Osaka, Japan City Guide

This Osaka city guide provides travel tips including things to do, where to stay, transportation info, and more about Japan’s third-largest city. With that said, if you haven’t yet booked a trip and are doing preliminary planning, we strongly suggest reading our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and our Ultimate Tokyo City Guide before this. Not just because those are comprehensive and provide general tips for Japan, but because they cover cities we actually like and recommend.

If you’ve already booked a stay in Osaka and are super-excited about your upcoming trip to the city, this might be the wrong guide for you. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge Osaka fan. To the contrary, I think it’s the most overrated city in Japan, and among the most overrated places in the world. While this guide offers tips about Osaka’s highlights, it’s informed by our perspective that Osaka doesn’t live up to the hype. (Whether you want our ‘grounded in reality’ perspective or a ‘rosy and optimistic’ planning resource is your call.)

Personally, I don’t see the appeal of Osaka. It’s often viewed as a “rival” of Tokyo, and if you search online, you can find countless articles about the intense ‘east-west feud’ between the two. I’ve seen the rivalry being compared to New York v. Boston, and I’d say that’s at least somewhat apt. As someone with no vested or rooting interest in any of the cities mentioned, I’d also say it’s apt in the sense that in both cases, there is one clearly dominant city and one with an inferiority complex.

In other posts, we’ve mentioned that Tokyo and Kyoto are “two parts of a whole–integral companion experiences of any visit to Japan.” That’s neither the case with Tokyo & Osaka nor with Kyoto & Osaka. This isn’t to say Osaka is a “bad” city, it’s just not an essential place to visit in Japan. It’s largely redundant to Tokyo.

As a local, I could see how Osaka’s scrappier and upstart personality could have appeal. As a visitor, I think every single thing Osaka does well is done better by Tokyo. Osaka is famous for its food districts, and neon-drenched streets. Tokyo is one of the world’s culinary capitals, and nowhere in Japan is as vibrant as Shinjuku. From shopping to museums to even theme parks, Tokyo does it all better than Osaka.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Osaka is a nice place to visit and it’s an interesting city. My quibble is that everything Osaka does well is also something Tokyo does well…and better. At least with cities like Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kobe, Nara, and Nagoya, there are ample distinctions that can be drawn from Tokyo. From my perspective, Osaka mostly overlaps with Tokyo.

That’s no doubt a reductionist view and the perspective of someone who has never lived in Osaka. There’s unquestionably a more nuanced locals’ view that could show just how demonstrably wrong my perspective is. For example, Osaka is a cheaper place to live, is more manageable to navigate, and offers inexpensive food.

However, as a tourist who has visited Osaka several times, all of that only matters if you’re visiting Japan and not going to Tokyo…and I’d hazard a guess that very few people will do that. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a tourist, not someone debating whether to establish permanent residency in Osaka or Tokyo. I think my impression of Osaka is one that other tourists visiting Osaka will have.

As we already have comprehensive guides to Tokyo and Kyoto, we aren’t going to offer generalized advice for traveling to Japan that is also applicable here. In this Osaka city guide, we will instead primarily focus on things to do that we enjoy in the city, plus a few other tips for visiting…

Things to Do in Osaka

To be honest, what we’re most commonly doing when staying in Osaka is eating, visiting Universal Studios Japan, and commuting to other cities in Japan.

We’ve done many of Osaka’s highlights, but we have not made a point of visiting popular attractions for the sake of comprehensive Osaka coverage. With that said, here are our quick thoughts on some of the city’s highlights…

Universal Studios Japan – As mentioned, we visit Universal Studios Japan quite often. In fact, we should’ve purchased Annual Passes for the last two years (but foolishly haven’t) because we keep making impromptu return visits for various seasonal events. We highly recommend this theme park, but you need to go in with a plan, as it’s the busiest park in the world in terms of average wait times. Our Ultimate Guide to Universal Studios Japan offers comprehensive strategy.

Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan – Located across Osaka Bay from Universal Studios Japan (but ~40 minutes via public transit), this is one of the largest public aquariums in the world, and also one of most renowned. Even if you’re used to the Georgia Aquarium or Aquarium of the Pacific, you’ll likely be impressed by this massive venue and its diverse exhibits.

Osaka Castle – Aside from eating and visiting USJ, Osaka Castle is the place we’ve visited most in the city. We really enjoy spring sakura season here, as the cherry blossoms are lovely. The castle is impressive and the (free) public park is a nice place for a stroll. The interior of the castle might not be what you expect, but as we wrote in our full Osaka Castle Info, Tips & Review post, the museum is interesting and worth your time.

Shitennoji Temple – Beyond Osaka Castle, Osaka isn’t too heavy on historical sites. There aren’t too many top tier shrines and temples, and even Shitennoji Temple, which is the highlight, wouldn’t crack the top 50 in Kyoto.

