With direct UK flights to Osaka launching soon, it’s never been easier to explore one of Japan's biggest cities – just make sure you go with an empty stomach, says Olivia Lee...
Osaka has a reputation for being at odds with the rest of Japan. In fact, the city prides itself on standing out: the local sense of humour is loud and brash, people jaywalk (frowned upon elsewhere) and the salarymen (businessmen) work hard and play harder. Long-established as one of Japan’s commercial centres (and occasional capital), Osaka was rebuilt after bombing in the Second World War. In April, 11.5-hour direct flights with British Airways launch from Heathrow, making it even easier to explore the city’s electric buzz.
Along the Dotonbori (the city’s main strip) the neon lights shine brighter than Times Square, and garish octopus figurines leer above you (takoyaki, or battered octopus balls, are an Osakan hallmark). You’ll probably find yourself beside suited salarymen in any bar you visit, invariably thrusting you a karaoke mic as the early hours arrive.
Then there’s the food: Osaka is the culinary capital of Japan, where the locals live by the word kuidaore: to eat until you drop. After you’ve tried the delicious kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat or veg), you likely will too.
Osaka is served by two airports: Kansai (international) and Itami (domestic). You’ll probably end up at Kansai, which, like the rest of Japan, is incredibly efficient.
As you step into Arrivals, you’ll find vending machines that sell prepaid SIM cards (data only; no calls), as well as convenience stores with all kinds of treats – try an onigiri (a triangle of soft rice with a savoury filling) to tide you over until you hit the city.
Kansai airport is about 60km from the centre, on a small island. The easiest way to town is to head to Shin-Osaka Station on the Haruku JR Kansai-Airport Express, which takes 50 minutes and costs ¥2,330 (£16). If you also purchase an ICOCA card (recommended – it’s similar to London’s Oyster transport card), you can get the ticket for just ¥1,300 (£9).
A day in Osaka should begin as you mean to go on: eating. Kuromon Ichiba Market is a good place to start. This colourful covered market, nicknamed ‘Osaka’s kitchen’, has over 150 stalls selling everything from the rarest red tuna to scallops grilled on an open flame. Try an Osaka favourite: okonomiyaki, fluffy savoury pancakes packed with cabbage and seafood.
Next, head to nearby Hozenji Temple. This tiny complex in the heart of bustling Dotonbori feels like a more traditional vision of Japan; splash water over the moss-covered Fudo Myo-o statue, which survived the Second World War bombings that flattened much of the city, and make a wish.
Now, time for another snack. Head into the cobbled alley of Hozenji Yokocho and catch the subway from Namba Station to Shin-Imamiya. This is part of the Shinsekai (‘new world’) neighbourhood, a mesh of bars and restaurants, with a looming replica of the Eiffel Tower. This is where you’ll find the city’s best kushikatsu – deep-fried skewers of meat and veg that you plunge into a communal dipping sauce (no double dipping!).
In the afternoon, catch the subway to explore Osaka Castle (9am–5pm; ¥600/£4.50), then head to Umeda Sky Building (9:30am–10:30pm; ¥1,500/£11), where the 39th-floor open-air deck helps give this chaotic city some perspective.
As evening sets in, hop back down to Namba, where the neon Dotonbori strip will be coming alive. Slip between the narrow alleyways and find a bar that looks busy, then walk in with a hearty ‘konbanwa!’ (good evening).
Top end: Osaka is dotted with five-star stays, but try Cross Hotel. This boutique is immaculate, quiet and just a five-minute walk from the lively Dotonbori. Doubles from ¥14,000 (£115).
Mid-range: Yamatoya Honten has all the charm of a traditional ryokan (inn) but with the convenience of a city centre hotel. Rooms have tatami mats and futons, plus there are piping hot communal onsen baths. You can opt for room-only, but breakfast is highly recommended. Doubles from ¥3,500 (£25).
Budget: Near to Namba Station, Hotel J-Ship, is one of Japan’s famed ‘capsule hotels’. The entire pod is your bed, so there’s no room to stand, but they’re worth trying for a quintessential Japanese experience. Pods from ¥1,890 (£14).
Stick around – at least for a few days. There’s too much to do (and eat) in Osaka for just 24 hours. You could spend a day at Spa World, a hotspring theme park. There’s also Round One Stadium, a huge entertainment complex with batting cages, karaoke and bizarre arcade games – a great place to immerse yourself in local life. And of course, there’s the food: you could easily spend a week exploring this culinary capital, each dish encouraging you to try another until you really do eat until you drop.
If you can still move, Osaka’s neighbours are also worth your attention. Most people head straight to Kyoto, but don’t overlook the old city of Nara, home to friendly roaming deer and one of the world’s largest Buddha statues. There’s also the island of Shikoku, a wild, beautiful place with unparalleled hiking and a pilgrimage trail that spans 88 temples, which is easily reached by train from central Osaka.
Population: 8.84 million
Languages: Japanese (Osakans have a strong Kansai dialect known as Osaka-ben); English (at most information and help desks).
Time zone: GMT+9
Int’l dialling code: +81
Visas: British nationals can enter Japan for up to 90 days without a visa.
Currency: Japanese yen (¥), currently around ¥142 to the UK£.
ATMs: Japan is a cash society, so withdrawing enough money is essential. The easiest way to find a cashpoint is to head to the nearest convenience store, which will have an ATM tucked into an inside corner. Instructions can be switched to English, and cash is available 24/7. Post office ATMs also accept foreign cards.
Credit cards: Despite having an economy driven by technology, using cards in Japan is surprisingly difficult. Most big hotels and shops will accept them but take cash if you want to eat and drink like a local.
Guidebooks: Lonely Planet’s Japan has a good chapter on Osaka. Also check out Rice, Noodle, Fish (Hardie Grant Books) by Matt Goulding for an evocative picture of Osaka’s food scene.
Useful websites: Osaka Info has a number of excellent downloadable PDFs that cover everything to do in the city.
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