Osaka Castle (大阪城, Ōsakajō) is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions, with millions of people visiting the iconic landmark each year, particularly during cherry blossom season when there are special hanami parties and night illuminations. I’ve had the chance to visit both during sakura season and regular times of year, and will share some of my thoughts and tips for Osaka Castle in this post.
Construction of Osaka Castle began in 1583 on the site where Ishiyama Honganji Temple had been destroyed. Toyotomi Hideyoshi intended for Osaka Castle to become the center of a new, unified Japan under Toyotomi rule.
Once completed, Osaka Castle was the largest castle in Japan. After Hideyoshi’s death, Osaka Castle was destroyed. It was subsequently rebuilt in the 1620s, only to be struck by lightning and burnt down in 1665. Today’s Osaka Castle is a reconstruction that was built in 1931, and it highly modernized on the inside. We’ll cover this and more in the review…
Osaka Castle’s tower is surrounded by smaller citadels, gates, turrets, large walls, an outer moat, and a labyrinth of walkways and peaceful garden areas.
This makes Osaka Castle Park a nice place to visit (the grounds are free!) even if you don’t intend upon paying the 600 yen to go inside the castle.
Actually, even if you’re not interested in the museum component inside the castle, we’d still highly recommend wandering through Osaka Castle Park. It’s a really lovely area, with plenty of nice views.
As embarrassing as this is to admit, I’ve gotten lost on the grounds in Osaka Castle multiple times (in some cases repeating the same mistakes). I think this is easy to do, as the way the grounds are laid out makes some areas take on a maze-like quality. Or, maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better about getting lost.
Most of my difficulties navigating the ground stem from trying to get to the Nishinomaru Garden. This separately-ticketed lawn garden is located on the former “western citadel” and is home to 600 cherry trees, a tea house, the former Osaka Guest House, and beautiful views.
While the garden is pretty, I probably wouldn’t recommend purchasing a separate ticket to it unless you’re visiting during cherry blossom season, when it is open later at night for hanami parties. At this time, the trees and castle are illuminated, there are food vendors set-up throughout the lawn, and it takes on a much more lively energy.
“Lively” is probably a bit charitable. When we visited Osaka Castle during cherry blossom season, people were having hanami parties both inside and outside the Nishinomaru Garden, and there were bottles of cheap wine and beer everywhere. Guests were also loud and a few were drunkenly stumbling around.
As compared to the hanami party we experienced at Himeji Castle and ones we’ve seen in Kyoto, this had a very different, less family-friendly vibe. There were far more young people, and it felt more like a booze-fueled party. Perhaps it’s just my anecdotal experience, but I’ve gotten the impression that Osaka is more of a ‘party’ city than Kyoto or Tokyo. (I could be totally wrong on this–my experience is limited.)
The cherry blossom night illuminations at Osaka Castle were still a very fun time, but I offer this as something to keep in mind if you’re considering taking a herd of small children.
Our biggest tip with regard to Osaka Castle is timing a cherry blossom season visit. We’d recommend going just before sunset to take daytime photos of the trees with vibrant, natural color. Then, once the sun has gone down, stick around for the early-hours of the evening hanami party.
I think this is a better approach than showing up later at night, when you’ll only see the trees lit up artificial light; you’ll also have to deal with a party atmosphere that is a few hours further into its drinking if you wait.
In terms of other tips, I’d recommend going on a pretty day if at all possible. Osaka Castle is one of the more picturesque sites in Japan, with nice scenery outside, and inside from the observation area.
When it comes to crowds, Osaka Castle actually isn’t all that bad (in my experience) despite the huge numbers of visitors. I suspect many visitors stick to the Osaka Castle Park, never going inside, and given that the grounds are 15 acres in size, it’s easy for the park to absorb heavy crowds.
Of course, crowds inside the museum are bound to be worse on national holidays or during tourist seasons, but this is true everywhere in Japan. I wouldn’t make a point of visiting Osaka Castle first thing in the morning or right before it closes to avoid hordes of people–you’re better off strategically visiting other spots.
Due to its modernization, Osaka Castle is a bit jarring. On the outside, it’s a remarkable sight to behold, appearing (to my untrained eye, at least) to be a castle from the early Edo period.
The main tower rises above sprawling castle grounds, and looks like a significant historical and cultural site. Based on the beautiful exterior and grounds, without looking I would’ve assumed it to be a UNSECO World Heritage Site.
Then you go inside, where Osaka Castle is a modern museum. There’s an elevator, interactive displays, well-designed galleries, and even samurai photo ops for kids (or adults, I suppose).
The museum component is incredibly detailed and well-presented, but…it’s not exactly what you’d expect if you’ve been to other castles or historical landmarks in Japan. This museum could just as easily be dropped into a sleek, post-modern building without raising any eyebrows.
During our first experience with Osaka Castle, I was taken aback and even a bit disappointed by this. Having since visited Nijo Castle and Himeji Castle, I no longer feel that way. In fact, after visiting more preserved historical points of interest in Japan, I have a greater appreciation for the change of pace that Osaka Castle offers.
If Osaka Castle were the only castle in Japan I visited on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I’d probably be disappointed. Once you go inside, it loses the aura of authenticity, and feels like a reproduction. However, if you visit either Nijo or Himeji Castles (both of which are in this general region), Osaka Castle can be viewed as more of a complementary experience.
What those castles lack in expository information and displays due to their more historical character, Osaka Castle makes up for. There’s a wealth of information on display in its multi-level galleries, and it offers some interesting insight into Japanese history.
When viewed as a “hybrid museum” housed inside of beautiful architecture, I think it’s quite easy to have a very favorable opinion of Osaka Castle.
Ultimately, the experience you have at Osaka Castle ultimately comes down to perception and expectations. If you go in wanting to see a meticulously preserved Edo period castle, you will be sorely disappointed. If you appreciate the exterior and beautiful castle grounds as a well-done park and recreation of a destroyed castle, coupled with a museum inside, I think you’ll enjoy the experience quite a bit more. I’d also strongly encourage visiting Osaka Castle as a supplement to (ideally) Himeji Castle or Nijo Castle, rather than instead of those castles. For me, Osaka Castle and Himeji Castle are two exceptional, individual counterparts to a perfect whole.
Have you visited Osaka Castle? If you’ve also visited Himeji Castle or Nijo Castle, how do you feel it compared to those? Do you agree with my assessment, or would you recommend skipping Osaka Castle? Have you visited Osaka Castle during cherry blossom season? What about a hanami party? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!