Osaka is known as ‘the kitchen of Japan’ and the home of Japanese soul food. It has a reputation for hospitality and food culture that is among the best in Japan. However, the things to see and places to go in Osaka are often less talked-about. Osaka is such a mix of different sub-cultures, different eras and different characteristics that it has produced a huge variety of places to visit. With everything from rustic forests to futuristic skyscrapers, there’s a little bit of everything in Osaka.
Places to go in Osaka
Let’s start with Minoo. Minoo is a small area often overlooked by tourists. It is enjoyed mostly by locals or those visiting from other areas of Kansai. This ‘hidden gem’ quality is one of the aspects that makes it so charming. Northern Osaka has a lot of mountains, and Minoo is home to one of the most picturesque. At the top of this mountain is Minoo Waterfall. Hiking on this mountain is a common activity and the walk to the waterfall is one of the most popular. Walking to the waterfall is like hiking for casual visitors – no equipment or practice is required but there is still the experience of walking through nature. The journey from Minoo train station to the waterfall is about 45mins to 1 hour on foot and the path is fully paved with no steep inclines. The start of the walk has a small town charm as most of the buildings are built in the traditional Japanese architectural style, with flowing trees in the background. There is a very different atmosphere to the more modern and fast-paced areas in the middle of Osaka. Gradually, there are fewer and fewer buildings and the road becomes a path through the trees. This area is well-known in Osaka for putting on a spectacular show in Autumn and Spring. In Spring, there are hundreds of cherry blossom trees all along the path. In Autumn, the Japanese red maple trees come to life in a blaze of red. Due to the abundance of maple trees, Minoo has actually developed Momiji Tempura, or maple leaf tempura. This consists of maple leaves fried in a tempura batter and it provides a perfect snack upon reaching the waterfall at the top of the mountain.
In the recently redeveloped and modernized district of Tennoji sits the tallest skyscraper in Japan, Abeno Harukas. At 300 metres tall, Abeno Harukas has an observation deck offering panoramic views of Osaka. The top 3 floors are named Harukas 300 and function as a multi-faceted observation deck, complete with café. The top floor has floor-to-ceiling glass windows and gives one of the best views of Osaka. But Abeno Harukas is not just a tower with an observation deck. Rather, it is home to an art museum, department store, restaurants, green spaces and more. The Abeno Harukas Kintetsu Department Store is located within Abeno Harukas and with 100,000m² retail space, is the largest department store in Japan. The Abeno Harukas Art Museum is located on the 16th floor and with constantly changing exhibitions, is always interesting to visit. The art museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, instead staging new exhibitions every few months. The exhibitions usually have either Western or Buddhist themes. Abeno Harukas is one of the most modernistic buildings in Osaka, but has also been built sustainably. There is a green space rooftop plaza on the 16th floor with a vegetable garden. The building also generates biogas power through the methane fermentation from kitchen waste. This makes it a leading example of environmentally responsible building in Japan.
Expo ’70 Commemorative Park, often shortened to Expo Park, is a huge park that was built on the site of the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka. One of the key features is the ‘Tower of the Sun’, a massive sculpture with three faces, symbolizing the past, present and future. It is located in the centre of the park and is a good reference point, as it is easy to get lost among the many attractions. Throughout the park are a number of Japanese-style gardens, each designed in the style of a different era, showing the progress of Japanese society throughout history. There are also more natural gardens, bamboo forests and structures to view. The park houses three museums, a number of entertainment facilities and various cafes. There are often events held at the park, sometimes concurrently. On my visit to see the ‘Cosmos Festival’, an exhibition of the park’s cosmos flower fields, there was also a cheese & wine festival and an ice-cream festival being held in other parts of the park. There are flower fields, forest paths, bamboo groves and the park offers a view of history, art and nature all-in-one.
While Kyoto and Tokyo are home to some of the more famous shrines and temples, Osaka is definitely not lacking. Namba Yasaka shrine, located in the busy shopping and restaurant area of Namba, is a small yet distinctive shrine. It is most well-known for the huge lion-head-shaped building welcoming all visitors. Standing at 12m tall, the lion head is a unique structure among the sometimes repetitive traditional shrines. It is said to swallow evil spirits through the large open mouth and bring good luck, especially in study and business. The shrine was once part of a much larger complex which was mostly destroyed during wartime raids. However, the small remaining buildings simply help to emphasise the sense of awe that the lion head imparts. During Spring, the shrine is home to soft and beautiful cherry blossoms, creating an interesting contrast with the imposing air of the lion. The shrine provides a nice respite from the fast-paced commercial paradise of Namba, while still providing that Osaka quirkiness.
Nowadays, very few guidebooks will recommend Shinsekai, but once Shinsekai was a key tourist area of Osaka in the early 20th Century. It has since fallen out of favour, but retains its old-world charm. It was designed to be a mix of Paris and New York, a fashionable cosmopolitan area, but due to minimal renovation after WWII, lost its popularity among Japanese people. It still has a lot of the features of pre-90’s-boom Japan, and walking through Shinsekai gives a retro, nostalgic feel. It is a period of history many Japanese people are not interested in – not old enough to be traditional, not new enough to be modern. The area is also home to Tsutenkaku Tower, a tower originally built in 1912 and fashioned after the Eiffel Tower. The tower was reconstructed in 1956 and now stands at 103m tall. While it doesn’t hold a tower-based superlative today, it was at once the second-highest structure in Asia. Shinsekai is also the location of SpaWorld, a multi-level super-sento providing a range of hot spring experiences, all within one building. SpaWorld is a great way to relax after a full day of travelling or sightseeing. Shinsekai has an old-town, carnival-like atmosphere, a feeling of time gone by and lost glamour and fame. It is a fascinating glimpse into the past and the Japan that once was. Osaka can be characterised by its inability to fit into a clear category. It has aspects of traditional Japan, beautiful nature, futuristic buildings and everything in between. This constant mix of old and new, city and country, make Osaka an interesting whirlwind of attractions. The advantage of this variety is that there is something for everyone. With its welcoming atmosphere, good food, and range of things to do, Osaka is the place for everyone.
Book Activities in Osaka
Hannah Cook has been living and working in Osaka, Japan for the last 2 years. She enjoys seeing and trying new things and has been doing her best to experience everything Japan has to offer.