Osaka, one of Japan’s largest cities, lies on the south coast of western Honshu at the point where the River Yodo flows into the wide sweep of Osaka Bay, which opens out into the Pacific. Origins of Osaka date back to the mythological early days of the Japanese Empire, today it is undoubtedly one of the most modern cities in Japan, boasting a futuristic skyline along with countless impressive examples of modern architecture. From its superb museums and art galleries to its ultra-modern entertainment, theater, and music venues, which together add up to an endless list of unique things to do for you.
Best Time to Visit
You can visit Osaka at any time of year because the weather is temperate, but the best times to visit Osaka are the fall (October/November) and spring (March/April/May).
Top Places to Visit in Osaka
1. Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle (Ōsaka-jō), completed in 1586 in just three years, was ordered built by famed Japanese warrior and politician Toyotomi Hideyoshi and was, at the time, the largest castle in Japan. Almost all Hideyoshi’s military commanders were required to contribute stones for its construction, the largest being the Higo-ishi stone, near the south entrance, standing nearly six meters high, 14.5 meters long, and brought by the celebrated General Kato Kiyomasa from the island of Shodo.Highlights include the five-story, 42-meter-tall main tower containing a great museum with exhibits related to the history of the castle and the city (it also offers superb views over Osaka from its upper floors).
2. Shitennō-ji Temple
Osaka’s best-known temple, Shitennō-ji, can trace its roots back to AD 59 and was Japan’s first Buddhist temple. Although rebuilt numerous times through the centuries (the most recent reconstruction took place in the 1960s), this lovely temple remains the oldest such religious site to be officially administered. Highlights of a tour include the site’s five-story pagoda along with a number of other exquisitely decorated buildings including the Golden Pavilion (Kondō) with its fine statues and paintings, the Lecture Hall (Kōdō), and a lovely covered corridor linking three of the site’s gates. Other buildings of note in the complex include the teaching area, a pharmacy and hospital, along with a pleasant garden.
3. Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Looking a little as if it might be made of giant Lego blocks, the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is well worth exploring. One of the world’s biggest such attractions, this walk-through aquarium takes guests on a fascinating tour of a number of marine habitats, including the Pacific Ocean and Antarctica, along with the Great Barrier Reef and Monterey Bay. A variety of Japanese marine life is also featured, including freshwater species, as well as native reptiles and mammals. All told, the site boasts 27 tanks, the biggest being nine meters deep and capable of easily accommodating large marine life including manta rays and sharks.
4. The National Museum of Art
The National Museum of Art, Osaka (NMAO) is a unique underground art museum just a few minutes from the city center on Nakanoshima, a small island between the Tosabori and Dōjima rivers. Opened in 1977, this important gallery contains a large collection from some of the leading international artists of the post-war period, including examples by Picasso and Cézanne and Japanese artists Kuniyoshi and Foujita, along with many important relics and statues. Even if art isn’t your thing, it’s worth visiting for the spectacular steel structure outside the museum, a massive installation designed to look like reeds bending under a breeze. Also worth a visit is the Osaka Municipal Museum of Fine Art, home to a collection of ancient Chinese calligraphy and artwork by Japan’s most revered artists.
5. Tennōji Park and Zoo
Osaka’s largest green space, Tennōji Park (Tennōji Kōen), serves as a place of respite from this otherwise busy city. Noted for its many fragrant flower beds and, in spring, its cherry blossoms, the park is a delight to explore thanks also to its many fun sculptures, ponds, and bridges. It’s also home to some of Osaka’s most important tourist attractions, including the Tennōji Zoo, opened in 1915 and featuring a variety of species including lions, giraffes, and elephants, housed in such a way that they seem to be roaming the African savannah. Also worth a visit is the hippo pool and reptile house. Hot Tip: Try to time your visit for the free tours of the park’s greenhouses and other areas not usually open to the public.
6. Universal Studios Japan
One of the city’s newest attractions, and quickly becoming one of the top things to do in Osaka, Universal Studios Japan is also one of the city’s busiest sites, attracting around 10 million visitors each year. One of only four Universal theme parks worldwide, the Osaka location offers a number of well-known pop-culture franchises, along with a few unique to the location. Recent additions include Hollywood Dream: The Ride, a fun rollercoaster that actually travels backwards at times; rides based on the Spiderman movies; and Universal Wonderland, a family-friendly area perfect for those traveling with younger kids.
7. Tenmangu Shrine and the Tenjin Festival
Osaka also happens to be the host city of one of Japan’s largest annual festivals. The Tenjin Festival (Tenjin Matsuri) has been held here for more than 1,000 years on the same date, July 24 and 25. It features colourful processions held both on land and on water and culminates with a spectacular fireworks display. Much of the fun takes place around the Tenmangu Shrine, which celebrates the god of scholarship, and provides tourists a chance to experience local customs, see many traditional costumes, and enjoy the city’s wonderful hospitality. It’s also a chance to get in some souvenir shopping, as well as sampling great food from the many vendors who set their stalls for the occasion.
8. The Tempozan Ferris Wheel and Harbor Village
Providing some of the best views over Osaka, particularly of the port area and the Tempozan Harbor Village in which it’s located, the massive Tempozan Ferris Wheel is one of the largest such attractions in Asia. At more than 112 meters tall and with a diameter spanning 100 meters, this huge Ferris wheel has been in operation since 1997 and offers a thrilling 17-minute journey that is especially enjoyable at night when the wheel is lit up in a variety of different colors dictated by the weather (orange when sunny weather is forecast, green for clouds, and blue for rain). Thrill seekers can opt for one of the special “see-through-bottom” cars for an incredible all-round view of Osaka Bay. Afterwards, be sure to visit other Harbor Village attractions, including the Cruise Ship Santa Maria, the Legoland Discovery Center, and the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.