Osaka is considered Japan‘s second city, but it’s actually the third largest after Tokyo and Yokohama. Osakans are known in Japan for their sense of humor, their dialect and their love for food. It’s the latter, that endeared the city to me—I swear I spent most of my time there eating. The city is also the center of the Kansai region and has the cheapest accommodation for visitors in all of Japan—staying there and using it as a base to explore the nearby cities of Kyoto, Kobe and Nara can save you quite a bit of money.
Best Time to Go
I’d avoid the summer months. While a lot of festivals take place in the summer, the weather is not pleasant. From late May to June, the rainy season brings overcast skies (but not really all that much rain) and high humidity; following that, the humidity stays and temperatures soar, making even just breathing uncomfortable.
Winters are generally pretty mild and a good time to visit, but spring and autumn are easily the best. The cherry blossom season (around March and April) is probably the most popular, but the fall colors in autumn are just as impressive. Late summer to early autumn is typhoon season; while the typhoons won’t pose any real danger in the city, they can shut down transportation.
Getting to Osaka
Osaka has two airports. International flights will arrive at the Kansai International Airport which has two train connections to the city, JR West’s Kansai Airport Line and the private Nankai Electric Railway. Domestic flights generally arrive at Itami Airport. From here, you could take the monorail and transfer to the Hankyu Line to get downtown, but this option is pretty expensive. Your best bet are the Airport Limousine Buses, with fares starting at 500 Yen. These buses can transport you between the two airports as well.
Osaka is connected to all major cities by Shinkansen (Bullet Trains), including Hiroshima and Fukuoka to the west and Nagoya, Yokohama and Tokyo to the east. All Shinkansen arrive at Shin Osaka Station which is well-connected to the city’s rail and subway network. Other options for getting to Osaka include ferries from Busan in Korea and Shanghai in China, local trains, sleeper trains from as far as Sapporo and highway buses. No matter where in the city you end up, you will be connected to the public transport system.
If coming from other cities in the Kansai area, JR usually offers the fastest service, but you can often save some money by taking a slightly slower private line. From Kyoto or Kobe, for example, Hankyu offers a cheaper connection. Usually, it makes sense to take the service that arrives at the station with the most convenient location. See the pages for the individual cities for information on the best ways to get from there to Osaka.
The Osaka subway system will get you almost anywhere you might want to go and the numerous train lines, like the JR loop line or the airport lines, can come in handy too. You might want to look into the numerous rail, subway and bus passes if you plan on doing a lot of moving around. They can save you quite a bit if you find one that happens to suit your needs.
The government-run Japan Railways is the largest transportation company in the city, but a number of private operators also run trains and subways. To save money on fares, try to stick to one operator as much as possible for any given journey.
Any location not served by the trains and subways can be reached by bus, but they are not signed in English and might be a little difficult to figure out, although someone will always be willing to help. Taxis are safe and convenient, but also expensive.
Osaka has a ton of accommodation options, but more importantly, it has a bunch of really cheap ones. The area around the JR Shin-Imamiya Station and Dobutsuen-mae Station on the subway Midosuji Line is considered Japan’s largest slum and has some really cheap hotels as a result. Don’t let the word “slum” scare you, as this area is still nicer and safer than pretty much anywhere in the US.
You can find hotel rooms from 800 yen per night here, but if you can’t speak Japanese, 1500 yen is more likely. These days, you’ll find more and more backpackers staying here and many of the places now speak a little English and offer showers, high speed internet (and this is Japan, so I do mean HIGH speed) and other amenities we tend to like. These places will generally cost 2000 to 2500 yen per night, which is still far cheaper than most everything else you’ll find in Japan.
In general, the absolute cheapest places do not have an online presence, but the Hotel Diamond is an exception, with rooms starting at just over $8. It’s very basic, though. You’ll get a bit of a nicer room at the Backpackers Hotel Toyo for just over $13. Both of these places only have Japanese-style rooms.
Personally, I recommend the Hotel Mikado, where rooms (Japanese-style and western-style) cost just under $20. For some more options, click on ‘show hotel on map’ on the page of any of these hotels, and you’ll see all the other hotels in the area, as well as the rest of Osaka. This area is by far the cheapest though, not only in Osaka, but in all of Japan.
