The trip to Japan was a whirlwind of adventures. A few weeks of planning, reading online guides, tripadvisor and travel books did not really prepare us for the task that lay ahead.
Our first destination in Japan was Osaka city, the capital city of the Osaka Prefecture in the Kansai region, located over 500km from Tokyo city and just a 3 hour bullet train ride away. The name is pronounced with an emphasis on ‘O’, therefore “Oh-Saka”. Once a former trade capital of Japan (before Tokyo), it holds 7% of the country’s population, outputs an economy bigger than that of Hong Kong and Thailand combined. Osaka is reputed to have the highest number of bridges in Japan. Bunraku, the Japanese Puppet theater, had its origins here. This second largest city of Japan was nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Kitchen’, not just because of the wide variety of food available but actually traces back to olden times where it was a gathering and distribution center of numerous raw food materials and commodities.
Osaka nights.. Dotonburi and Namba..
Having said that, we had a great time sussing the system out for ourselves (read our guide on how Navigate Japan’s Train & Subway System plus getting ‘Connected’ here). Upon the morning of arrival by flight to Tokyo, we would catch the Shinkansen to Osaka, where our adventures would begin.
Osaka bound..! These Shinkansen arrive like clockwork and leave just as punctually. If you miss it, then it might be a mad scramble to get to the right platform for the next one. We are happy to report that for our entire trip, we did not miss any Shinkansen we were meant to be on. That’s because I was the time keeper, and I didn’t let us be late for anything!
We caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji on our very first day in Japan..
We experienced snow too..!
Snow greeted us as our foot touched the platform at Osaka Station.. Happy to see this phenomenon again after so many years!
Osaka was a massive cosmopolitan that didn’t seem to sleep. Everywhere you turned, there were hip and happening locals milling about – from the cool Umeda neighborhood, with a praiseworthy, pulsating nightlife to the super packed Namba department stores it was hard to go home at midnight.. there was just so much to see and do.
Loved the varied ethnic restaurants in the entertainment districts but mainly loved eating at the markets and off the hidden path restaurants. We didn’t have much time as we arrived late in the evening – only a little less than 2 days at this first port of call, before heading to Kyoto, so here’s our top 5 things to do in Osaka.
1. Stay at the New Otani Hotel, Osaka
Arriving via Shinkansen in Shin-Osaka, then changing for the JR line and alighting at Ōsakajōkōen Station, we were pleased to find our hotel, a mere 4 minute walk from the JR Train station.
As I needed to have practice runs before the marathon, I read about the locals jogging around the 2 square kilometer Osaka-jo-koen (Osaka Castle Park) and thought this would be the ideal place to be. Not only would you get to jog around the castle lake and a baseball field, you’d get to run within the castle grounds (60,000 square meters (15 acres)) and covertly use the super fast japanese as pacers. Through Agoda we found the best rates with New Otani. We use the portal pretty extensively with our bookings as it has the most competitive rates where hotels are concerned.
Here are 3 great reasons, to stay at the New Otani Osaka…
i. Fantastic location
If you are looking for a hotel within a historical district, close to the Castle and with easy access to the city centre, this is a great hotel to choose.
The New Otani Osaka is very well connected, and is near the transport hub/city center which provides a mere 40-minute train ride to World Heritage sites such as Kyoto, Nara, and Himeji. The renowned shopping street Tenjinbashisuji is a 6-minute train ride away.
The hotel also has a European-style garden and outdoor pool, along with two tennis courts, overlook the city from one of the rooftops; ground-level exercise can be had with a stroll, jog, or cycle along a paved riverside path.
indoor laps for those cold wintery days when you cannot swim outside
The view is fantastic both day and night – overlooking the Castle and a professional baseball stadium. Totally impressed with the location.
ii. Great food & Fine Dining
If you are into fine dining, then a visit to the French restaurant, Sakura is a must. French cooking prepared by the talented chef Nagai were both fine as well as exquisite.
The restaurant located at the top level of the hotel had a gorgeous view of Osaka Castle and the grounds by night. We loved the high quality Japanese ingredients employed to create dishes which preserved the taste of genuine French cuisine.
The wines also paired well, under the thoughtful recommendations of the restaurant’s sommelier, Mr.Hiroshi, whom we found later, had won several national Sommelier awards.
An extensive wine list, from a state of the art wine cellar
me, surprised to be enjoying French wine on my first night in Japan, but loving every minute of it!
Yellow tail buri carpaccio, lobster mouse, duck terrine – sublime!
Yellow tail , caviar, daikon, daikon mouse – subtle yet bursting with freshness.. hard to top!
Lobster and prawn bisque served with mousse of soramame beans. A bisque with less cream used – incredibly bold and rich in ocean flavours!
Kyushu japanese beef. Saga prefacture – Kobe beef is over-rated I tell you. Even Local Kyushu beef melts in your mouth like butter on a hot knife!
Pudding, vanilla ice cream and white chocolate – simply delectable.
Earl grey custards, coconut mirangue – an incredible dinner ended on a high note!
