Places We Love: Osaka

In our Places We Love series we feature some of our favorite places in Japan, including towns & cities, shops & restaurants, hotels & ryokans, hot springs and more.

Osaka is a cosmopolitan city near the ancient capital, Kyoto, best known for its dynamic food and drinking culture, and famously outgoing people.

osaka cityscape skyscrapers night japan

Osaka skyscrapers at night

Osaka is Japan’s second city, and on the surface might not seem like an off-the-beaten-path destination.

But the truth is that – despite having two international airports and being just 15 minutes by bullet train from Kyoto – it is far too often skipped by English-speaking travelers.

Why We Love Osaka

Despite the fact that so many travelers inadvertently overlook Osaka, it is a perennial favorite among repeat visitors and Japan connoisseurs.

What makes Osaka so appealing?

It’s a surprisingly attractive and energetic city, with some of Japan’s most outgoing and fun-loving people, and a world-class dining and drinking culture.

The cuisine is what draws many culinary travelers to Osaka. The people of Osaka are notorious for their obsession with eating and drinking, which has given rise to the local expression, kuidaore (“to eat oneself to ruin”).

japanese food takoyaki octopus balls osaka japan

Takoyaki (“octopus balls”) in Osaka

Osaka has an eclectic culinary universe, with specialties ranging from casual favorites such as street side takoyaki (fried bite-sized balls filled with octopus and other goodies) and okonomiyaki, to elegant establishments and Michelin-starred restaurants.

Aside from its epicurean delights, it’s the warmth and friendliness of Osaka’s people, who are well known in Japan for their humor and exuberance. It’s no surprise that many of Japan’s comedians come from Osaka, and the local baseball fans (of the Hanshin Tigers team) are among the most rabid and boisterous in the country.

So while it’s not as large as Tokyo – or culturally renowned as its neighbor Kyoto – Osaka is nevertheless one of our favorite cities in Japan.

Amazing food, amazing people and a cosmopolitan city – what more could you want?

To help give us a more in-depth view of Osaka, we invited our friend Sam Crofts – an Osaka resident and travel-industry entrepreneur – to tell us more about what makes his adopted home of Osaka such a special place.

Osaka Castle Japan

Osaka Castle

Introducing Sam from Cycle Osaka

Together with his wife, Mai, Sam is so passionate about Osaka that they have started not one but two unique tour companies designed to give travelers a truly immersive experience in the city they love and know so well (more on these unique experiences below).

If you’re one of our clients, chances are high that we’ll recommend at least one of these if you’re visiting Osaka – but even if you’re not traveling with us, make sure to check them out!

Without further ado, let’s hear what Sam had to say about the city of Osaka.

Sam Crofts of Cycle Osaka at Osaka Castle Park

Sam Crofts of Cycle Osaka at Osaka Castle Park

What are some specific things that you love most about Osaka?

First is the diversity. The biggest Koreatown in the country is here; the tallest building in the country is here; the oldest temple in the country is here. There’s just so much in such a concentrated area.

Second is how real it is. What I mean is, say you go to Shitenno-ji Temple, you’ve got real monks and priests walking around. In so many parts of Japan the famous temples are swamped by tourists and school groups. I love that most parts of Osaka are non-touristy places where real locals hang out, and you really feel it when you’ve been here for even a short time.

osaka japan takoyaki street food octopus balls namba dotonbori

Takoyaki stall on Osaka’s Dotonbori

Not including your tours, what would be the perfect day in Osaka?

For a perfect day in Osaka I’d try to get a bit of everything in, so I’d start at the Sumiyoshi Shrine in South Osaka. It’s connected by one of the few remaining trams in Japan, because in the 1920s all the trams disappeared and the subway emerged, but there’s one tram left in Osaka that connects this shrine to an area called Tennoji.

I’d go to Tennoji for lunch and eat some kushikatsu, which is deep-fried pork and vegetables on a stick, and I’d stop in at Tower Knives, which is a knife exporter, and I’d play with some of the hand-forged knives.

From there, I’d probably go up to Osaka Castle because you can’t not go to Osaka Castle, and I’d go for a run or a bike ride. And from there, probably head to Umeda [district] for sushi.

osaka castle sunset japan

Osaka Castle

I’d end the day down in Namba. It’s a very concentrated area of neon bars and restaurants that rivals anywhere in Tokyo, in my opinion, and there are lots of colorful characters. Finally, depending on your budget, retire to The St. Regis or wherever you’re staying.

