Japan’s second city is the lively hub of the Kansai region. With celebrations like the Toka Ebisu festival in January and the Nipponbashi Street Festa cosplay event in March, and year-round attractions like the regional food, famously chatty locals and neon-lit nights – not to mention close proximity to traditional counterpoints like Kyoto, Nara and Mount Koya – it’s a trip you won’t forget.
Osaka is one of those cities that doesn’t have a best time to visit, but if you want to avoid Japan’s notorious crowds, the January to March low season is hard to beat.
Here’s a selection of the very best experiences in Osaka and Kansai to add to your itinerary.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: Nakazakicho
The old houses of Nakazakicho, a short walk from busy Umeda, have become a haven for small cafes (89 Cafe, where you can also rent a kimono), retro clothing stores (Green Pepe), craft shops (Guignol and Jam Pot) and tiny galleries like eclectic Irorimura. It’s so hip, it even has a muesli bar: Granda Familio. Just don’t get there before noon, as many of the shops will still be closed.
THE FESTIVAL: Toka Ebisu
Osaka doesn’t do downtime and the standout festival this season is Toka Ebisu (9-11 January), which includes a parade of geisha and local celebrities on the middle day. Or on 14 January, watch out for the Doya Doya (easy to spot as many young men will be running around in loincloths). And for a different event entirely, try the Nipponbashi Street Festa in mid-March – Japan’s largest cosplay event.
THE MUSEUM: The Cup Noodle Museum
This ode to the instant noodle offers one of the more unusual hands-on experiences you’ll find in Japan. For ¥300 (HK$20) you can create your own instant noodles, including package design, from a potential 5,460 flavour combinations. The museum’s Instant Ramen tunnel is also one of Osaka’s most Instagramable sites.
THE MARKET: Shitenno-ji
Founded in 593 AD, Osaka’s Shitenno-ji temple is about as venerable as they get in Japan, but that doesn’t mean a visit has to be hushed and dull. On the 21st of each month, the temple’s flea market is ideal for picking up antiques, used kimono, local crafts and all sorts of bric-a-brac.
THE MOUNTAIN: Mount Koya
The wooded Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture is where the monk Kobo Daishi founded Shingon Buddhism in the ninth century. A Unesco World Heritage site, Mount Koya has dozens of temples offering simple ryokan accommodation, where in place of traditional multi-course kaiseki meals guests are served equally exquisite vegetarian shojin-ryori cuisine, and can also take part in temple rituals like the morning wood burning ceremony.
THE INSTAGRAM SPOT: Dotonbori
The neon lights of Dotonbori – in particular, the Glico Man sign – are an iconic Osaka sight. Most people snap Glico Man from the opposite side of the canal, but you can get a different perspective from the water with a 20-minute Tombori River Cruise.
THE SNACK: Kushi katsu
Once you’ve snarfed okonomiyaki and takoyaki, find the less heralded (but just as moreish) kushi katsu: skewers of meat, seafood or vegetables, coated in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried and dipped in a thick, sticky, tangy sauce. Tengu, next to Spa World in Shinsekai, has a friendly Osaka vibe; but there are loads more in the neighbourhood.
3 Chome-4-12 Ebisuhigashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka
THE SHOP: Daiso
Three-floor Daiso in Shinsaibashi, where everything is ¥100 (HK$7) – well, ¥108 (HK$7.5) when you add the tax – is one of the cheapest places to pick up a souvenir like tabi socks, green tea-flavoured snacks and all sorts of other items that range from basic cosmetics to cute character goods.
THE DAY TRIP: Nara
Both Kyoto and Himeji Castle are great day trips from Osaka. You can go even further back in time with Nara, Japan’s ancient capital in the eighth century. Even spending just a few hours around the verdant Nara Park area is worth the 50-minute train ride. Don’t miss Todai-ji temple and its giant Buddha statue, or Kasuga-taisha shrine and its hundreds of stone and bronze lanterns.
THE CAFE: Alive
Nipponbashi is the geeky heart of Osaka, known for its maid cafes and shops selling anime- and manga-related goods. A more recent maid cafe spin-off is Alive, a popular danso cafe, which means the all-female staff mixing cocktails are dressed up as suave male butlers.
THE COCKTAIL: Takoyaki in the Sky
Takoyaki (battered octopus balls) is the classic Osakan street food. It gets remixed at 40 Sky Bar & Lounge, atop the new Conrad Osaka: the Takoyaki in the Sky cocktail balances a takoyaki ball on top of a gin and blue curacao drink.
THE SNACK: Chou crème
Takoyaki is the classic Osakan street food, though not all of Osaka’s snacks are savoury. A stroll along the Shinsaibashi-suji shopping street brings numerous sweet delights. To call out just two, start with the slightly crispy, custard-filled chou crème at Hop Chou a la Crème at the street’s northern end, then the tea-flavoured sweets and ice creams at Ujien Kissako down the road.
THE VIEW: JR Station City
High above Osaka’s main railway station is a small urban farm. Climb up to the 14th floor of the North Tower of JR Station City (access is from the 11th floor) to find a hidden garden filled with cucumbers, tomatoes and blueberries. Added bonus: from this green rooftop are eye-popping views over western Osaka – the robot-like Umeda Sky Building is straight ahead – which is particularly alluring at sunset.
● It’s an hour from Kansai International Airport to central Osaka, with a train ticket costing around ¥1,200 (HK$80), and around 90 minutes to Kyoto. Trains either run a local, rapid or express service and are priced accordingly – check before you get on.
● Osaka Free Wi-Fi (ofw-oer.com) provides free internet access at 4,000 points across the city. The website has all the details, as well as a blonde-haired local mascot called Osaka Bob, who shares discount vouchers for shops around town.
Cathay Pacific flies to Osaka from Hong Kong and Taipei 42 times per week