Not only that, each morning, we were treated to one of the best buffet breakfasts we had on our entire trip in Japan. The selection was huge, and the quality incredible.
You could go for the entire western deal with bacon and eggs done any way you liked, or the whole traditional Japanese rice and small dishes sort of breakfast. We just had to try everything!
iii. Massive Rooms & Great Service
We have to say that all things being equal and dollar for dollar, a lot of rooms in hotels in Japan are rather small. Not so at the New Otani Osaka. Our room was massive and spacious, and modern.
Everything worked well including the zippy wifi. The service personal spoke good English and were very helpful. This was a great first port of call, during our trip to Japan, and set a rather high standard.
We were sorry to leave! But Kyoto was next on our list of adventures, so we had to eventually bid farewell to Osaka after 2 days of incredible experiences, with warm, thoughtful personal who were efficient and kind.
Hotel New Otani Osaka
1-4-1 Shiromi, Chuo-ku, Istana Osaka/Kyobashi, Osaka, Jepun 540-8578
2. Join in the fun at Sumo Spring Basho
And no wonder we spotted so many Sumo wrestlers in Osaka.. In the month of March, you can see these ‘larger than life’ wrestlers in action at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. Of the six annual Grand Tournaments of Sumo only one is held in Osaka, the Spring Basho.
It’s a tournament of 15 days with each day running from morning to evening for 8 hours or more. By the end, a champion is decided in each of Sumo’s six divisions. Osaka is a great town to see sumo because the fans are nuts about it.
3. Visit the National Bunraku Theater
Bunraku is the traditional puppet theatre of Japan, a high-level stage art of which Japan can be very proud. Bunraku was originally the name of the theatre in which this puppet drama was performed, but gradually it came to be used as the name of the art itself and is today used as the official name of the puppet theatre.
The art only came to be known as “Bunraku” around the end of the Meiji era. Anyway, this theater is one of the best places to see it. Bunraku puppets are about 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall. Each puppet is controlled by three people — the main puppeteer, right puppeteer and left puppeteer. It can take 30 years of practice to become a main puppeteer.
4. Run Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle was built originally by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s revolutionary leader in the late 16th century who rose from peasantry to become one of the three unifiers of Japan and put an end to a long, bloody period of feudal warfare. Completed in 1597, the castle was the largest, most intimidating castle in Japan at the time, and acted as a catalyst for rapid growth of Osaka.
This area is also a runner’s paradise I tell you, and since I had a marathon to run the following week, it was the ideal location for a test run, and warm up if you like.
The gorgeous Osaka Castle .. or Osaka-jō as the locals refer to affectionately as..
This castle was a real display of power, using, it’s said, the labour of 100,000 workers. Although the present structure is a 1931 concrete reconstruction (refurbished 1997), it’s nonetheless quite a sight, looming dramatically over the surrounding park and moat. Inside is an excellent collection of art, armour, and day-to-day implements related to the castle, Hideyoshi and Osaka. An 8th-floor observation deck has 360-degree views.
This area is surrounded by secondary citadels, gates, turrets, impressive stone walls and moats and a lovely running track that goes around it parameter. The entire Osaka Castle Park covers about two square kilometers with lots of green space, sport facilities, a multi-purpose arena (Osakajo Hall) and a shrine dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a prominent political figure from the 16th century (Sengoku Period) who also completed the construction of the castle.
The Nishinomaru Garden, encompassing the former “western citadel”, is a lawn garden with 600 cherry trees, a tea house, the former Osaka Guest House and nice views of the castle tower from below. The area around the castle requires no admission fee. We had a great time running here – managed to run 20KM as a taper run, one week out from the Tokyo Marathon 2015, which I would be racing in, later that week.
5. Hike Mino Park
Mino Park is a good place to escape the bright lights of Osaka. Only 30 minutes from the city, it’s a forested quasi-national park with hiking trails and a waterfall.
The place is alive with colors especially during autumn. Minoo Park’s main hiking trail extends about three kilometers through a valley alongside the Minoo River. The trail begins near Hankyu Minoo Station and leads to the Minoo Waterfall. With a height of 33 meters, the waterfall is the park’s main natural attraction.
6. Visit Sumiyoshi-taisha Shrine
This is one of the oldest shrines in Japan.. and we mean archaic! It was founded in the year 211, before Chinese architecture influenced the design of temples in Japan. Its architecture is purely Japanese.
Sumiyoshi-taisha enshrines three gods, said to protect travelers, fishermen and sailors. The shrine is heavily used by locals and is packed on most public holidays and New Year’s Day.
7. Explore Shinsaibashi and eat Massive Scallops, Fugu & Takoyaki
Osaka has several massive shopping districts and miles of shopping arcades, malls and streets. You can pick from a range of inexpensive thrift shops and discount chains to designer wear if you like.
Dotonbori was a former pleasure and theater district. These days it’s better known for its restaurants and shops with bright neon lights and elaborate store front displays. Dotonbori is a single street running alongside the Dotonbori canal in Namba, Osaka’s main shopping and entertainment area. Dotonbori features several famous restaurants for local fare such as takoyaki and okonomiyaki (grilled savoury-sweet pancake). Its neon lights are some of Asia’s best. The atmosphere is lively.
