woodlands. Children are happy with its play area, sports center, swimming pool, and horse riding facilities.
For a small fee, you can see a more traditional Japanese garden in the Tennoji Park. Keitaku Garden has a large pond; an island; three landscaped hills; walkways, stepping stones and bridges; plus a teahouse, gazebo and summerhouse. This was the garden of the Sumitomo family home. It was donated to the city in 1926 along with the family residence, which is now part of the Municipal Museum of Art.
Culture vultures will also be interested in Japanese temples and shrines. The grandest of these is Sumiyoshi Taisha, which is about ten minutes from Nankai Namba Station by train. As one of the oldest shrines in the country, dating from the 3rd century, it is an excellent example of ancient Japanese shrine architecture. Sumiyoshi shrines are dedicated to the Shinto gods, which are believed to protect sea travelers and are therefore often found at ports and harbors.
The ancient Hozenji Yococho Alley is a pleasant place to eat in a traditional restaurant. Refresh yourself here after visiting Hozenji Temple and ensuring good luck by pouring water over its statues.
Osaka also has its fair share of museums, with a reconstruction of the Naniwanomiya Palace in its Museum of History. You can also see the foundations and remains of the palace in its actual location. This, believed to be the oldest of its kind in Japan, was the palace of Emporer Kotoku, who moved to Osaka in 645 AD since it was there that travelers and traders from around Asia entered the country.
For Dedicated Shoppers
While the small shopkeepers in Osaka will expect you to haggle, all the department stores are fixed price. You’ll find a number of shopping districts in the two town center areas, Kita (north) and Minami (south).
In the Minami area, many of the international chain stores are represented in the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, catering for the more sophisticated shopper. Nearby Amerikamura might be more to the taste of the younger generation looking for teenage fashion and pastimes. Another grand mall, that includes a cinema and a rooftop garden, is at Namba Parks, and Dotonbori is the shopping street where you can see the famous sign of the giant crab – Kani Doraku.
The Kita area is home to many Japanese department stores and the 300 shops and restaurants in the Kankyu Entertainment Park. In this area, you could also take a break from shopping to enjoy the spectacular views over the city from the Floating Garden Observatory on the 39th floor of the Umeda Sky Building.
The whole family will enjoy a visit to Universal Studios Japan. Rides, performances and displays inspired by many well-known movies are set out for your delight.
Misaki Park is another favorite with families. They enjoy more thrills on exciting rides; a children’s zoo where they can get up close and pet the animals; another where they can see more exotic species; a dolphin show; and trips on a ferris wheel and a cycle monorail.
Children also love the Osaka Aquarium, which has a whale shark as its main attraction. You will begin your viewing of the 15 fish tanks on the eighth floor and move down around the enormous central tank where the whale shark lives, also seeing the other marine life in the various tanks as you spiral downwards. Each tank represents a different part of the Pacific Rim and reconstructs that particular environment.
Pleasure boats are another attraction which older children often enjoy as much as adults. In Osaka you can cruise the River Okawa or the Dotonbori Canal. Or you can sail around the bay in the Santa Maria, a copy of the ship that took Christopher Columbus around the world. This cruise starts from the aquarium and runs throughout the day and evening.
For Beach Addicts and Swimmers
While Osaka is not primarily a beach holiday destination, beach lovers don’t have to miss out altogether. Two artificial beaches have been created nearby.
Marble Beach is part of the Rinku Park, reached from Rinku Station on the Nankai Line. It is 900 meters long and edged with pine trees, making it a delightful spot to while away the summer hours, watch aircraft taking off from the nearby airport, or see the sun go down over the ocean.
Pichipichi Beach is 15 minutes on foot from Hakotsukuri Station, also on the Nankai Line. It is open for swimmers during July and August each year. Facilities here include beach volleyball courts; you can watch the National Junior Boys Beach Volleyball Tournament if you are there during the Osaka Marine Festival in early August.
Osaka Pool is open to swimmers all year round, though its main pool is turned into a skating rink during the winter. The indoor heated pool in the complex is 25 meters long with eight lanes, and there is a separate diving pool. The main pool is 50 meters long and has 10 lanes and a large area for spectators. Opened in 1996, this is a state of the art center with a futuristic building design.
For Night Owls
Osaka boasts a great nightlife scene. If a bar or club here is categorised gaijin (foreigner), what that means is that the staff can converse with customers who don’t have Japanese language skills. Locals who use these bars often come specifically to mingle with foreigners so you could even make some Japanese friends. You’ll find many of these establishments in the town center areas of Kita and Minami.
These days Irish pubs get everywhere, and The Blarney Stone in Umeda claims to be the best in Osaka. Or you could try out Bar Scorpion on Americamura, where there is more of an American feel. Many more pubs, clubs and restaurants can be reviewed on whynotjapan.com and worldtravelguide.net. Or you could just walk down Dotonbori and take your pick.
Where to stay
Most of the international chains have hotels in Osaka. The most popular hotel on tripadvisor.co.uk is the three star Cross Hotel, located close to Dotonbori at 2-5-15 Shinsaibashi-Suji Chuo-Ku, Osaka 542 0085. The Imperial, at 8-50 Temmabashi 1-chome , Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0042, also has some rave reviews.
Wherever you choose to stay, you’ll find Osaka refreshingly different. It’s well worth a visit to experience first hand the ancient and modern of Japan.