Osaka, Japan 3rd largest city, is often overlooked by tourists in favor of Kyoto. However, this modern megalopolis deserves to be included in an itinerary for a first visit to Japan. In particular, visiting the cultural vestiges of its past of which the city is proud, discovering the atmosphere of its shopping districts and of its nightlife are great things to do in Osaka.
Then we share with you in this post from our travel blog Heulys, the best itinerary to visit Osaka in one day.
1. Osaka Castle (Ôsaka-jô): Cultural heritage of a flamboyant past
The first thing to do in Osaka is to visit its famous castle. As a result this historical approach makes possible to reconnect the city’s past with its current character.
Osaka castle is the emblem of the city, and the most photographed monument. It has been the pride of Osaka’s inhabitants for more than 450 years.
Located in the heart of the modern metropolis, the castle looks great with its refined architecture that truly contrasts with the “no style ” concrete buildings that surround it.
Many visitors, mostly Japanese, and groups of school children, flock to the gates of the sublim building. They are not just here to contemplate its elegant architecture. In fact, they come to visit the castle’s museum dedicated to its history and that of the city.
But in order to appreciate the visit to Osaka Castle, here is a brief summary of its history.
Osaka Castle’s tumultuous history
In the midst of social and political instability caused by incessant feudal wars, the powerful lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) built his castle in Osaka in 1583. It was the largest castle built at that time in Japan. Transformed into a veritable military stronghold, it helped Toyotomi Hideyoshi to assert its power over the whole country and in so doing, to contribute to the reunification of Japan in 1590.
Then, Osaka Castle will undergo several destructions and reconstructions due to wars or fires (lightning storm).
In 1931 a reconstruction work began. However, the castle suffered damages inflicted by bombing raids during World War II and later a typhoon.
In 1950 major restoration works started.
Finally, it was not until 1997 that Osaka Castle, rebuilt in concrete, regained its splendor.
Many Japanese visiting Osaka are fascinated by its glorious past. Indeed, the castle symbolizes 3 centuries of economic and political domination of the city (until the transfer of power to Tokyo in 1868).
Reconnecting with the shoguns history
Today, Osaka Castle houses over 7 floors a museum which traces the main events of its troubled history. Its wide and rich collection lets understand life at the time of the shoguns and the feudal wars.
In modern rooms, artifacts and plenty of historical materials are displayed. For example, they include a multitude of Japanese everyday objects, works of art, maps, clothes, lacquered wood furniture, etc. Young schoolchildren flock in front of the samurai costumes displayed in glass cases. There are real work of art! Folding screens illustrate the feudal wars (Summer War, Battle of Shizugatake) witnessed by Osaka Castle. A special place is given to weapons, spears, swords, sabers.
The highlight of the visit is on the 8th floor, from where there is a spectacular panoramic view of the extended metropolis.
The museum alone is worth the visit to Osaka.
Osaka Castle Park
Then, we walk in the park surrounding the castle, a very welcoming green space with its groves, flower beds and various fruit trees. Located in the heart of an ultra-urban environment, it is the lung of the city.
In fact, during the “Koyo” (autumn) period, it attracts many visitors and photographers who want to immortalize the glowing trees. In spring, tourists and locals watch in wonder the marvelous spectacle of the flowering cherry trees.
We walk towards the tea house where we taste a “matcha“, a sparkling green tea drunk by the Japanese. Then we stroll to the shrine dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
In conclusion, even if the current building is not the original one, Osaka Castle impresses with its haughty silhouette and its very rich museum. Its visit is really one of the best things to do in Osaka.
2. Kita, Osaka station: the vibrant heart of the metropolis
After immersing ourselves in the prestigious city’s past, the next thing to do in Osaka is to discover Osaka Station City and its lively neighborhood.
To get there, from the castle, we take the subway at H. Keihan Tenmabashi station towards Osaka Station, on the Kita district. It should be noted that it is difficult to visit Osaka on foot because the city is so large. It is more convenient to take the public transportation as it is very practical and well signposted.