Dotonbori – The quintessential Osaka experience is taking an evening stroll through the Dotombori Arcade, stopping for street food along the way before making your way to the Ebisubashi Bridge. When we stay in Osaka, we make multiple trips to Minami each trip, with a focus on Dotonbori.

Doing a “food crawl” is an incredibly fun activity with downtime between meals spent shopping (or waiting in line at the next restaurant). There are options for every budget, but you can easily spend ~$10-15/meal and have some great food. (Dotonbori excels on the mid-range dining options.)

Osaka Museum of History – Located in the same building as NHK Osaka (free and also worth visiting) and only a 10 minute walk from Osaka Castle, the Osaka Museum of History contains several large models and dioramas. These are something of a timeline of Osaka’s history, starting with ancient times and finishing with post-war exhibits. What’s especially cool about this museum is that it offers insights into Japan’s history through the prism of Osaka. It’s among the best history museums in Japan.

Shinsekai – Ironically known as Osaka’s “New World,” this is the once-trendy area of Osaka that time has passed by while other areas of the city have prospered. The neon of gambling establishments, bars, and other seedy establishments coupled with the futurism of Tsutenkaku Tower evoke a dystopian feel that might make do a double-take and question whether you’re on the set of Blade Runner. 

Cup Noodles Ramen Museum – Officially known as the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, the “Cup Noodles Museum” is a magical place that allows you to jump into the production process of instant noodles and learn about the history of ramen in Japan. Osaka’s Cup Noodles Museum is really awesome–an unheralded highlight of Osaka.

All of this just scratches the surface on things to do in Osaka. Unfortunately, we’ve been burned by a number of underwhelming experiences in Osaka, so that’s about all I can recommend. If you want more ideas, consult 25 Things to Do in Osaka on GaijinPot or 44 Things To Do In Osaka on Japan Talk.

Where to Stay in Osaka

As noted earlier in the post, we’ve stayed in Osaka several times. Some of this was by design, as we wanted to see Osaka during cherry blossom season or be able to get to Universal Studios Japan for 8 a.m. rope drop without a commute. Early in our travels to Japan, we also city-hopped much more, leading us to a few 2-night stays in Osaka before heading to Kyoto.

More recently, our stays in Osaka have been out of “necessity.” We’ve visited Japan during the heart of fall colors and spring sakura seasons, and accommodations in Kyoto have been cost-prohibitive. By contrast, we found comparable hotels and rental units in Osaka for less than half the cost.

One common reason for choosing Osaka as a home base during the Kansai leg of a trip to Japan is its centralized location. To be sure, Osaka does offer convenient access to Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, and Himeji. As such, you might be tempted to stay in Osaka even if not much interests you about the city itself.

We think this approach is misguided, and would recommend staying in Kyoto if it’s not cost-prohibitive. Kyoto is just as convenient to all of the above cities, you’ll spend more time in Kyoto, and it has the most popular points of interest where beating the crowds is important.

By contrast, the only place in Osaka that it’s important to arrive at super-early is Universal Studios Japan. We’ve managed to get to USJ for rope drop from Kyoto multiple times–it’s a surprisingly easy commute.

With all of that said, if you’ve already made up your mind and are dead-set on staying in Osaka or are visiting during a popular tourist season and need to stay in Osaka to save money, we recommend staying near Osaka Station.

This area is known as Umeda or Kita, and provides convenient access via the city’s JR Loop Line as well as the private train lines and subway line. If you’re planning on venturing outside Osaka, the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line is right here.

Located around Namba Station, Minami is the other top district. If you’re not going to leave Osaka much and are primarily focused on dining or shopping, this is the best option. You have convenient walking distance access to some of Osaka’s top restaurants, nightlife, and malls from here.

Next on our list of priorities would be pretty much anywhere along the Osaka Loop Line. No particular district, just the closer to a station, the better. This is akin to the Yamanote Line recommendation we have for Tokyo, and is basically a way to save money by staying in a less-popular district while still having fairly convenient transportation.

Since we’re frugal, we’ve ended up staying at Airbnbs in the Shinsekai area of Osaka a couple of times. This is the worst area of Osaka, but it’s also the cheapest. Nowhere in Japan is downright unsafe, but Shinsekai can be a bit unpleasant at times and in some pockets.

If you are a first-timer to Japan, we would strongly recommend not staying in Shinsekai. Yes, you can get really cheap apartment rentals, but the cost is having a poor first impression of Japan. After spending a lot of time in the country, we’re more willing to ‘rough it’ a bit to save money, but wouldn’t recommend the same approach to anyone else.

Getting Around Osaka

One of the upsides to staying in Osaka is that both of the Kansai region’s two major international airports are located in the city, and they have non-stop flights to select United States cities. We’ve flown into Osaka a couple of times, and found the experience just as easy and pleasant as flying into Tokyo.

If you fly into KIX, you’ll want to take the JR Haruka express train into the city. Since this is a JR train, Japan Rail Passes are accepted on it. You should read our Japan Rail Pass Tips & Info post for more on that and whether it’s worth the money for you, but as a general rule, if you’re going to use take the Shinkansen more than once, (and you will to get to Tokyo), it’s worth it.

