Osaka is located roughly at the center of the Japanese archipelago making it an ideal stop along any travelers’ path. Yet, it is often under appreciated by tourists who spend more time in the nearby ancient capital of Kyoto. Historically, Osaka’s location and role in rice production made it an important merchant city, and it is even referred to as the “nation’s kitchen”. In time Osaka has transformed into the second largest city in Japan. This ever-expanding cosmopolitan center epitomizes the “kuidaore” or eat until you drop lifestyle that has made it the foodie capital today. Add on top of that a plethora of historic shrines & temples, museums of all types, a seemingly endless amount of daytime attractions, a never-ending nightlife and you have Osaka. There is honestly so much to do in Osaka, that there is no way to see it all. You need to be selective. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a framework of different activities and attractions to make your time in Osaka an amazing one. Stay up all night in Osaka! You won’t regret it!
Organizing the List
It’s important to mention that this isn’t a list of 10 individual activities or attractions to visit in Osaka. Instead, the list is organized (with one exception) into 10 general categories. Most of them include multiple suggestions. This will allow you to fine tune your plans based on your exact interests. You may also be able to combine some of these activities based on your location. Possible exceptions include museum visits and any traveler who has an obsession with one of the categories listed below. And now on to the list…
Teacher Trekker’s Top 10 List of Things to Do in Osaka
# 10 – Universal Studios Japan
Located in the Konohana-ku ward on Sakurajima Island is the top theme park in Osaka. Universal Studios Japan is packed with attractions, entertainment and rides from the film studio’s best blockbusters reminiscent of its other locations in Hollywood and Orlando. It has everything you would expect in a theme park, but with extra Japanese flair. Let’s just say there is a possibility that you will become enveloped in a world of Hello Kitty like you never have before. The downside is that the tickets are not cheap. To be the most cost efficient, you should spend the entire day at the park, but that will also cut out other attractions. If you’re in a time crunch, skip it, but if you have a decent amount of time, you can always add it to your list.
# 9 – Ride a Ferris Wheel
If you’re a fan of Ferris wheels or are looking for an interesting view of Osaka, then you have two very viable options located in wards with many other attractions. Located in Umeda on the top of the Hankyu Entertainment Park (HEP) shopping and entertainment complex is the 75 meter diameter HEP Five Ferris Wheel. Although this extremely red attraction stands out like a sore thumb, there’s something about its aesthetics that are very modern and attractive. You will be able to take in views of the Umeda skyline and other portions of Osaka. It is also located near a number of suggestions on the list.
You may want to consider heading to the Tempozan Harbor Village. There is at least a day worth of attractions in the Osaka Bay Area including the Tempozan Ferris Wheel. This is especially a great idea for anyone traveling with children, as there are many activities the little ones will enjoy. Don’t worry, adults will have a great time also. For more detailed information make sure to read my article the Top 10 Things to Do in the Osaka Bay Area.
Note: The Don Quixote Ferris Wheel located at 7-13 Soemon-cho, Chuo-ku has not worked for some time!
# 8 – Visit a Skyscraper/Tower with an Observation Deck
If the idea of being inside a pod that is dangling in the air as it spins around for roughly a half an hour sounds disagreeable to you, then you can always choose to view Osaka from one of the many skyscrapers or observation towers that are scattered throughout the city. Probably the most notable of them and definitely the best advertised throughout the Japanese train lines is the Umeda Sky Building. Although only the 19th tallest building in Osaka, it stands apart from the herd allowing for some amazing 360 degree panoramic views. The 179 meter structure consists of two towers that are connected on the 39th floor by the Floating Garden Observatory. Its popularity brings frequent visitors, but there are other options to consider.
At 300 meters in height the Abeno Harukas skyscraper is the largest of the three structures that make up the Abenobashi Terminal Building and impressively since 2012 the tallest building in Japan. The funny part is that I didn’t even realize it until I began writing this article. I was actually there to visit the Star Wars Visions Exhibit at the Abeno Harks Museum. My travel mate and I only realized there was a 287.6 meter observation deck while searching for the museum. Sadly, the timing wasn’t right and we didn’t have the chance to do both.