Imagine it’s your last day in Osaka. You have time for one last meal. Where do you go?

That is literally an impossible question.

Oh man. All right, I’m going to say – for the atmosphere – near my neighborhood, an area called Fukushima, there’s a yakiniku restaurant underneath the train tracks. I think I’d have to go there. It’s really old. There are no posh tables, everyone sits on beer crates turned upside-down, and the atmosphere’s electric. It’s smoky – it smells really strongly of cigarette smoke and beer and cooking beef – and I think I’d like that to be my lasting memory of Osaka.

Namba District Dotonbori Osaka Japan

Namba District, Dotonbori (Photo Credit: Marufish via Compfight cc)

Perfect. So changing gears, what are your favorite times of year to be in Osaka?

The fall and the spring are just ridiculously beautiful. Osaka has this reputation, in Japan, as this completely industrial working-class kind of city, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In spring, in Sakuranomiya, the river bends round and it’s covered with cherry blossoms. And the same in autumn: you’ll find parks with beautiful foliage and also perfect weather for cycling or walking around.

Aside from famous touristy spots like Universal Studios, the Kaiyukan Aquarium, or even Osaka Castle, do you have any tips for families with kids?

Yes, actually there’s a place called Kids Plaza Osaka. I’ve never been, because I’m 30 years old, but I’ve just had a baby so I might go soon. It’s just this Aladdin’s cave of crazy activities for kids, with ball pools and things to climb and jump off and have a wildly fun time and get tired, while your parents sit there and watch. I think that’s the place to go.

Sam Crofts of Cycle Osaka and Christina Soto of Boutique Japan

Christina of Boutique Japan with Sam Crofts of Cycle Osaka

So tell us about your first company, Cycle Osaka, for somebody who doesn’t know anything about it.

Cycle Osaka is our way of bringing together the two things that we love the most: the city of Osaka and biking.

Basically, it’s a flat town with a lot to see and do, but we felt that – in contrast to say Kyoto or Tokyo – there’s not really that infrastructure for English-speaking tourists.

And I’m really worried that people are going to come to Osaka and miss out on all this amazing stuff, just underneath the surface, because they don’t have the access and Osaka doesn’t really promote its hidden gems to tourists, especially English-speaking tourists.

So we put it all together and made Cycle Osaka, and now every day we go out and bike with four or five people, and check out some little neighborhoods that no one’s heard of, and then we check out the big sites, and we just have a really good day and eat some good food.

Perfect.

It’s really quite simple.

Osaka Castle moat and bridge Osaka Japan

Osaka Castle

So how about your new company, Eat Osaka? How did it come about, what is it – and what makes it different?

Well, my wife and I, and her friend and her husband, were having drinks and making dinner one night, and talking about the fact that there isn’t really a lot for tourists to do in Osaka.

When I say there’s not much for tourists, I mean that there isn’t that infrastructure that places like Tokyo and Kyoto have.

And we’d all recently been to Thailand together, and had a great cooking class there. So we thought, why not try a similar thing here to try and give people a window into Osakan culture, since in Osaka food and culture are so intertwined.

Eat Osaka street food course and sake

Sampling from street food course at Eat Osaka

One of the realities of travel in Japan is that many people come to Osaka on the way to somewhere else. For instance, people are going from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and they’ll stop in Osaka for maybe one night.

So our goal was to come up with a way to let people squeeze a really awesome, authentic Osaka experience into just one afternoon or evening. And we came up with Eat Osaka.

To do it right we wanted to find a real old space, and get hold of some real handmade Japanese cooking tools, to give people as authentic an experience as possible, and I guess this is another thing that makes it different from standard cooking classes in Japan, which usually take place in people’s homes.

We’re lucky to be friends with a company called Tower Knives, who supply some of the best knives in the world to Osaka’s Michelin-starred chefs. They helped us find an old Japanese house and we renovated it ourselves over the summer. It has sliding shoji doors, handmade desks and doors and chairs, and it’s just in a really cool location down an alley.

Bjorn at Tower Knives also supplied us with a set of great Osakan knives that our customers can experience, and also purchase if they want to. We then spent a month trying out different combinations of food and, after many tasting sessions with friends, settled on two different courses: a street-food course where you can learn to make Osakan festival food, like okonomiyaki, yakitori and udon; and another course called “home cooking,” which tries to give people a window into how Japanese people live, and the kind of food they eat as a family on a normal day. We’re now in the process of designing a special sushi decoration course.

