From the neon of Dotonbori to the cool vibes of Ura-Namba, Japan’s second city is never dull.
The ‘nation’s kitchen’, as Osaka is sometimes called, is always tasty too – whether you opt for a seasonal kaiseki feast or a local craft beer, or head into the countryside to go strawberry picking. Add a gallery visit, a road trip to the grand shrine at Ise and some retail therapy, and Osaka will never leave you bored.
Here’s a selection of the very best experiences in Osaka and Kansai to add to your itinerary.
THE EXHIBITION: NMOA 40th Anniversary
Until 5 May, the National Museum of Art is celebrating its 40th anniversary with an exhibition that features the work of more than 40 of the Japanese and overseas artists who have shown here since its 1977 opening, including Shinro Ohtake, Joan Miró and Chu Enoki. This will be followed on 26 May by The Myriad Forms of Visual Art, an exhibition designed to re-examine contemporary art by looking at 196 varied works across 19 themes.
THE RESTAURANT: Kita Zuien
Think of Osakan food and you picture takoyaki, okonomiyaki and other sauce-smothered comfort food. But Osaka also does fine dining. With a focus on in-season produce, which depending on the course might include a delicate matsutake soup, freshly caught abalone or chargrilled wagyu, the multi-course kaiseki at Kita Zuien wouldn’t be out of place at a high-end Kyoto inn. Design wise, with tatami-mat rooms and a miniature rock garden inside the entrance, it looks like one too.
THE BAR: Beer Belly
Near Higobashi station in Osaka’s Nishi ward, the taproom of highly rated Osakan craft brewery Minoh serves a mix of year-round brews and seasonal specials. The regular line-up includes Minoh’s hoppy and heady W-IPA and a crisp pilsner, while past limited editions have ranged from imperial stout to yuzu white ale. There’s also plenty on the bar menu to keep meat lovers happy, including jerk chicken, homemade sausage and the signature Edobori burger.
OSAKA LITERALLY MEANS BIG HILL – APT, BECAUSE THE CITY IS SURROUNDED BY MOUNTAINS
THE ROAD TRIP: Ise-Shima
Head a couple of hours east into Mie prefecture to find the Ise-Shima area, home to Japan’s most venerable shrine, the Ise Jingu. The structures here, which are rebuilt in their entirety every 20 years, are deliberately understated to blend into the vast natural surroundings, creating one of the most tranquil shrine settings in Japan. While there, the nearby Okage-yokocho neighbourhood is a fun place to seek out local flavours and crafts, while a little further away the Meoto-Iwa (‘wedded rocks’) provide one of the best springtime photo opportunities. A few hundred metres offshore, the rocks are joined together by a giant straw rope between which you can frame the setting sun.
THE HOTEL: Moxy Osaka Honmachi
An outpost of Marriott’s playful hotel brand Moxy opened late last year right next to Osaka’s central Honmachi station. Like its other locations – a Moxy also opened in Tokyo at the same time, debuting with a cosplay party – the Osaka Moxy blends fun social spaces (there’s table football and board games) with advanced tech: there’s no check in, and guests access bedrooms via the mobile app.
THE EVENT: Strawberry picking
This time of the year is peak strawberry season, and there are farms all over Osaka prefecture where you can gorge on plump and juicy Japanese strawberries. Haru Farm, around 45 kilometres south of Osaka, is especially well prepared for non-Japanese speakers. For 60 minutes, you can pick and eat strawberries until you’ve had your fill. And for some variety, the deal includes self-serve ice cream and cake.
THE INSTAGRAM SPOT: Hep Five
Or rather, Instagram spots. The Hep Five department store in the busy Umeda district has two. Step inside the main entrance and the first is a 20-metre-long red whale hanging in Hep Five’s atrium. The other is a vivid red rooftop Ferris wheel, which provides opportunities for Instagram magic as it slowly rotates above the city.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: Ura-Namba
A growing reputation for cool bars and hip dining is making Ura-Namba (literally the ‘back’ of Namba) a foodie hotspot. Most noticeably, you have the collection of nine small restaurants and food stands in the funky Torame-yokocho food court – you can enter it by passing under a red torii gate. Walk the streets and you’ll find plenty more watering holes, tachinomiya (standing bars) and casual eateries that keep drawing Osaka’s young and fashionable crowd.
THE SHOP: Loft Umeda
A colourful jack of all trades, nine-floored Loft Umeda covers a bit of everything. The line-up includes health products, homewares, stationery, cosmetics, kitchen utensils and all sorts of other things. Need practical bento boxes with cute designs or facemasks designed to make you look a kabuki actor as you moisturise? You’ll find it here.
THE BOUTIQUE: Cross Hotel
Situated between Namba and Shinsaibashi neighbourhoods, the Cross is a boutique hotel with a winning location – a short stroll to Dotonbori and many more of central Osaka’s main attractions. Mixing white and light base colours with red and black accents, the design of the rooms is simple and modern, while the rest of the Cross has a glitzy city-centre vibe: just look at the facade, all transparent red glass marked with a giant ‘X’.
● 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 blond-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