Hostels are another option. You’ll pay more for a dorm bed than you will for a private room at any of the places around Shin-Imamiya Station, but if you prefer staying in a different area, hostels will the cheapest. Try the Hana Hostel or the Hostel 64.
Eating & Drinking
Among the Japanese, Osaka is famous for food. The most well-known dishes are okonomiyaki, which is called a Japanese pizza or omelet or pancake, but is really all of them and none of them—you’ll just have to try one; takoyaki, which is pieces of octopus inside a fried dumpling; kushikatsu, which is skewers of meats, vegetables, cheeses, etc deep fried in dough and served with a black sauce.
Avoid touristy restaurants when trying any of these three foods—actually, just avoid them altogether. Okonomiyaki is best eaten at small, local restaurants and takoyaki should be eaten from a street stall. Apart from the Osaka specialties, you’ll find the same cheap restaurants and ramen places, as well as the izakaya and all the expensive fine-dining options you’d see anywhere else in Japan. You will not have a hard time finding places to eat.
For nightlife, head to the Dotonbori area in Namba. Osaka has a reputation for great nightlife, but it is somewhat undeserved. You can definitely have a good time here, but most places are overpriced for what you get. A lot of the clubs can be difficult to locate too. I found Tokyo to be much more fun.
Osaka has a reputation as a dangerous city among the Japanese. That is relative. It is incredibly safe and while you should take the standard precautions against pickpockets and petty thieves, you are highly unlikely to face any danger whatsoever. Unless you are Japanese, you come from a more dangerous place than Osaka.
Things to Do
Osaka has no shortage of things to do, but for me, its biggest draw is as a base to explore the surrounding cities.
- Osaka Castle: destroyed and reconstructed, but still nice looking, especially during the cherry blossom season; Osaka-jo Koen Station on the JR Loop Line is closest to the entrance; 9AM-5PM daily; ¥600, children
- Osaka Science Museum: great for kids with a lot of interactive exhibits, a planetarium and a science film cinema; near Higobashi Station or Yodoya-bashi Station; Tuesdays-Sundays from 9:30AM-5PM, closed Dec 28-Jan 4 and on public holidays; adults ¥600, children ¥300
- Umeda Sky Building: unusual design with a midair escalator leading to the open-air observatory with great views, among them the Gate Tower Building, which has a road running right through it; near JR Osaka Station or Hankyu Umeda Station; 10AM-10:30PM; observatory admission is ¥700
- Sumiyoshi Shrine: one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines; near Sumiyoshi Station on the Nankai Line; free admission
- Japan Mint: really only of interest during cherry blossom season, when the “sakura no torinuke” (cherry blossom tunnel road) draws almost a million visitors in a week; free admission
- Tsūtenkaku: symbol of Osaka, but really only worth admiring from outside; ¥600 gets you to the top, ¥1400 gets you on the outside platform with a guide and a safety belt
- Open Air Museum of Old Farmhouses: a bunch of old Edo period farmhouses that have been moved here and reconstructed, including tools, furniture, etc; located in the beautiful Ryokuchi Park; near Ryokuchi Sation on the Midosuji subway line; open Tuesdays to Sundays; ¥500
- Kaiyukan: one of the world’s largest aquariums and very impressive, with a whale shark and many other sharks, dolphins, otters, seals, etc; Osakako Station on the Chuo Line; adults ¥2000, children ¥900
- Minoo Park: a forested valley just north of the urban area that is a nice reprieve from the city and especially beautiful when the leaves change color in autumn; includes hiking trails, temples, and the Minoo Waterfall; to get there, take the Hankyu Takarazuka Line from Hankyu Umeda Station to Ishibashi Sation and transfer to the Hankyu Minoo Line to Minoo Station (altogether, this takes 25 minutes and costs 260 yen one way)
Money Saving Tips
- do not take a taxi from the airport; take one of the trains instead (or the limousine bus if arriving at Itami Airport)
- similarly, take public transit to get around town and try to stick to trains and subways run by the same company for any given journey (i.e. use only trains run by JR or only ones run by Keihan, etc.)
- avoid touristy restaurants and eat at small, local places and street stalls
- stay in the Shin-Imamiya area despite the “slum” label; it is not a slum
- look into some of the special rail passes; they were of no use to me, but they can save you quite a bit, if one happens to fit your needs