If the cities of Japan held an Olympics, Osaka would be the perpetual bronze medalist, forever standing on the shortest podium while Tokyo or Kyoto gets to take home the gold and get its picture on a box of Wheaties. But while Osaka does not have Tokyo’s size or Kyoto’s beauty, it has enough quirky charm to satisfy any tourist. I sadly only went to Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto and did not stay there overnight, but the next time I go to Japan, I definitely plan to spend a couple of nights exploring the city that many call “Japan’s kitchen”. Join me for a day of strange mascots, amazing seafood, magical sodas, castles, hidden clocks, and acrobats. On the way, we might even accidentally get drunk! (Spoiler Alert: We will definitely get accidentally drunk.)
Morning: All Star Osaka Walk
Hours: Meets every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10
Address: Osaka Visitors Information Center Umeda in the Osaka Train Station
Price: 3000 Yen (About 30 Dollars)
The absolute first thing you must do in Osaka is take the All Star Osaka Walk. This is a three hour guided walking tour around three of the most important sights in Osaka: the Osaka train station, the retro Shinsekai area, and the popular entertaining and dining district, Dotombori. You do not need to reserve in advance. Just show up with your 3000 Yen in cash and be ready for your Japanese guides to lead you around a Kansai-mazing day.
Travelerette Tip: Your guides will be awesome, but DO NOT tip them. Tipping is not part of Japanese culture and might accidentally give offense, so do not tip a Japanese tour guide, waiter…etc.
It would be impossible with me to share with you all of the Osakan delights I experienced on this tour, from the friendly couple from Kuala Lumpur on the tour with me to the origami salesman who refused to give me a brown origami samurai hat because it was “not for a girl”. You’ll have to be satisfied with…
Three Fun Facts About Osaka
1) The first fact we learned is that Osaka train station is home to six wondrous hidden clocks. You might be wondering why someone would want a train station to be part of a tour. But this isn’t just any station; our guide told us that it inside a complex that is so big it is called Osaka Station City. The six clocks are there because Osaka was historically a merchant city and knowing the correct time is very important for people who are selling stuff. They have everything from a regular looking old-fashioned gold clock…
to a sundial!
The coolest clock is the water clock, which looks like a digital clock but the numbers in the display are actually created by the movement of falling water. A picture doesn’t do it justice; you’ll just have to go to Osaka and see for yourself!
2) Our next fun fact is that one of Osaka’s mascots is a strange gnome creature named Billiken who was created by a schoolteacher from Kansas City who claimed to have visualized it in a dream. We met Billiken in Shinsekai, which literally means “new world” in Japanese. This neighborhood is a little seedier than one would expect in Japan, but that just adds to its charm. Its flashiest feature is that Eiffel Tower wannabe called Tsutenkaku in the photo above, but my favorite thing about Shinsekai is that it is home to about a million statues of Billiken.
Billiken is insanely popular in Osaka, and you can find his statue all over Shinsekai.
It’s good luck to touch Billiken’s feet, which I hope explains this photo.
Here is Billiken wearing the costume of Kuidaore Taro, who is another one of Osaka’s mascots. It’s a mascot within a mascot!
3) Our last fun fact is that Osaka, like similarly slighted mid-sized cities Boston and Chicago, is the home of a baseball-related curse. We learned this in Dotombori, which is like the Times Square of Osaka. We stopped at the Dotombori River to check out the famous Glico Running Man ad (Glico is a company most famous for making Pocky) and hear the sad tale of the Curse of the Colonel. In 1985, the Hanshin Tigers, Osaka’s baseball team, won the Japan Championship Series. The city erupted in celebration, but sadly there was one casualty from the event…a statue of KFC mascot Colonel Sanders who was ripped from outside one of his restaurants and thrown into the river. Since then, the Hanshin Tigers have not won the Championship Series, so this is known as the Curse of the Colonel.
Travelerette Treasure: No trip to Osaka would be complete without a snack! The city’s motto is “kuidaore”, which translates to “Eat until you drop!” The Shinsekai neighborhood is known for a snack called kushikatsu, so we all stopped at one of the myriad kushikatsu restaurants in the area for a bite. (The snack is included in the price of the tour.) Kushikatsu is a fried….something served on a wooden stick with a sweet and sticky dipping sauce placed in the middle of the table. (Double dipping is strictly verboten.) They had everything from fried chicken to fried banana, and I chose eggplant and cheese because it was recommended by the tour guide. The cheese was amazing, so warm and gooey and savory. I highly approve of this snack.
To drink we had Ramune, which is a popular lemonade-soda. It comes with a bottle stopped with a glass ball, so you need to use the plastic cap to punch the glass ball to the bottom of the bottle. If you are super into Ramune and want to get it in the States, they serve it at the Japan Pavilion at EPCOT at Disney World and pretty much any Japantown, if your city has one.
Address: 1 Chome-2-3 Nanba, Chuo Ward, Osaka
When you’re done with the tour, you’ll want to stop in one of the many tasty but inexpensive restaurants in the Dotombori area for a little lunch. I think Akaoni is a great choice, but you don’t have to take my word for it! It received a Bib Gourmand in the prestigious Michelin guide, which is the award given to tasty but inexpensive restaurants. So I have the word of the French to backup my assertions, and none of us want to argue with the French about food.
Akaoni is famous for its takoyaki, which are scrumptious balls of fried octopus, but I wanted to try their also-famous okonomiyaki, which is both a kind of savory pancake and an Osakan delicacy. It is made with eggs, flour, cabbage and other fun ingredients mixed in.
