Things to See and Do in and Around Osaka, Japan
Based in the heart of the Kansai region, Osaka has a wealth of things to see and do that will satisfy all kinds of traveller – from excellent street food and teahouses to unique Japanese shops and stunning scenery ripe for exploration. Read on to discover my recommendations for the best things to see and do in Osaka…
Dotonburi - Image: Eloise Oatley
DotonburiImage: Eloise Oatley
Foodies should make a beeline straight for Dotonbori to sample a wealth of Japanese street food at extremely reasonable prices. Osaka’s specialty, Takoyaki - delicious octopus balls, expertly cooked by vendors right in front of your eyes - should be top of the list.
Other Osaka specific must-eats include Okonomiyaki: a Japanese style savoury pancake. Kansai style Okonomiyaki usually includes cabbage, either sliced pork, beef, or seafood with a spicy style sauce and mayo on the top. Try to buy it at a place where you can watch how they cook it - it’s fascinating. You should also try Kushikatsu - juicy deep-fried skewers of meat or vegetables. Although you can find kushikatsu throughout Japan these days, it originates from Osaka so expect to sample the best of the best there. Top tip: never double-dip your skewer into the sauce, it’s an absolute social no-no.
Shinsaibashi / Doguyasuji
Interested in picking up some Japanese threads or world famous Japanese kitchenware? Be sure to make your way to Shinsaibashi and Doguyashi.
Hop off the subway at Namba and start at Doguyashi shopping street for rows of open fronted stores selling Japanese cookware and crockery. Here you can pick up beautiful crockery to take home with you at extremely reasonable prices. I have many a hand-painted serving bowl, brought back wrapped in layers of clothing and towels that were purchased here for a fraction of the price they would be at home. Equally, if it’s world-class kitchen knives you are looking for then this is the place to go. Japan is famous for the quality of its kitchen knives and there is no better place to shop for them than here.
After wandering through Doguyashi, pass through Dotonburi (grabbing some lunch on the way) and then cross the river to Shinsaibashi shopping street. There are all manner of shops here, from small boutiques to large department stores, worldwide chains to Japanese brands. There are bargains to be had and you can easily lose an afternoon browsing everything on offer. Stop in at Daiso for inexpensive but ingenious products that solve household problems you didn’t know you had.
If you are on the lookout for a kimono or yukata, be sure to visit the Shitennoji Temple for the flea market (21st and 22nd of the month) and pick up a second hand (likely silk) one for less than £20 – buying second hand will get you a great quality kimono for a lot less and makes for an eco-friendly purchase too.
Keitakuen Garden - Image: Eloise Oatley
Keitakuen GardenImage: Eloise Oatley
Nakanoshima Island offers an oasis amongst the sea of concrete skyscrapers and shopping malls. A large sandbank situated between the Dojimagawa and Tosaborigawa rivers, Nakanoshima is the site of Osaka’s first public park and is home to a large rose garden with over 3000 rose bushes. Stroll along the island from the Showa Bridge, stopping in at the underground National Museum of Art, before crossing the Naniwa Bridge for coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company (the best in the area) or lunch at North Shore. Then spend the afternoon soaking up the sunshine in the rose garden and park. Looking out from the greenery onto the surrounding city skyscrapers, you can’t help but contemplate Japan’s complex relationship with nature and modernity.
Keitakuen Garden provides a more traditional setting to relax in. Located next door to the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts in Tennoji, this traditional Japanese garden boasts a large pond full of golden koi and terrapins of all sizes, a beautiful teahouse offering traditional tea ceremonies and stepping stones across the impossibly still water.
Akame Waterfalls - Image: Eloise Oatley
Akame WaterfallsImage: Eloise Oatley
Akame 48 Waterfalls
To immerse yourself in nature a little more, try a visit to Akame 48 Waterfalls, also known as Ninja Valley. A little way out of Osaka, it is worth the two-hour train and bus journey. Part of the Mie Prefecture, the Akame district was used as a ninja training area, providing the perfect training ground for learning about the art of stealth and deception. The waterfall walk here is a leisurely three-four hours, taking in numerous waterfalls of varying heights amongst the impressive greenery. Near the entrance is a centre offering a 90-minute ninja training experience and (for the more faint of heart), just beyond is an information centre on the different types of salamander that can be found in the region, with some live prehistoric-looking examples on show. Try to spot some - slightly smaller - species in the river during your walk.
Torodo, Osaka - Image: Eloise Oatley
Torodo, OsakaImage: Eloise Oatley
Experience the spiritual heart of Japan by taking an overnight trip to Koya-san. Staying in a temple here is a must. Although it can be a little on the pricey side, most temple bookings include taking part in a religious ceremony (approx. 6am so prepare for an early start!), sleeping on traditional futons and a delicious vegan meal. Many temples only have gender separate, communal style bathing, some of which include hot spring baths. At nearly 50°C, you’ll have to be a die-hard lover of a hot soak though! To say I looked like a well-cooked lobster after only 5 minutes in there, would be an understatement.
Spend some time exploring Okunoin Cemetery, the largest in Japan. Set amongst stunning forest scenery and teeming with countless moss covered tombstones, Okunoin is one of the most sacred places in Japan and a popular pilgrimage site. At the end of the path through the cemetery you will find the Kobo Daishi Mausoleum (the founder of Shingon Buddhism and of Koya-san as a spiritual centre 1200 years ago), Torodo – an immense lantern hall with hundreds of traditional lanterns lit day and night, and finally the Shotokuden Tea Hall.
I recommend booking onto one of the night-time tours guided by the extremely knowledgeable monks. Lit at night by the traditional stone lanterns (and the odd firefly) that line the half a mile long path, it’s a truly memorable experience.
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