Osaka doesn’t have the ancient sights of Kyoto or the furious pace of Tokyo, but it has plenty of character. This character comes from the famously fun-loving Osakans, who adore their food and drink, and speak a colourful dialect of Japanese, known as Kansai ben. With 2.7 million residents, Osaka is Japan’s third-largest city and a flourishing commercial centre.
The history of Osaka is rooted in trade. This port city was trading with China and Korea during Japan’s earliest recorded periods, though it did so under the name Naniwa. Medieval Japan was a time of war and upheaval as different warrior factions bid for control, but Osaka was largely left to its own devices, enjoying an independence that was akin to medieval Florence or Venice.
Osaka rose to true prominence in the 16th century when Totoyomi Hideyoshi, the second Great Unifier in Japanese history, built his castle in Osaka, making it the economic and political centre of Japan until it was usurped by Tokyo in the 17th century. The economic prosperity of the city grew and continued all the way through the Edo period under Tokugawa and then during Japan’s modernisation in the late 19th century.
The city was opened up again to foreign trade in 1868. From then on, Osaka and its surrounding area became a centre of heavy industry and manufacturing. Even General Motors set up a factory in Osaka in the 1920s, only closing it down after Pearl Harbour in 1941. Heavy bombing flattened much of the city centre in WW2.
Eat, shop, party. Then do it all over again. There are a mind-boggling selection of restaurants, shops and bars to choose from in Osaka. Even on a budget Japan backpacking tour, you can enjoy the full Osaka experience.
The biggest concentration of cheap, izakaya-style bars is in Amerika-Mura. It’s a hive of young, hip Osakans hitting cafes, shops and bars. There are plenty of second-hand music and clothes stores in this area too. Neighbouring Shinsaibashi is rated as one of the best shopping areas in Japan with huge department stores, including the enormous Shinsaibashi-suji shopping arcade and Shinsaibashi Big Step.
Make sure you save Dotombori for after dark when the neon signage along the canal comes to life and Osaka parties like it’s 2099. Dotombori Street is crammed with restaurants selling all sorts of Osakan specialties.
For more izakaya-style establishments head south of Dotombori to Hozen-ji Yokocho. There’s a small Buddhist temple at one end of the alley. This is another good option if you’re on a budget while touring Osaka.
Head to Shin-sekai to see the scruffier side to Osaka. This area was modelled nearly a hundred years ago on Coney Island, New York, and has a similar dilapidated charm. There are lots of cheap eating options in this area, many serving Kushikatsu – vegetables and meat cooked on skewers. There are plenty of old-school pachinko and shogi parlours dotted around too.
If you want to do some sightseeing, then Osaka Castle is a great option. It’s an impressive structure (fully rebuilt in 1990s) and is set in large grounds with water and ramparts on all sides. The grounds (Osaka Castle Park) are a nice place to recharge batteries after a big night out!
The great thing about being a budget traveller in Osaka is that so many of the specialties are fairly cheap. Takoyaki is a prime example. These fried Octopus balls are a street snack served almost everywhere. The Octopus is surrounded by batter, cooked and then topped with sauces and bonito flakes. You’ll be hooked after your first.
Kushikatsu is famous in Osaka. Vegetables or meat are skewered, covered in bread crumbs and then deep fried. Yakitori also uses skewered meat, but uses no batter and is grilled instead of fried. Kushikatsu is a great accompaniment to a cold beer, and a great way for anyone on a Japan budget tour to enjoy a meal on the cheap.
Okonomiyaki (a sort of savoury pancake, but better) is served all over Japan, but Osaka is famed for its Okonomiyaki quality and variety. This is the city that invented the dish – make sure you try it here!
Osaka is also credited with inventing conveyor belt sushi. It started in the 1950s and has slowly grown in popularity, even if some in Japan felt it was a poor impression of what real sushi chefs could produce. It’s still a more affordable way of trying sushi in Japan than checking into a dedicated sushi restaurant, with some plates as cheap as 100 yen. And the quality is still far superior to anything you’ll get back home.
Another favourite local dish is Kitsune udon. It’s udon noodles served in a broth topped with a piece of tofu.
Travellers on a Japan backpacking tour looking for a filling, delicious meal that doesn’t cost the earth should go to aShokudo. It’s the Japanese equivalent of a diner or small cafeteria. You can order set meals with a main dish and side dishes, including a soup, for around $5. Main dishes might be grilled mackerel with rice, tonkatsu with rice, or an oyakodon chicken and egg rice bowl. Osakans have high expectations when it comes to food, so even in these cheap eateries the food is excellent.
Like most areas on Japan’s Honshu Island, Osaka’s subtropical climate means the best times to visit on your Japan budget tour are spring and autumn, when the temperatures are comfortable and there are either flowers in bloom everywhere or the leaves turn red and golden.
Summers are hot and humid and the rainy season peaks in June and July. There can also be a lot of rain in September when typhoons off the coast of Japan (which rarely make landfall this far west) bring occasional storms and showers.
Winters are fairly cold and dry with temperatures consistently in the mid to low single digits (⁰C) in January and February. Snow is unusual in Osaka.