Osaka may be Japan’s second city, but it certainly does not play second fiddle to Tokyo. Indeed, for centuries while the Japanese capital was enmeshed in the conservatism of the samurai and nobility, the more forward-thinking merchant class of Osaka was pushing boundaries and embracing new technologies. This ethos is still strong in the city today, as it is famed for being one of Japan’s most ‘anything-goes’ destinations with brash nightlife, ground-breaking cuisine and kitsch neighbourhoods making it a traveller’s paradise. Whether you are looking to immerse yourself in the world of Japanese anime, learn about the history of instant noodles or explore Japan’s feudal past, Osaka has it all.
Explore neon-lit Shin-Sekai
Once a 19th-century amusement park, Shin-Sekai is one of Japan’s most unusual neighbourhoods. Packed with video game parlours, pachinko dens where gamblers hope to make their fortunes and traditional mah-jong cafes, this area offers a whistle-stop introduction to Japan’s bizarre and sometimes seedy sub-cultures.
The highlight of the area and one of the few remaining buildings from the original amusement park is Tsutenkaku – a 100-metre-tall tower once dubbed ‘the tallest in the Orient’. Covered in a gaudy selection of neon-lit adverts, the tower offers mesmerising views of Osaka and has become the city’s de facto emblem. When in the area make sure to try your hand at pachinko and sample some of the legendary cheap eats served up, including kushikatsu (deep-fried meats served on skewers).
Marvel at Osaka Castle
Set amongst lush parkland in Osaka city centre and surrounded by an imposing set of moats and fortified walls, Osaka Castle is amongst Japan’s finest. While the original structure, which was erected in the 16th century, was destroyed, the current reconstruction dates from the 1930s and was further restored in 1995.
The castle was built to commemorate the unification of Japan and its interiors contain numerous treasures of Japanese art and an excellent collection of samurai armour. For the best experience, take a guided tour of this masterful reconstruction and visit during cherry blossom season when the surrounding parklands are at their best.
Get to grips with anime in Den Den Town
For western visitors to Osaka, no place will give you a sense of culture shock like Den Den Town. Literally translated as ‘Electric Town’, this area of Osaka was originally known as a place to buy electrical goods (the odd retro shop remains) but has since morphed into the epicentre of anime culture in the city.
The streets of Den Den Town are crowded with men and women dressed as their favourite anime characters and are lined with maid cafes (a form of cosplay where waitresses act like maids), adult entertainment stores and gaming arcades where people are known to spend days on end playing. While Den Den Town certainly has its seedy side, the area remains one of Japan’s most kitsch and if you are looking for some anima paraphernalia to take home as a souvenir this is the place to come.
Go on a night out in Dotombori
The towering skyscrapers, murky canals and neon-lit bars of Dotombori are one of Osaka’s most iconic scenes. Rivalling Tokyo’s Shinjuku district as the best place to go for a night out in Japan, Dotombori has been an entertainment district since at least the 17th century.
While the area was once filled with ornate theatres, most of these were destroyed during World War Two paving the way for the district’s current gaudy incarnation. For the best experience, take a guided bar-hopping tour that will take you to raucous karaoke lounges, cosy sake drinking dens and izakaya (restaurants-cum-pubs) buzzing with businesspeople after a long day in the office. When in the district make sure to see the iconic Glico Running Man neon sign.
Take a ride on Tempozan Ferris Wheel
Located near the famed Osaka Aquarium, Tempozan Ferris Wheel has been turning since 1997 and was at one point the largest in the world. Offering superb views of the cityscape, the Ferris wheel is also known for its bright orange cabins that have a retro aesthetic. For the best experience, ask your tour guide how you can take a ride on the wheel during the evening when you will be able to see a sea of LED-lights all the way to Kobe.
Get a taste of instant ramen at Momofuku Museum
Invented by Ando Momofuku in 1958, instant ramen is now ubiquitous around the globe. Explore the history of this iconic Japanese export at the Momofuku Museum, another of Osaka’s kitsch attractions that will leave you astounded at Japanese ingenuity.
Exhibits in the museum illustrate how the instant ramen is made, packaged and shipped across the globe. The highlight of the museum is undoubtedly a tunnel made from instant ramen that you pass through and a design exhibit that shows how instant ramen packaging has changed over the past 60 years.
See the side effects of the American occupation of Japan in American Village
Known locally as Amerika-Mura, this hip part of town is today home to some of Osaka’s best cafes and bars – alongside one or two discreet ‘love hotels’. The centre of the neighbourhood is Triangle Park, an all-concrete park that is perfect for watching the world go by.
However, the area is also a fascinating glimpse into life during the American occupation of Japan, as following World War Two the area was home to a plethora of shops that sold newly available American goods, including Zippo lighters and clothing brands like Levi Strauss. While little of this remains today, keep an eye out for the mini Statue of Liberty that is an American Village landmark.
Marvel at the wonders of the ocean at Osaka Aquarium
As Japan’s premier aquarium, Osaka Aquarium hosts an astounding diversity of marine life ranging from Antarctic penguins to Californian sea lions and deep-sea jellyfish and gigantic manta rays. However, the real star attraction of this gigantic aquarium is the central tank, which houses a whale shark – a docile shark species that is as large as a small whale.
The best way to explore the aquarium is via a kilometre-long guided walk that takes you around and underneath the various tanks for an immersive experience that offers enthralling insights into marine ecosystems.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has areal passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses: Shin Sekaoi: https://flic.kr/p/5bN6xK (Shoko Muraguchi, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Den Den Town: https://flic.kr/p/5aebqd (Doc Chewbacca, CC BY-SA 2.0), Tempozan Ferris Wheel: https://flic.kr/p/HLKML (Jed Scattergod, CC BY-ND 2.0), Momofuku museum: https://flic.kr/p/TgQhdG (Cyradis, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Statue of Liberty Osaka: https://flic.kr/p/8LjpJ3 (punyweakling, CC BY-NC 2.0), Osaka aquarium: https://flic.kr/p/f7CLXg (Chostett, CC BY-NC 2.0)