You will hear this; people tell you Tokyo is strange, but I’ve never felt stranger in Japan—or maybe anywhere—than I did traipsing down Osaka’s Dotonbori pedestrian walk on a cold evening in January on my first trip.
Having wandered past the streets iconic mechanical crab, I was setting up my tripod beneath a giant octopus, a cacophony of foreign languages, stomping feet and kitschy music (“takoyaki! takoyaki! takoyaki!” a speaker on the cephalopod from which the iconic Kansai-area food is made, blared) swirling around me.
I was freezing, in a way, but also warm: In Starbucks, just minutes before, a local had made casual conversation with me, which is also quite rare in reserved, English-impaired Japan.
Osaka might only be Japan’s third-largest city, but in many ways, it’s the most enjoyable. No matter what takes you to Japan or when you happen to visit, please enjoy my guide to three days in Osaka
Where to Stay in Osaka
Osaka is smaller than Tokyo, but it’s still a massive city, so choose your hotel carefully to avoid long transit times. Namba Oriental Hotel is very central, just three minutes by foot from Dotonbori. On the other hand, deals can be had at the ultra-luxurious Hotel Agora Regency in Sakai, which is quite a bit south of the city but is an easy trek, given Osaka’s impressive rail network.
Day One: Eat, Pray, Love
Although Tokyo’s sushi and fresh seafood are the most ubiquitous Japanese foods, Osaka’s are known as the best, particularly among Japanese. The only better than sinking your teeth into squishy takoyaki octopus fritters, or crispy fried gyoza? The fact that you can find them literally everywhere in town—Osaka has a mobile food culture, trailers and otherwise, that the hippest locales in America and Europe will never, ever be able to touch.
To be sure, while Osaka’s culinary prowess is its strongest suit, it has some traditional tourist attractions as well. The gaudy neon of Dotonbori (which, hint, is a great place to eat) notwithstanding, Shi-Tennoji Temple is world-class, as is the Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine (also a great place to eat), to which you can ride Osaka’s only surviving street car. During your promenade, you’re sure to catch a glimpse of Osaka’s many love hotels, which are technically no different from those in Tokyo, but are a little more kawaii in my opinion.
Day Two: Above Us Only Sky
Another of Osaka’s famous tourist attractions is Osaka Castle, a massive edifice which is particularly beautiful in April during the sakura season, but gorgeous no matter when you visit. I recommend visiting during the day and at sunset and walking by the castle at night to get a 360º perspective, figuratively speaking, on its brilliance. (If you want a literal panorama, make the climb up to its viewing deck, where you can enjoy an expansive view of the Osaka skyline.)
Speaking of panoramas of Osaka, another place you must visit during your three days in Osaka is the Umeda Sky Building, which by night is absolutely the best Osaka viewpoint. Afterwards, head back to Dotonbori (particularly if you’ve only seen it by day, at this point) to enjoy some truly wild photo opportunities.
Day Three: A Tale of Two Day Trips
Some fans of Kyoto (and I am a fan of Kyoto!) might be offended that I suggest taking a day trip there are part of your three days in Osaka. While you can easily take a standalone trip to the gorgeous historical city, in some cases seeing Kyoto without staying the night there might be a necessity, such as during the cherry blossom time when hotel availability is low and prices are high.
Take a morning train from Osaka, hit up essential sights like Kiyomizu Temple, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inari Shrine, then head back in time for okonomiyaki in Dotonbori.
Nara, defined mainly by wooden pagodas and wild deer, has less to see (in an obvious sense, anyway) and might be a better traditional “day trip,” assuming you spend a few days in Kyoto apart from your three days in Osaka.
Theoretically, you could see both of these places if you’re ninja-fast and don’t mind being out for 12 (or more!) hours, but I wouldn’t recommend that, even though I’m no fan of “slow travel” myself.
The Bottom Line
Osaka is more unsung than Tokyo, but also more satisfying. Comparisons notwithstanding, you owe yourself at least three days in Osaka’s “Kansai” region during your trip in Japan.