If you’re only using the Shinkansen once, to get to Tokyo, there’s a chance the Japan Rail Pass might not be right for you. In which case, you can purchase an ICOCA card plus half-price Haruka ticket at the JR Ticket Office in the station at KIX. This will save you money, but it’ll also save you time. 

This is because getting the ICOCA card makes getting around the rails in Japan more convenient, and you don’t have to calculate the fare–or even purchase a ticket–for every single commute. Just put money on the card, and tap in and out as necessary. It’s really so much easier and less stressful than paying for each fare.

We touched upon this in our ‘Where to Stay’ section above, but the main line to know in the city is the Osaka Loop Line, which accepts the Japan Rail Pass. Other than that, the north-south Midosuji Subway Line is important, and services both Osaka Castle and Osaka Bay.

The aforementioned JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line from Osaka Station is going to be the cheapest way to access other cities. The Shin-Osaka Station if you have the Japan Rail Pass and want to use the Shinkansen will be the better option for those same cities.

Aside from that, transportation within Osaka is pretty simple. It’s a huge city, yet is more efficient than Kyoto’s public transit and less confusing than Tokyo’s web of train and subway lines. Cheaper hotels, better transportation, and inexpensive food…maybe Osaka isn’t quite as overrated as we stated at the top of the post?!

This just begins to scratch the surface of planning for a trip to Osaka, and we’re flat-out punting on topics like where to eat (be sure to have takoyaki and okonomiyaki!) and how long to visit (2 days), but as mentioned, we’re not authoritative experts on Osaka and probably not the best people to consult about it, so we don’t want to overextend ourselves here. We do have plenty of other thoughts about the city and can make recommendations or answer some questions that you have, so feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll update this guide on a regular basis with links to new posts and new information, so rest assured that the information here is, and will be, current.

If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! If you enjoyed our Osaka city guide or found it useful, we’d greatly appreciate it if you’d leave a comment below and/or share this post on social media via the sharing buttons below.

Your Thoughts

Have you been to Osaka, Japan? What did you think–do you agree that it’s overrated, or were you a fan of the city? Planning a trip to Japan and have questions? If you’ve visited or are living in Japan and have tips of your own, please add them in the comments. (I might just borrow them for the guide itself.) Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts!

9 replies
  1. Phillip
    Phillip says:

    I’m having to stay within a loyalty network, which is limiting the locations available to stay in. It looks like Hommachi station has access to most of my points of interest, with a few minute ride to Osaka station for inter-city travel. Is that area one in which you would stay if you were saving $100/night over a hotel near Osaka Station?

    Reply
  2. Christopher Lane
    Christopher Lane says:

    I stayed in Osaka a few years ago for a few days, after 5 trips to Tokyo and 1 trip to Kyoto, and overall I agree. The city seems a bit less pristine and classy than Tokyo, there was lots of graffiti in places and more shady areas (There’s shady areas in Tokyo to be sure but it seems they’re more easily avoidable).

    I didn’t think Osaka, from a tourist persepective did much for me that I couldn’t find in Tokyo. The only exception is Universal Osaka which is nice, but I live in Florida, so it’s got the same things mostly.

    Reply
  3. Marcie M
    Marcie M says:

    I have been to Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo over 10 years ago (alas). When I was there we only stayed 2 days, I can’t say that I entirely agree with saying Osaka is ho-hum, but that could be due to the fact that the stay was so short!
    I whole heatedly agree that the inexpensive food and ease of travel around the city was spot-on! I highly recommend this city as kinda a Japan “starter” city if your nervous about going to Japan, Osaka is a great spot to build some confidence in your trip. So easy to get around, especially on the loop line. Osaka Castle & Osaka History Museum deliver on all promises and are worth stopping at if you have time.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      “I highly recommend this city as kinda a Japan “starter” city if your nervous about going to Japan, Osaka is a great spot to build some confidence in your trip.”

      Totally agree with this assessment. Easier transportation than Tokyo, not quite as crowded, and still a decent amount to do.

      Reply
  4. TDR
    TDR says:

    Just a small tip I would like to add to this guide:

    If you’re staying around the Namba area and don’t have a JR Rail Pass, take the Nankai Rapi:t train from KIX airport into town instead of any of the other trains.

    It’s my favorite Japanese train. Not as fast as a bullet train but it’s cooler-looking (IMO) and has a way nicer interior. About $10 for the regular ticket and a couple bucks extra if you want the wider “super seat”. A bargain and a great experience in itself.

    Every time I’ve ridden it, the train is practically empty.

    Reply
  5. Sydney
    Sydney says:

    I’ve been planning a trip to Japan ever since I first read your articles on Tokyo Disneyland/DisneySea several years ago, and love the comprehensive coverage of different Japanese cities you have been providing over the last several months here! I hope to be able to utilize much of it whenever I finally make it to Japan!!

    Reply

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