Osaka – tourist traps and favourite gems

For anyone comparing Osaka to Tokyo, Tokyo is the busy, responsible sibling, while Osaka is the laid back younger one relaxing with a cup of tea.

Tokyo has the non-stop energy of a city that never sleeps, people rushing around the city on crowded trains to and from work.

Osaka is a large metropolis in its own right, with busy subways lines and the flashing neon signs of Dotonbori. But there’s more of a relaxed pace here. And, it is still packed with great things to do. The attitude is different, too – Osakans are a bit more funny, a bit more cheeky.

So, what is there to do in the city, to discover what makes Osaka so cool?

Osaka Castle

The samurai screamed a short, sharp battle cry, and drew his sword to expose the blade halfway from the hilt. The noise caught my attention, and I turned to see the commotion. The tourist walked away, and a new one walked up, also dressed in samurai costume, to join the staff member in full samurai gear.

The photographer counted them down, and then, the battle cry again. 3..2..1..Hargh! Click! There was a long line for samurai photos in front of beautiful Osaka castle. But the line we were standing in was to enter the castle itself.

Drawing of a traditional Japanese castle
View of Osaka Castle

High on top of a hill in the middle of Osaka, looking down on the city, the ancient castle (actually a reconstruction) was ringed by massive, squarish castle walls surrounding the entrances.

The main keep was the very essence of the stereotypical Japanese castle. The bottom section was a stone reenforcement, square and strong. The castle was multi-tiered and painted white and green, with arrow slits peeking from triangular viewpoints, and multiple flared roof structures asserting dominance as they swept outwards. Ornate golden touches highlighted the majesty and opulence of the owners long passed.

It was beautiful to admire, and I imagined what the Siege of Osaka must have looked like, when two armies came together on this hill in 1614.

Highlight or tourist trap?

The inside was a huge disappointment. The interior of the castle had been completely gutted, and replaced by a museum about the castle.

That’s fine – I love history, and I was excited to learn more. But the museum wasn’t the issue; the museum seemed interesting, but the massive crush of people prevented us from even getting close to many of the exhibits.

There was even an elevator to reach the top floors. I suppose I expected something more authentic; to see wooden floorboards and open spaces, barracks and kitchens and throne rooms and living quarters. So we enjoyed the great view, and made our way back down.

Verdict – Too many visitors in too small a space.

Kaiyukan Aquarium

One thing I didn’t want to miss in Osaka was the Kaiyukan aquarium. I knew they had whale sharks there, one of the few aquariums in the world to have them. I was bouncing with excitement as we got off the last train stop and signposts of fish pointed the way.

Sketch of a whale shark swimming in Osaka Kaiyukan aquarium
A whale shark swims in Kaiyukan Aquarium

The flow through the aquarium is wonderful. Starting on the top floor, the ‘surface of the water‘ the tanks mimic the different layers of the ocean as you descending down the building, ending on the ‘ocean floor‘.

Starting at the top with seals and otters lounging on rocks and twisting through the water, the path spirals down past an enormous central tank, the ‘Pacific Ocean‘.

For multiple floors, sharks, rays and the gentle giants themselves – the incredible whale sharks – glided around the tank, surrounded by schools of smaller fish. The next level down, towards the bottom, were tanks of giant spider crabs on slender, stilted legs that swayed in unison in the current.

On the bottom floor, the ‘bottom of the sea‘, the lights were dark and tanks of luminescent jellyfish provided the luminesence. And in true Japanese form, the gift shop had the cutest plush whale toys i’d ever seen!

Highlight or tourist trap?

The aquarium receives a lot of visitors. But unlike Osaka Castle, there was plenty of room to spread out and find some space for yourself to enjoy the attraction.

Verdict – Absolutely a highlight.

Expocity

Taking our Airbnb host’s advice for a shopping destination, we spent a day out of the city at Expocity, a giant shopping and entertainment park.

After a bit of sales shopping, we stopped for lunch at the food court, where we tried a strange Italian bento box (with pizza, and arancini balls). We checked out the local Pokecentre, which even had its own cafe.

Drawing of a Poke Center restaurant with Pikachu signs
Pokecenter in Osaka

Highlight or tourist trap?

This is not a place that many visitors end up coming to, but it’s certainly popular with massive crowds of Japanese shoppers. Especially around Christmas, when we visited, and when sports teams were playing nearby!

Verdict: Highlight. If it’s shopping that you want, then shopping you shall receive!

Redhorse Osaka Wheel

We took a ride up the Redhorse Osaka Wheel, the highest ferris wheel in the city (Osaka has multiple ferris wheels) near to Expocity.

There wasn’t much of a view at night, with the city just a blob of distant lights, a glimmering smudge miles away. But the wheel itself, illuminated in alternating colours in the night sky, and with glass-bottom floors, made a surprisingly fun attraction to experience.

Highlight or tourist trap?

While this is clearly built especially for sightseers, it’s a fun little tpuch after a long day’s shopping.

Verdict: Pretty cool, if you have money leftover from shopping.

Dotonbori

Dotonbori is the entertainment district in Osaka, a high rise, neon plastered megacity that many people picture when they think of Osaka. It’s famous for its food, nightlife, and vibrant energy.

There are arcades, video games and pedestrian streets, and a bewildering collection of restaurants and bars with giant fibreglass models of octopi or sushi chefs on the building. A lazy canal runs through the cacophany (which was a popular swimming spot during a freezing cold New Year’s Eve!).

A drawing of Osaka canals at night
Revellers at night along the canals of Dotonbori

Dotonbori is crowded, just like Shibuya, and that’s why it’s so fun!Decorations run wild, with giant mechanical crabs and sushi chef cartoons on the front of buildings.

The food is the main draw, everything from hole-in-the-wall takoyaki restaurants, to hidden udon bars, and even seafood restaurants where you catch your own dinner with a fishing rod!

Drawing of a Japanese restaurant Kasuya next to an alleyway in Osaka
A small udon restaurant in Dotonbori

Highlight or tourist trap?

Dotonbori is the quintessential beating heart of Osaka, and everyone will enjoy exploring the grid of streets here. Depending on the time of day (or night), there will be different levels of crowds.

Verdict: must-see, a definite highlight!

Sassy Kansai Attitude

I remember Osaka well for two main reasons. The great food, and the people’s distinctive sassy attitude.

In a 7/11, an employee gave us an exasperated sigh and rolled his eyes when we changed our minds about a drink we wanted to buy. It was a shock, when we were used to the bowing, smiling, friendly Tokyoites.

On new year’s eve, we saw plenty of rowdy and rebellious characters, jumping in canals and challenging police. Others hurried us out of restaurants to make room for more customers. It was the Kansai region attitude – a bit more cheeky, more blunt, more funny.

Sketch of a Japanese beef lunch set with soup and rice
Beef lunch set, Osaka station

As for Osaka’s food? We waited in line for half an hour to sit at a table for a wagyu beef bento box, somewhere under one of the main train stations. I’d still amazed that the best steak i’d ever tasted was in a train station restaurant!


5 thoughts on “Osaka – tourist traps and favourite gems

  1. Mmm love those bento boxes. I really like reading about the different food you ate. Osaka sounds a bit more like you need to have your guard up and be on your toes for people’s attitudes. Rude.

    1. Haha yep it was a rude gesture by Japanese standards, which doesnt even register compared to Australian rudeness. The best part are all the bento takeaway boxes, designed for eating on the bullet trains 😀

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