By its size and activity, Osaka station is the largest station in western Japan. Indeed, this huge modern glass complex is an important rail and the metropolitan hub connected to other major stations in the country.
As a result, as early as 7 a.m., the throng of people hurrying through the corridors is incredibly dense.
Osaka station also houses on several floors and buildings, a wide variety of shops, shopping centers and a multitude of restaurants, cinemas. They are connected by escalators and walkways. It is Osaka Station City, the city within the city.
Around the station
What other things to do in Osaka, especially in the Kita district ? Around the station, many department stores and malls attract locals. You can find everything, the most fashionable items, the latest electronic equipment, furniture, entire floors devoted to food, souvenirs, etc. The large Grant Front shopping center in Osaka has nearly 270 stores. Just a stone’s throw from the station, the Tenjinbashi-suji shopping mall is 1,2 miles long and boasts over 800 shops. Needless to say that this district is a shopping paradise!
We visit a few well-known brands to discover the latest trends in Japanese fashion. We are surprised to see many food products displayed. But this is normal since Osaka is considered the capital of Japanese gastronomy. So, in the “pastry” department, we indulge a tasty chestnut cake ;).
In the Hankyu Store, a huge department store, a gigantic 20-meter red whale welcomes us. Then we enter the HEP Five shopping center, a temple of shopping for young people. It is also known for its large red wheel on its roof. The latter was very useful for finding our way in this labyrinth of streets, walkways and suspended motorways.
The visit to the Kita district reminds us that we are in one of the most populous cities in Japan.
Finally, stunned by so many shops, restaurants, and by the crowd, we keep going south to the lively streets of another very popular district: Minami.
3. Minami – Shinsaibashi – Dotonbori: a bustling atmosphere
Finally, the last thing to do in Osaka in one day is to discover its bustling nightlife…
Continuing our visit to the south of the city, we reach another popular district where shopping is king: Shinsaibashi. There are many department stores, a multitude of fashion outlets, games rooms (pachinko) and lots of cafés and restaurants. The show is in the streets with their small stalls, clothing stores, Japanese gadgets of all kinds.
Then we stroll through the very large, crowded Shinsaibashi-suji gallery. It leads to the emblematic pedestrian Dotonbori street, which runs along the canal of the same name.
The last thing to do in Osaka is to stroll along the most popular district in Osaka: Dotonbori.
It’s only 4pm and the sun is already declining (we’re in November). So much the better, because it is at nightfall that Dotonbori Street reveals all its charms. Illuminated by neon lights and signsboards, it invites walkers to visit its stores, its many restaurants, cafés and places of entertainment (cinemas, theaters, game-rooms, bars). The crowd roams the street in search of the most extravagant signboards to photograph them.
Here too, we find everything, for all tastes, for all ages, from everyday consumer goods to luxury items from prestigious brands.
We pass the Keni-dôraky restaurant, famous for its giant moving crab.
Osaka, capital of the Japanese gastronomy
Speaking of restaurants, it should be noted that visiting Osaka is an opportunity to discover a renowned gastronomy. Dotonbori street and the streets around are full of restaurants of all sizes, offering fish specialties (presented fresh on the stalls), vegetables and meats. You can try the tasty specialties of takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yakiniku, and so many others. The waiters hail passers-by to invite them to enter, sometimes in restaurants located on one of the floors of the buildings. And since we are in Kansai, why not tasting the Kobe meat, whose tender flesh is so famous?
Finally, taking the adjacent Shôtengai (shopping streets), we keep going to the edge of the Dotonbori canal. We admire the street lights which are reflected in its waters.
For sure, people don’t go to Osaka to contemplate its architecture (except for Osaka castle). The things to do in Osaka are much different. Visitors are attracted by the dynamic neighborhoods, the nightlife atmosphere and its gastronomy.
In short, these discoveries immerse the visitor in the bustling activity of the Japanese city life.