Eat Osaka Tower Knives Osaka

The knives used at Eat Osaka, from Tower Knives Osaka

I saw on your website you have a whole section dedicated to knives. Usually you see things like “About Us,” “Contact Us,” so I was surprised to see a tab called, “Our Knives.”

Yeah, right? The knives are the real thing. When you come, you’ll love it. I’ll give you a carrot and just sit back and watch your face as you slice it first with a 100-yen knife and then with a real Osakan tool, it’s a thing of beauty. You can’t hear it. It’s just awesome.

It sounds amazing. Thank you so much, Sam!

You can learn more about Sam and Mai’s unique Osaka tours by visiting Cycle Osaka and Eat Osaka.

Skyscrapers cityscape Osaka Japan

Osaka

Getting to Osaka

If you’re ready to visit, getting to Osaka is quite simple!

By air, Osaka is served by two airports: Kansai International (KIX) and Osaka International (ITM). It’s very easy to reach Osaka from a huge number of destinations in Japan and throughout the world.

From within Japan, the easiest way to get to Osaka is usually by shinkansen (bullet train).

Osaka is just 27 miles (43 km) from the ancient capital, Kyoto. Various train lines connect the two cities – including the shinkansen (bullet train), a special rapid Japan Railways (JR) express train, and the Hankyu and Keihan Railways – making it a very easy trip.

Japan Rail Pass bullet train shinkansen

The shinkansen (bullet train)

Where to Stay in Osaka

Osaka is full of great accommodation options, including two of our favorites featured below (from our article on Japan’s best hotels).

The St. Regis Osaka

The St. Regis Osaka Lounge

The St. Regis Osaka

The St. Regis Osaka offers the perfect combination of comfort, style, friendly service and incredible location.

Rooms are stylish and modern with city views, and The St. Regis also has a bar you’ll actually want to hang out in, not to mention a stunning outdoor Zen garden terrace overlooking the city.

The location couldn’t be better: the upscale Midosuji district is ideal for walking around, and within easy walking distance of young and trendy Shinsaibashi, as well as the lively Namba nightlife district (where the famous Dotonbori eating street is located).

Hotel T’POINT

If you’re looking for a smaller boutique hotel with an artsy flair, we recommend Hotel T’POINT.

Hotel T'POINT

Hotel T’POINT

This ever-evolving art and design hotel has 45 uniquely-appointed designer rooms, from large suites to small efficiency rooms.

T’POINT is not a luxury hotel, however it is a great option for lovers of good design, and is also in a convenient location not far from trendy Shinsaibashi and lively Namba.

See You in Osaka!

We hope this article has done its job, and has you eager to visit.

Thanks again to Sam from Cycle Osaka and Eat Osaka for joining us!

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Osaka is one of Japan's most unsung cities, often overshadowed by its neighbor Kyoto and Tokyo. Find out what makes Osaka such an amazing destination!
About Andres Zuleta

Andres is the founder of Boutique Japan.

Unlike a lot of travel companies, we don't work from a cubicle!

In 2005, I first moved from New York City to Tokyo to study Japanese, and living in Tokyo changed my life, leading me to want to dedicate my life to helping others really experience Japan, the way I have been able to do so!

  • Hajime Sano

    Thanks for the terrific article on my hometown. (My hometown for the first five years of my life, until we came to the U.S.) Osaka is usually my home base when I go to Japan, and I can never get enough of it. From there, I’ve explored Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagano, Hokkaido, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Beppu. But I always love returning to Osaka, not just to see my relatives but also the food and the non-touristy sites.

    • I didn’t know Osaka was your hometown, but what a great hometown it is! I’ll be spending a few weeks there this winter/spring and am very much looking forward to it, as always. Thanks so much for sharing.

      • Hajime Sano

        Osaka is hosting the World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Championships later this month. It is one of my favorite sports and I’m actively involved in it as a Master’s athlete and coach, and interpreter for one of the Japanese coaches from Osaka who is a dear friend. I just found out they were hosting it Feb. 27-Mar. 1, and wish I could fit it in to my schedule and budget. If you are in town during that time definitely check it out.

        • Thanks for the tip! Should be in Osaka around then, and will definitely try and check it out.

          • Hajime Sano

            Here is the competition web site: http://www.jsfresults.com/InterNational/2014-2015/wjst/
            Our LA-based club should place at least one member on the US team next weekend at Jr. Trials. If any parents express interest in assistance traveling to the meet, can I refer them to you?

          • Hajime-san: I will send you an email about it!