Mine was with shrimp and squid and was topped with okonomiyaki sauce, which tastes kind of like the sweet and sticky kushikatsu sauce, fermented bonito flakes, and mayo. It came sizzling-hot off the grill, and the seafood tasted so fresh I could almost feel it wriggle in my mouth. But perhaps I was just having a delusion brought on by my poor choice of drink.
I can read Japanese and I saw on the drink menu something called a Chuhai lemon. I thought this would be a lemon soda, so I ordered it. To my surprise, as soon as I had a sip, I realized that it was definitely booze. In fact, it tasted kind of like a vodka tonic, but sweeter. So I wound up being a little drunker than I was expecting to be at two o’clock in the afternoon.
Fun Fact: Ben Stiller did a really weird commercial for Chuhai; please watch it here.
When you’re done, feel free to explore Dotombori a bit more. You can find this building that has tragically been attacked by a dragon.
Be careful though! Billiken likes to hide around here and he may jump out and try to mug you.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Afternoon: Osaka Castle
Hours: Every Day 9-4:30
Osaka Castle was originally constructed in the 16th century by legendary Japanese warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It has since been destroyed or partially destroyed several times, including during the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century and during the bombings of WWII. The castle is famous because of its colorful beauty and because of its connection to Hideyoshi, who is sometimes referred to as the Napoleon of Japan because of his historical importance and military prowess. But I was there during cherry blossom season, so I wanted to visit the OC because the castle’s park is one of the most popular sakura viewing spots in Osaka.
Travelerette Tip: The interior of the Main Tower of the OC is the Osaka Castle Museum, which is dedicated to the history of Hideoyoshi and Osaka Castle. It costs 600 Yen to enter and use of the observation deck in Osaka Castle is included. I didn’t have time to go in because the line was long and I was more interested in seeing the cherry blossoms, but if you have more time or are not there during cherry blossom season, by all means check it out.
Travelerette Treasure: Aside from the cherry blossoms? I was particularly impressed with a pair of acrobats who were performing in the park. They did balancing tricks, lifts, and juggled while standing on an assortment of precariously placed objects. They also provided chairs for their elderly viewers to sit upon. Way to be polite, Osakan street performers! Osakans are famous for being the funniest people in Japan, so if you get a chance to catch a performance in Osaka, don’t pass it up. Even if you don’t understand the jokes, I’m sure the laughter of your fellow spectators will warm your heart.
Early Evening: Explore Osaka Station Area
I had only visited Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto and even though the train trip back to my hotel was about an hour long, I wanted to spend my evening close to my sweet ride back home: aka the train. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, there is plenty to do near the Osaka train station. If you don’t believe me, let me convince you with…
Approximately Top Five Best Things to Do Near the Train Station in Osaka!
1) The Ohatsu Tenjin Shrine is dedicated to two lovers–Japan’s answer to Romeo and Juliet–who killed themselves here because they could not be together. Like Romeo and Juliet, the lovers had a very popular play based on their story, but since it is Japan, that play was performed by puppets, Juliet was a classy prostitute, and Romeo was involved in the seafood industry in some capacity. I love the heart shape that covers the explanation of the shrine and all the bright colors, but as a solo traveler, I wasn’t quite up to getting my picture taken in one of those cardboard cutouts with just an empty space where the man’s head should be. My self esteem is high, but it’s not that high.
2) You can’t leave Osaka without trying takoyaki, which are tender fried octopus balls topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayo, and fermented bonito flakes, just like okonomiyaki. I got mine at a hole in the wall called Hanadako at 9-16 Kakudacho in the shops under Osaka Station. The young man behind the counter spoke English very well, so it was easy to order. Just remember that your takoyaki will be piping hot! Poke a little hole in them so the hot air can be released and wait a few seconds before biting them. You don’t want to burn your tongue.
3) Now that you’ve had dinner, you’ll want dessert! I have a weakness for fluffy Japanese sweetbuns, so I stopped at the A-1 Bakery right near Hanadako and purchased a milk cream bun. This is an airy bun filled with a rich, sweet custard. I love the contrast between the dense creaminess and the nonexistent bread. Plus it costs like a dollar.
4) You can’t be in Osaka without visiting its most famous department store, Hankyu, which is conveniently located right by Osaka Station. Osakans are very proud of their local chain, and on the walking tour earlier in the day, I learned that the popular Tokyo-based department store company Mitsukoshi had tried to open a branch in Osaka, and it had failed because Hankyu is so popular.
If you only visit one department in Hankyu, make it the depachika, which is the luxurious basement level food court in any major Japanese department store. The pastries are so gorgeous that it was hard for me to choose just one, but I settled on a delicate strawberry sweet. It was impossibly light and felt almost like eating a delicious cotton ball that tasted of fruit and milk. Unfortunately it was a little too delicate, so it didn’t look very pretty by the time I was able to photograph it.
Fun Fact: This branch of Hankyu sells a luxury potato chip by the Calbee company called Grand Callbee. If you want to buy it, you need to get to the store as soon as it opens because they sell out rapidly. People are super weird. But I guess if you can line up for a Cronut, you can line up for a potato chip.
Now it will be time to hop on your train and head back to Kyoto. Sayonara, Osaka, and until next time, KUIDAORE!
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Osaka
What would you do with only one day in Osaka? Which Billiken was your favorite Billiken? Have you ever accidentally ordered a cocktail, or is that just the story you gave your parole officer? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.