Osaka has possibly become one of my new favourite cities. It’s fast, exciting and cool beyond belief whilst maintaining that nonchalant, unpretentious attitude…you could call it the “Melbourne of Japan”. One of the most happening parts of downtown Osaka is the area surrounding Namba, Minami and the famous Dotonbori – it’s busy, bustling and the perfect spot to kick-start your trip. Here are my top tips for those planning a visit!
Where to stay
If you want to be in the thick of it Namba Oriental Hotel will be right up your alley. Literally. Tucked away down one of the undercover malls in the Namba precinct, it’s cute, compact and comfortable. A quiet oasis in a sprawling metropolis (the insulation is incredible) the rooms overlook a small courtyard in the centre of the hotel, complete with a picturesque water feature and well-tended gardens. Looking out onto it you’d have no idea you were surrounded by miles of undercover malls, pachinko slot machine halls and some of Osaka’s buzziest dining.
What to do
Explore! Spend your first day in downtown Osaka getting you bearings. Arm yourself with a map and just wander. Some top musts:
- Pay a visit to the giant Kani Doraku crab for a picture perfect postcard shot opportunity
- Stand on the Dotonbori bridge and marvel at the LED-lit Glico man (above). It’s been an Osaka icon for over 80 years.
- Shop at Don Quijote (it’s 8 levels of the BEST, most quintessential and relatively inexpensive Japanese shopping…think everything from crazy confectionery and onesies to pre-loved Hermes Birkins).
- Trawl the Shinsaibashi-suji undercover mall (do not miss the food hall in Daimaru Department Store…see below under what to eat)
- Work up a sweat in the myriad of “Sport Halls”…the Japanese version of Intencity or Timezone. Literally, levels and levels of interactive games, claw machines and photo booths.
- Play Pachinko, the Japanese version of pokie machines. I had no idea how they worked, nor did I try to understand them but they are so popular in Japan there were even queues out the door and around the corner in the mornings along the undercover arcades as people waited for them to open! There is some sort of knob you have to turn and a whole lot of lights flash while bells ring…regardless it’s an experience just to pop your head in to see what the fuss is about!
What to eat
Everything. Try as much out-of-the-box food as you can – whether you have the guts to try guts (beef intestine frequents the menus, especially if you’re at a Yakitori restaurant) or simply give the matcha/green tea flavoured Kit Kats a go, definitely do it. When or where else will you have the opportunity to eat Takoyaki (octopus balls) made fresh before your very eyes or try corn flavoured soft serve?
My number one tip is to look for anywhere with a queue. If the locals love it you know it’s going to be good. If you’re after something more concrete then my suggestions for top must-trys are:
Okonomiyaki & Takoyaki
I devoured by Pork Okonomiyaki from Creo-Ru. These guys are famous for their Okonomiyaki – or at least that’s the impression I got from their impressive “photo wall” with what looked like local celebs and the like. Made fresh to order in the open kitchen, the Okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancakes made with cabbage) comes either plain, with seafood or with pork and is topped with Japanese barbecue sauce and mayo and optional Benito flakes.
As for Takoyaki, choose from wherever takes your fancy – from the endless street vendors along Sennichimae and the array of undercover arcades that sprout off from either side, to the restaurants that are clearly marked with a giant octopus.
The queue for Ichiran Ramen snakes out the door and down the boardwalk in the Dotonbori…however, don’t be put off because this line moves fast. Ichiran specialises in just one type of Ramen noodle – Tonkotsu. So rather than pouring over a menu deciding what to order, you simply have to decide how you want each element to be cooked – the oiliness of the soup broth, the intensity of flavour, the amount of spice, the softness of the noodle and whether you want extra pork, spring onion or black vinegar. Complete with a flashing seating map and payment system upon entry, it’s an incredible experience from the moment you’re handed your ordering forms in the queue to receiving your bowl of warming goodness from the saloon-style trap doors in front of your table.
Take-home packs from the Daimaru Foodhall
Pastries, Bento and fresh fruit and veg that are perfectly packaged and then packaged again…it’s as much a visual feast as it is one for the stomach on the basement level of the revered Japanese department store Daimaru. My advice is to go and feed on the atmosphere…then of course stock up on the food.
Cheese Tarts & Corn Soft-Serve
This isn’t traditional Japanese by any stretch of the imagination but it certainly is popular with the locals, with queues streaming out the doors. Pablo is a chain famed for their “cheese tarts” and corn ice cream soft-serve. Order an “Original Cheese Tart” to see what all the fuss is about (it’s an incredibly light pastry filled with a custard-meets-souffle-like filling) and you cannot go past a serve of their soft-serve. Legit, it tastes exactly like you would imagine corn ice cream to taste like…and it’s not wholly unpleasant. Plus, the quintessentially Japanese-pop-promo-reel that plays on the large screens or is projected onto the walls of the dine-in area is far to entertaining to miss.
For your caffeine fix…
I’m sure there are plenty of other coffee haunts which I just didn’t stumble across that serve better coffee, however, considering this is located next door to the Namba Oriental Hotel, it was the perfect spot to pick up a “Japanese-style” cappucino prior to setting off for the day. At Captain Terry Coffee Stadium, your order comes at the push of a button (out of a oblong-shaped machine) and the barista merely froths your milk…but the result is strangely tasty (albeit an acquired taste) and the buzz is no less satisfactory. I also loved the towering chef hats the staff wear – a fun way to start each morning.
Find a hole-in-the-wall without the help of blogs, Yelp or Trip Advisor
It half makes this post redundant, but, going with the flow and finding hidden gems off the beaten track is what travelling and new experience is all about! My recommendations mightn’t float your boat, so make the most of being in a completely different city and country and take the opportunity to forge your own foodie path. Plus, in an area that’s considered “food-central” you can’t really go wrong.
Case in point – I have NO idea what this place was even called because it was all in Japanese, but I do know if was down one of the uncover arcades off the main foodie boulevard in Sennichimae (just a street back from the Dotonbori River). We were seated and fed in super-speed time after a long day wandering and hungrily gobbled up Chicken Thigh Yakitori, the best Radish Salad I have ever eaten (we ordered a second one it was that good), Kimchi, Pickled Cucumber with Miso Sauce, Grilled Pork with Sticky Sauce (which came out sizzling like bacon) and “Furaidopoteto”. You guessed it – fried potato.
Finally if you’re looking for some more info and transport advice I found the Japan Guide website helpful.