At 256 meters, the Cosmo Tower is the tallest observatory point in Osaka near the coast. Although the entry fee is not cheap, the site is photo friendly allowing tripods, and it stays open two hours later than the Umeda Sky Building. Another much smaller tower is the Tsutenkaku Tower located in the Shinsekai district. Although the observation deck only reaches 91 meters, the vibrancy of the neighborhood and its food culture alone is worth the visit. For more information make sure to read my article Top 5 Districts & Foods to Eat in Osaka guide. As you can see you have many options. Try to combine one of these visits with other activities in the area.
# 7 – Go Shopping
Now I’ll put this out there right away. I’m not a shopper. Wait! I am, but not at shopping malls. If you want to see how I prefer to shop, check out my article Haggling the World’s Markets: 10 Steps to Save Money & Negotiate for the Best Price. Although I may not be the best source on the subject, I do have some suggestions. Frankly, the Japanese have an obsession with shopping similar to that of Americans with hints of Singaporean. There are so many locations across Osaka unless you are looking for something very specific, you could go anywhere, but here are some places at which you might want to start.
Hardcore shopaholics should probably go to Umeda, which is one of the largest commercial and business districts in Osaka. Its proximity to major train lines and other attractions will have you travel through or end up in the area at some point during your travels. “Four of the city’s largest department stores (Hanshin, Hankyu, Daimaru, and Isetan) are located here, as well as popular shopping and tourist areas such as HEP Five, Osaka Grand Front, and Umeda Sky Building” (Wikipedia). There was a massive complex in the Abenobashi Terminal Building that we bypassed in an effort to geek out. Anyone in the Bay Area may consider heading over to the Tempozan Marketplace or the Asia Pacific Trade Center (ATC). Out of necessity we ended up along the shopping streets in Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori since it was very close to our AirBnB. As far as commercial shopping malls go, you should be able to find everything you’re looking for at these locations and many like it.
Now if you’re looking for something a little different, don’t worry you’re in Japan. If you’re looking for cheaper tourist friendly items head to the Shinsekai district where you can locate shops that sell an eclectic assortment of clothing. They may even be willing to negotiate if you know how to speak Japanese. In Amerikamura you can find all sorts of specialty clothing stores ranging from hip-hop to gothic and tons of record shops. Hopefully, these suggestions help you shop until you drop.
# 6 – Museums, Museums, & More Museums
Osaka has a plethora of museums covering various subjects and one of which is bound to peak your interest. As previously mentioned, we went to the Abeno Harukas Museum to see the Star Wars Visions Exhibit, but you may be looking for more traditional art, culture and history. Included on our list were the Osaka Museum of History, the Osaka Municipal Museum of Fine Art and the Open – Air Museum of Old Japanese Farm Houses. In conversation, we were told to head to Nakanoshima to visit the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, the Osaka Science Museum and Osaka Central Public Hall, but we simply didn’t have the time to get to any of them. Instead we were satisfied with our visits to the museum inside # 3 – The Osaka Castle, which included many interesting weapons and classic artwork. You really need to do some research and connect your specific interests with the local museums. Please note that “visitors planning to see multiple museums should consider the Kansai Grutto Pass” or “the Kansai 18 Museum 3-Day Free Pass” to save a good sum of money (Japan Guide).
# 5 – Temples & Shrines
Now this may sound surprising, but during the week my travel mate and I were based out of Osaka, we visited very few if any temples and shrines in the city. This is because we visited many ancient historical sites during the day that were primarily shrines and temples. Don’t get me wrong. We passed many including a shrine right on the corner of our apartment building, but we made little effort to seek any of them out. We did have plans to visit a few and even blocked out a half day to do so, but ended up skipping them in favor of hanging out with some locals who wanted to show us more off the beaten path locations.
At the top of the list should be the Shitennoji Temple. Although it has been rebuilt multiple times since its original construction in 593, it is still regarded as the first state built temple in Japan. It is also credited by some as the first Buddhist temple in the country. Looking back, we probably should have made it there, but we visited countless other sites that were the first this and first that. You can’t do it all.