The city’s two largest shopping districts are Umeda in the north and Namba in the south. In between Umeda and Namba is the covered shopping arcade Shinsaibashi Suji, one of Osaka’s oldest and busiest shopping destinations which runs about 600 meters in length. Loads of young, trendy people can be seen here, waiting for the night’s ‘action’ to get into full swing.
Shinsaibashi Suji’s collection of brand name shops, chain stores, independent boutiques and variety of restaurants makes it popular with nearly every kind of shopper. At Dotonbori, Shinsaibashi Suji becomes Ebisubashi Suji, though the same shopping atmosphere remains.
Here one should definitely try Osaka’s quintessential street snack – the Takoyaki, ball-shaped octopus fritters. While some Takoyaki shops have queues that span for miles, some are relatively deserted. I suppose one should always try to eat from the busier shops!
Eating the piping hot Takoyaki and various Japanese snacks outdoors in the cold, and enjoying the river view.. this was one of the best experiences walking around Osaka!
Takoyaki being rolled out by the dozens a minute..
Larger than life Scallops!
And if you are more adventurous, check out tessa, the Osakan’s slang for eating sashimi of poisonous fugu, or globefish/puffer fish. Tessa is in reference to playing russian roulette role when eating parts of the deadly fish as its sure death for those who are unlucky. Certified chefs are trained to leave just enough poison to numb the lips.. but not sure if those on the streets are indeed these certified chefs.. would you dare to find out?
Kissing the Fugu, for a lip numbing experience!
Loads of small restaurants, packed with local slurping noodles and chugging beer
adult entertainment.. for well, adults:P. We did wonder if the actual entertainers were as pretty as their profile shots
A cool liquor store which had a standing area for enjoying the booze you buy, with snacks to boot..
Alcohol is affordable in Japan and a large variety is found even in convenience stores. Just before Valentine’s day, we stumbled upon this incredible wholesale store that sold alcohol for super cheap. And we’re not talking bad stuff either. Champagne, French wines, Single Malts, Premium Sake etc.. you name it, they had it. If only we had more bags, we would have bought a lot more.
Check out the prices
Did you read that right? 1000Y for 1800 litre sake?!!
We picked up a Cava for 1000Yen and the manager was nice enough to give us some Godiva chocolates – he kind of wished us happy Valentine’s day with that gift I think, before sending us on our way..!
8. Take a Day out to Universal Studios Japan
Universal Studios Japan is like the latest craze that has injected a huge insurge of tourism into Osaka again. It had 11 million visitors in its first year.
It was the first theme park anywhere to get that many visitors in its opening year. It’s super clean, well organized, and the Japanese, unlike the Americans, do not jostle you when in line. I do love the civility of it all.
9. Ride up Umeda Sky Building
This has got to be, the city’s most iconic building. The Umeda Sky Building is only the 12th tallest building in Osaka but it looks amazing and features a rooftop observatory (The Floating Garden Observatory). An escalator crosses the atrium between the two towers at the top of the building.
It claims to be theWorld’s highest escalator. The basement features a market that recreates the atmosphere of Osaka in the early 20th century. Umeda is Osaka’s business district. There are over 40 skyscrapers, numerous restaurants and shops and 4 large department stores in the area.
10. Eat yourself silly at Kuromon Ichiba Market
If you are a huge Seafood buff, here’s the place to visit. A mere 10 minute walk from the Shinsaibashi – Dotonbori area, Kuromon Ichiba translates to “Black Gate”, and is in reference to a large, black gate that was once near this place. Apparently 170 shops selling freshest and best quality meat, vegetables, eggs, seafood and hot snacks can be found here.
Kuromon Ichiba Market is a 1 minute walk from Nipponbashi Station (Subway Sakaisuji Line). Located on the south side of Chuo Ward, Osaka City, Kuromon Ichiba is 580 meters long, an incredibly lively market.
Kuromon food section is the busiest
freshly barbequed seafood
where does one start?
Larger than life strawberries and they were not even the largest for sale!
Uni – sea urchins for Y1000 each
An assortment of pickled vegetables
Torafugu or Tiger Puffer Fish is the most popular choice. Poisoned remove and deskinned, its lips, gils, fins, flesh, liver and roe (shirako) is placed separately in plastic wrapped styrofoam plates for shoppers to purchase home. Some retailers would slice the flesh thin into translucent sashimi strips to be eaten onsite.
Variety of sweet and savoury mochis. Some made with shrimps and some with vegetable
Different fish parts
Large scallops fresh from the grill. Lightly seasoned then straight into the mouth!
Wagyu very much!
Oden a traditional Japanese winter hot pot consisting of several ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon, konjac(konnyaku), atsuage (deep fried tofu), ganmodoki (tofu fritters), and fishcakes stewed in a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth.
And those are our 10 Things to do in Osaka.. Next up.. Kyoto. Stay tuned!Follow me on Instagram : @agentcikay
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