Don’t skip a visit to bustling and energetic, down-to-earth Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city and a leading hub of economic activity, good honest grub, and popular culture.
Japan’s second-largest metropolitan area after Tokyo, Osaka has historically been considered the nation’s economic powerhouse - as well as its kitchen! Strategically located at the crossroads of Japan, Osaka ballooned in size in the 1600-1800s, becoming Japan’s primary economic and industrial centre during the industrialization of the 1800s and even earning the nickname the “Manchester of the Orient”.
But it would be a grave mistake to write Osaka off as little more than an overgrown industrial port; it has made many significant cultural - not to mention gastronomic - contributions to Japan. It is the birthplace of many forms of Japanese popular culture, from ukiyo (woodblock prints), bunraku (puppet theatre) and kabuki in the 1600-1800s to forms of manga and theatre more recently. It’s also the place that blessed the world with takoyaki - deep-fried octopus balls.
What to do in Osaka
Many visitors’ first stop, however, will be iconic Osaka Castle, with its majestic, towering 40m high castle keep, located in between and slightly to the east of both districts. Originally built in the 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s great unifiers, the castle played a major role in the unification of Japan and is one of Osaka’s most iconic sights, especially when decked out with cherry blossoms in spring.
Osaka’s sprawling urban cityscape, surpassed only by Tokyo, is best appreciated from up high. In Minami, Tsutenkaku Tower, built in 1912 to an Eiffel Tower-inspired design, provides 103 metres of retro charm, while in Kita, hang onto your hat at the Floating Garden Observatory, a ring-shaped observation deck on the 39th floor of the Umeda Sky Building which boasts unobstructed 360-degree views of the urban skyline.
Osakans place great importance on food, as evidenced by the oft-quoted phrase “kui-daore” (“eat until you drop”). Osakan diners prize volume and value for money as much as taste and aesthetics - try heavyweight staples such as okonomiyaki (savoury pancake), takoyaki (deep-fried octopus balls), kushikatsu (battered and deep-fried skewers) and udon (thick flour noodles) to see this for yourself!
Osaka is a shopper’s as well as a diner’s paradise: in Kita, try the many subterranean shopping arcades in Umeda, or be bewildered by the options in Minami in central Namba and Shinsaibashi, youth fashion and culture district Amerika-mura, and Den Den Town electronics goods district, Osaka’s answer to Akihabara.
Catch a train 30 minutes out to Osaka’s bay area for family-friendly modern attractions such as Universal Studios Japan, the first such theme park in Asia, and Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, one of the best and largest aquariums in the world, boasting tanks big enough to hold whale sharks!
Further afield, museums dedicated to two very different modern geniuses make great side trips from Osaka: the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum pays homage to the father of the modern manga genre, while the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum is dedicated to the inventor of the humble pot noodle.
How to get to OsakaOsaka is so centrally located that it’s easily accessible from practically anywhere in urban Japan, making it an unmatchable base for exploring other parts of central and western Japan.
Osaka is connected to Tokyo by bullet train: around 2.5 hours by Nozomi, 3 hours by Hikari or 4 hours by Kodama (however, the Nozomi is not covered by the JR Pass). Alternatively, it takes just over an hour by plane from Tokyo to Osaka.
Central Osaka is 50-70 minutes from Osaka International Airport (KIX) by JR or Nankai line trains. This travel time is cut to just 35 minutes if you use the "Rapi:t" limited express train, however this is not covered by the JR Pass. Meanwhile, it is 30-40 minutes from Itami Airport (ITM) by monorail or private line (not covered by the JR Pass).
Osaka is within easy reach of many other destinations along the east-west Tokaido-San’yo bullet train route, including Nagoya and Kyoto to the east and Kobe, Himeji, Kurashiki, Onomichi and Hiroshima to the west.
From Kyoto, Osaka is 15 minutes by bullet train, 30 minutes by JR special rapid train, or 40-50 minutes by private railway. From Kobe, it is 20-30 minutes by train using either JR or private railway. From Nara, it is 30-40 minutes using either JR or private railway.