If you’re looking to visit any shrines in Osaka there are some others worth noting if you’re already in the area. Consider heading to the Tsuyuno Shrine if you’re in Umeda. The Tenmangu Shrine is in a more residential area, but is most known for its summer festival. Also, “located just steps away from Tenmangu Shrine is the Tenjinbashi-suji Shopping Street, which claims to be the longest in Japan” (Japan Guide). The Tenjin Matsuri should not be missed if you can time it correctly with festival season. My final suggestion is the Sumiyoshi Taisha or Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine with its large and easily recognizable red bridge, the Taiko bashi. Like I said, if your plans bring you to the area then make an effort to stop by and take a look, otherwise skip it.
# 4 – Go to the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan & Tempozan Harbor Village
If you’re looking to take a break from all the history and are in the mood for some youthful and exciting things to do in Osaka, then head over to the Tempozan Harbor Village. It is conveniently located only 20 minutes from the center of Osaka City by subway. The district is situated along the waterfront adjacent to active piers and is conveniently situated around the previously mentioned Tempozan Marketplace.
There are a handful of fun attractions in and around the mall worth your time, particularly if you have children. Consider starting at the Osaka Culturarium to check the current exhibits. Some of the sites like the Ferris Wheel, Legoland Discovery Center & the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan offer discount ticket packages that can save you some money if you plan on going to more than one of them. There are a number of maritime tours if you are interested in getting out on the water. When it’s time to eat make sure to head inside the Tempozan Marketplace and grab a bite of authentic Osaka cuisine at Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho (Naniwa Food Theme Park). There’s really a lot to do in this compact area, but the aquarium is definitely the highlight attraction here. For a full breakdown of the Tempozan Harbor Village make sure to check out my article the Top 10 Things to Do in & Around the Osaka Bay Area.
# 3 – Visit Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle is the centerpiece of the 15 square acre Osaka Castle Park, which includes 13 additional historical structures, as well as a number of Zen gardens, and many other modern facilities you would expect to see in any large public recreational area. Located in the Chūō-ko ward, the castle is close to a number of other attractions which include the Osaka Science Museum. It is easily accessible by a variety of public transportation methods. As a result, there are many things to see and do in and around the castle. Take a look at the park and local attractions maps. You may be able to cover multiple bases in a single day. The standard castle walkthrough will take approximately 2 hours, but a thorough exploration of the park will make it a full day affair.
Construction of the Osaka Castle (Ōsakajō) began in 1583, but the original structure is no longer standing. In 1665 a lightning strike caused a fire that burnt down the main tower. “It was not until 1931 that the present ferro-concrete reconstruction of the castle tower was built” (Japan Guide). It was restored in 1997 to its current form transforming the interior of the building into a truly modern facility.
The highlight of the castle has to be the multi-floor museum that is rich with background information and artifacts associated with “the castle’s history and Toyotomi Hideyoshi” (Japan Guide). There are many interesting old scrolls, artwork, weapons and armor that kept our interest much more than the average tourist, but we’re history geeks! My favorite section was the 5th floor that was dedicated to the “The Summer War in Osaka.” The contents of the keep’s interior can only be viewed in person due to photography restrictions. Even the books on sale didn’t include pictures of all of the artifacts.
Therefore, if you’re interested in the architecture and history of feudal Japan then it is worth your time to visit the impressive Osaka Castle (Park) and museum. This is especially the case if you don’t plan or have the time to go on any Historical Day Trips from Osaka (Under Construction), which you can read more about in my full article by following the link above.
# 2 – Explore Different Neighborhoods
Like any city, Osaka has many different neighborhoods and each have their own unique vibe that helps distinguish them from one another. You might see them referred to as wards and/or districts (which are technically more like counties or boroughs), but that may vary depending on the neighborhood. The good news is that you should be traveling to a number of them already as you cover your Osaka itinerary. Therefore, you will rarely need to go out of your way to explore most of these areas. I would recommend that you make your best effort to plan ahead so you can cover multiple attractions in neighborhoods mentioned.
Some of the areas in which I spent a considerable amount of time are presented below in alphabetical order. They include: Amerikamura, Dotonburi, the Osaka Bay Area, Shinsaibashi and Shinsekai to name a few. If you are interested in reading more about these neighborhoods please make sure to check out my Top #5 Favorite Neighborhoods in Osaka to Visit article (Under Construction).
