Osaka is quirky, colorful, and loud, like a Japanese game show come to life. (If you haven’t watched one, head over to YouTube to see what you’re missing.) Osaka is also Japan’s reigning food capital, making it an awesome destination for first-time visitors. This Osaka travel and food guide provides an introduction to some of the tastiest treats, as well as fun things to do in Osaka between meals!
First constructed in 1583, Osaka Castle has become one of the most famous landmarks in Japan. It was built for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the powerful warlord responsible for unifying the country. A diorama of the decisive battle is displayed inside the castle along with a variety of historical artifacts including samurai armor and weaponry. Osaka castle was destroyed several times over the centuries and rebuilt; the current structure dates to 1931 and underwent major restoration works in 1997.
An observation deck on the top floor, accessible by lift, provides a nice view of the city and surrounding park – which contains more than 600 cherry trees. As you can imagine, this makes Osaka Castle a very popular destination come springtime. If you are fortunate enough to visit during this prime season, be sure to try the sakura ice cream on offer in the large shopping plaza. It’s delicious!
Dotonbori Street and Canal
If you’re wondering where to eat in Osaka, look no further than Dotonbori, a colorful neighborhood packed with restaurants and street food stalls. Neon lights and mechanized signs advertise the specialties and create a carnival-like atmosphere on the pedestrian-only street. It may seem difficult to choose with so many options, but queues helpfully identify the most popular eateries. Don’t miss the Kani Doraku crab, which was the first of Osaka’s over-the-top billboards.
The most ubiquitous street food in Osaka is takoyaki. Balls of pancake batter are stuffed with pieces of octopus and fried on a special griddle. Expertly wielding a pair of chopsticks, the chef rotates the balls so they cook evenly. Takoyaki are typically served eight on a plate, with a topping of mayo, seaweed flakes, and a sweet-and-tangy sauce. They taste best when freshly made and piping hot.
For a more substantial meal, try okonomiyaki. These large griddle cakes use the same batter as takoyaki, but pack in a lot more flavor. At long-running okonomiyaki restaurant Chibo, cabbage, bacon, cheese, and even soba noodles are added to an assortment of seafood. Chefs prepare the pancakes as you watch, adding sauce and mayonnaise with flair.
As I strolled down Dotonbori street, the aroma of grilled steak made my mouth water. Following my nose like a bloodhound, I ended up at a stand specializing in Kobe beef. This highly-prized wagyu beef is raised in the area of Kobe, Japan, which is only thirty minutes away from Osaka by train. The stand offered many different preparations, including rice bowls and ramen, but I opted for the Kobe beef “sushi.” That might seem scary to some, but Japan has some of the highest food safety standards in the world. If there is any place to try – and enjoy! – raw meat, this is it.
Freshly Baked Melonpan
Everyone loves an ice cream sandwich, right? Well the genius folks behind Osaka’s Freshly Baked Melonpan have taken things a step further. A toasted bun is split and filled with soft serve ice cream to make the most decadent sandwich imaginable. The bun is buttery and sweet, and can be filled with vanilla or green matcha ice cream. Those hoping for melon flavor should know that the name is simply due to the bun’s appearance.
In addition to being a dining hub, Dotonbori is home to two Osaka landmarks. The Glico Running Man sign, an advertisement for the company that makes Pocky, has been illuminating the Dotonbori canal since 1935. The billboard depicts a man crossing a finish line, and locals often gather below him to celebrate sports victories. An even quirkier mascot is Kuidaore Taro, the drum-beating clown. He debuted in 1950 as the greeter for a restaurant called Cui-Daore, Japanese for “eat until you go broke.” That restaurant has since closed, but the clown endures. Visitors line up to take photos with him and his likeness is used to sell everything from pudding to keychains.
Dotonbori isn’t the only place to find delicious food in Osaka. Oretachi No Curry Ya offers some of the best Japanese curry around. Armed with only a few pots and burners, the gravy the owner produces is thick, rich, and wonderfully spiced. Orders can be easily customized by using the ticket machine by the door. My idea of the ultimate comfort food is Japanese curry topped with a fried chicken cutlet, cheese, and a soft-boiled egg. Others like to top theirs with green onion, but I think this masks the delicate curry flavor.
I find a big slurpable bowl of ramen noodles almost as satisfying as the curry mentioned above. Especially when the ramen is topped with a succulent piece of char sui, or roast pork. I stumbled upon Tensho one evening walking from the train station to my hotel, and think it’s well worth seeking out. Tensho’s food and service are vastly superior to Ichiran Ramen in Dotonbori. Sometimes it’s good to venture off the beaten path.
Doguyasuji Shopping Street
If you’re keen to take home a piece of Osaka’s food culture, head to Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shotengai, otherwise known as Kitchen Street. This covered shopping arcade is lined with stores selling the tools of the culinary trade, from dishes and knives to steamer baskets and barbecue grills. This is also a great place to find souvenirs, like plastic food and manekineko (lucky cat) figurines.
In the 1960s, stores in a converted warehouse district began selling imported American clothes and music. The neighborhood soon earned the nickname Amerika-mura, and a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty was added to one of the rooftops for good measure. Today the area feels like 90s Los Angeles, with Hip Hop music blasting from shops stocked with baggy clothes and sports jerseys. There are some gems here, though. I’m particularly fond of the design t-shirt shop Graniph. I was wearing one of their fun prints in Australia and a lady stopped me on the street to ask where I’d gotten it!
The Osaka Aquarium is one of the largest in the world. Its central tank is three stories tall and holds 5,400 cubic meters of water! A path circles down and around the tank, providing visitors with unobstructed views of sea life. Gigantic whale sharks, manta rays, hammerheads, and schools of fish swim by as though performing choreographed dances for a rapt audience. I could have watched them all day. Other areas of the aquarium hold marine mammals including seals, penguins, and gorgeous mandarin ducks. Ethereal jellyfish and alien-like crabs also delight the crowds. The fish-flavored ice cream, not so much.
Before catching your train or flight out of Osaka, be sure to pick up some 551 Horai pork buns to enjoy while you wait. 551 Horai is a popular chain that’s only found in the Kansai region of Japan. The pillowy buns are served in even numbers with packets of spicy mustard and make the perfect snack.
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