Tokyo gets all the attention for its big city feel and Kyoto for its ancient culture, but the city of Osaka shouldn’t be overlooked when planning your Japan itinerary. Known for its laid-back attitude and tasty cuisine, what the city lacks in history and charm it makes up for in the dining scene alone. The best time to experience Osaka is at night when the neon lights come on and the sounds of pachinko (Japanese pinball) machines fill the streets. Consequently, making Osaka your home base allows for quick day trips to Kyoto, Kobe and Hiroshima with plenty of time to make it back for dinner and a night on the town.
If you need only one reason to visit Osaka, it’s the food. Centered around the Shinsaibashi District, Osaka’s food scene lives by the motto kuidaore. The term roughly means ‘to ruin oneself with food,’ and visitors to the area accomplish this by hopping from one restaurant to the next, sampling some fugu (blowfish) sashimi here and steamed crab there. Street-side vendors rotate piping hot balls made from savory batter and squid in a giant skillet resembling a black egg carton. Takoyaki, as the dish is called, is often eaten when still hot enough to scald your mouth. Another local favorite, called Okonomiyaki, resembles a pancake but is made with cabbage, bacon, squid, spaghetti, Japanese mayonnaise, sweet teriyaki sauce and fish flakes.
When you’re not eating, Osaka also makes for some excellent shopping and people watching. The city was developed as a merchant town and it has stuck with its retail roots. Shinsaibashi-suji and Midosuji Dori are both good bets for clothing and accessories. For American-inspired fashion, or simply for some interesting people watching, try America-Mura.
If you’re traveling with children, Osaka is home to the Osaka Aquarium, Universal Studios Japan and Sega Amusement Theme Park. Older children and adults can step back into Osaka’s history at one of the most famous castles in Japan. Built during the 1580s, Osaka Castle was the largest castle in Japan for many years and remains one of the city’s most impressive monuments, complete with a top-down view of the surrounding city from the top floor observatory.