# 1 – Eat & Drink Everything
Hands down my favorite thing about Osaka was all of the amazing food. Osaka has been referred to as, “tenka no daidokoro” or the nation’s kitchen since the Edo period when the Kansai region served as the heartland of Japanese rice production. Hundreds of years have passed and Osaka still plays a significantly important role in the local and national food culture. Night after night my travel companion and I would spend hours with our local contacts eating all sorts of delicious local delicacies at various dining establishments around the city. One dish was better than the next, and we couldn’t help but stuff our faces and take part in the “kuidaore” or eat until you drop lifestyle that has made Osaka a foodie capital. So forget about heading to the izakaya bar for the night, because it’s time to eat… Osaka-Style!
Make sure to explore different districts and sample as much of the local Kansai cuisine as you can consume in a single sitting. As far as I’m concerned you should go out of your way to go to Dotonburi for takoyaki or horumon and Shinsekai for fugu or kushikatsu. This should be at the top of your list, and if you don’t get to these places and try the suggested dishes you might as well skip eating in Osaka entirely. Stop for a meal at Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho in the Tempozan Marketplace if you’re in the Bay Area. Most probably at some point during your time in Osaka you will be passing through or end up in the Kitashinchi district or Osaka Station City. If you’re in a rush you will be able to find an okonomiyaki stand in all of the places mentioned. If you’re of legal age consider heading to the Asahi Beer Factory for a tour and sampler. Then after you digest (or while you’re digesting) go somewhere else and repeat the process! Happy Eating (until you drop) in Osaka!
For a full breakdown of my top 5 best districts to dine in and top 5 local foods to sample make sure to read my Osaka Food Guide article (Under Construction). The purpose of the guide is to point you in the direction of specific neighborhoods so you can sample some of the best local Kansai dishes the city has to offer.
Bonus for the Hardcore Sushi Fans (Food NOT Included)
An early morning visit to the Osaka Municipal Wholesale Market Honjo will allow visitors to view the basic operations of one of the world’s largest fish markets and distribution points. Sadly, don’t expect the Anthony Bourdain experience and a live viewing of the morning auction. Visitors will need to book a prearranged guided tour as access to the site is restricted and limited even for guests. It’s a good thing I hopped on the internet, because my travel mate and I were about to make the difficult commute there prior to the crack of dawn only to be denied. Our itinerary didn’t connect with any of the available tour dates and we had to miss out on this experience. Don’t make the same error we did and plan in advance. Finally, this is a sightseeing tour and does not include any sushi so plan to dine somewhere else if that is what you are after.
If you haven’t been able to tell by this point in the article or by the copious amounts of additional Osaka articles I have written then I’ll say it again and as plainly as possible…
Osaka was hands down my favorite city in Japan! Its central location allowed it to serve as my base of operations for over a week of my three-week trip. Some days I was exploring uniquely different neighborhoods throughout the city while visiting museums, shrines, temples and other attractions along the way. Other days I was venturing out of the city to what has become my Top 5 Historical Daytrips from Osaka (Under Construction). Then every night I was out until sunrise with my travel mate and our new local contacts sampling a smorgasbord of Kansai cuisine from kushikatsu to takoyaki balls. At the conclusion of my stay in Osaka I really wasn’t in any rush to leave, but there was much more of Japan to see and many other travel arrangements already booked, so it was time to go.
That being said, Osaka is the only city in Japan I spent time in that I would ever consider moving to and calling home. It reminded me so much of home it was almost comforting. Where Tokyo felt very posh and overly corporate, there was a level of grime and filth particularly at night that adds to the city’s character. It made Osaka feel just like home. It was much edgier compared to Tokyo or any other Japanese city for that matter, but some of that can be attributed to the eclectic neighborhoods across Osaka that I spent most of my time. They call New York City the city that never sleeps, but let me tell you something… Osaka must be a close second or maybe they deserve to take over the title. Whatever you do… do not sleep on Osaka nor should you plan on sleeping very much while you are there! Happy Trekking!