Street view in Osaka

Osaka: The Japanese Street-Eat Hub With Punk-Rock Vibes

La Carmina

La Carmina

May 13, 2024

8 min read

If Osaka were to be described as a person, they’d be a gregarious, food-and-fun-loving punk rocker. Famous for its laid-back vibe and alleys filled with the scents of street food, Japan’s third-largest city is the place to indulge in whatever tickles your fancy—whether it’s cheap eats, vintage fashion, or pop-culture oddities.

Osaka took off as a commerce and cultural center in the 16th century thanks to its prime trading location on the Seto Inland Sea. A late 19th-century construction boom grew the population, as well as industries from textiles to tech. Today, the Osaka metropolitan area is home to 19.2 million people spread across a gritty cityscape that juxtaposes samurai-era fortresses with electric billboards.

Previously overlooked as a Japanese travel destination, Osaka has now achieved main-character status. 

Street eat yourself to ruin 

Street food in Osaka

Osaka has long been called the “nation’s kitchen,” as it was historically a rice-trading and fishing center (the formerly plentiful catch in Osaka Bay earned it the nickname “garden of fish.”) The city is also associated with the phrase kuidaore, or “eat yourself to ruin”—something that’s easy to do with the vast selection of umami-rich street food here. 

Make a beeline to Dotonbori, the neon-lit food cart district, to try takoyaki (hot, battered octopus balls), okonomiyaki (a savory pancake topped with sauces), and other hearty regional favorites. Save room for Kuromon Ichiba Market, a 2,000-foot stretch of vendors hawking local produce and seafood as well as tantalizing displays of street food. Here, you can snack on giant grilled scallops and king crab legs, taiyaki (fish-shaped waffles) stuffed with red bean paste or cheese, daifuku or sweet rice cakes filled with fruit, and other delectable cheap eats.

Bizarre themed bars

Nighttime street view in Osaka

Osaka’s nightlife has a raucous, rock-and-roll energy; the locals are friendly and eager to drink and chat all night with newcomers (regulars in areas like Shinsaibashi tend to be more willing to attempt English conversation). Since rental costs are lower here than in Tokyo, Osakans have been able to set up slightly odd, niche bars that pay homage to their passions. While the city is also home to upscale craft cocktail and wine bars, it’s the down-home and offbeat dives that will give you the most true-to-Osaka experience. 

Start your evening at Bar Midian, a watering hole for heavy metal fans, and then move to Bar Farplane for “eyeball” cocktails served by a fashionable latex-clad staff. Descend into Shinka, an underground space decorated like a submarine, or hop to Goth cabaret Kinguu to sip on absinthe while surrounded by taxidermy. 

Temples of doom

A temple in Osaka

In Osaka, even the spiritual sites are on the funky side. Unlike a typical serene Shinto shrine, Namba Yasaka looks like the giant green head of a ferocious demon with eyes bulging and fangs bared. Built in 1975 and located within walking distance of Dotonbori, the retro-futuristic shrine actually represents a roaring lion that swallows evil spirits. Then, descend into the darkest realm of Buddhist existence at Senko-ji Temple, a 40-minute train ride away from Namba in the suburb of Hirano. The ominous Hall of Hell warns that if you accumulate too much bad karma, you’ll be pushed into a boiling wok by horned, red-faced demons. 

Both spiritual sites are free to the public, though entry to Senko-ji’s Hell Hall requires a $1 ticket. Neither offer tours; I recommend visiting in the daytime for the best photography conditions.

Subculture shopping

In the early 20th century, Osaka was dubbed the “Manchester of Japan'' because it was a global textiles center and the world’s top cotton products exporter at the time. Today, Osaka remains a fashion capital, particularly in the youth district of Amerikamura. 

Much like Tokyo’s fashion district Harajuku, “Amemura” (as it is nicknamed) is filled with eccentric fashionistas and boutiques. However, Osaka’s hangout is less commercialized and tourist-packed, and it has a better, more affordable vintage selection. Shop for cute alternative accessories at Spinns, Goth punk second-hand clothes at Closet Child, and vinyl records at King Kong. Then, head to Den-Den Town (often compared to Tokyo’s Akihabara) for anime, manga, and other geeky goods.

Wheely good views

Aerial view of Osaka with Ferris wheel

Osaka’s skyline tends to fly under the radar compared to other Japanese metropolises, but it’s well worth seeing the gritty city from up high. Ascend three offbeat landmarks for views of pre-war industrial warehouses and gritty apartments next to sleek new skyscrapers, set against a long and low range of blue mountains. 

The giant Ferris wheel at Hep Five mall is easy to spot, with its all-red spokes standing against the blue sky. The ride takes you over 350 feet above the ground, letting you see all the way to Mount Ikoma and the Akashi Strait (both located about an hour’s drive away). For a smaller but stranger ascent, board the U-shaped Ebisu Tower wheel at general goods store Don Quijote. A cute penguin mascot welcomes riders to the world’s first oval Ferris wheel, which includes a VR headset that lets you feel as if you are floating outside the gondola or taking in nighttime views of Dotonbori. 

Finally, go up the glass elevator to Kuchu Teien Observatory at the Umeda Sky Building. The sleek twin towers are connected at the top by a deck with a circular cutout, which lets you feel as if you are floating more than 560 feet above the city. 

Ancient and pop-culture parks

Osaka Castle

Osaka’s energetic, industrial vibe is juxtaposed by a surprising number of beautiful parks and public spaces. Osakans have traditionally flocked to parks on the weekends to kick back in nature with their families. Spend a lazy day under the floral canopies of Osaka Castle Park, built in the late 16th century by samurai lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. His stately triangular fortress, which features gold-leaf detail and upturned eaves, majestically blends Western and Japanese architecture. Visitors can learn about the city’s history at the castle museum and enjoy a picnic under the plum and cherry blossom trees, which resemble pink clouds in the springtime. 

For a contemporary park experience, pop-culture lovers can easily spend a full day at Universal Studios Japan. USJ is the third most-visited theme park in the world, as well as the most popular in Asia, drawing in over 12 million locals and tourists per year. The theme park is the site of the original Nintendo World, which brings the Mario games to life with Yoshi and Bowser’s Castle rides. At Halloween, Universal unveils Japanese horror attractions including a haunted house starring Sadako of The Ring. 

Shinsekai’s old-school cool

Nighttime street view of Osaka

Translating to “New World,” Osaka’s Shinsekai district lets you step back in time to pre-war Japan. The district was built in 1912 with the aim of being a modern development. However, Shinsekai was neglected after World War II, leaving the streets under the spacey Tsutenkaku Tower with a captivating old-school vibe. 

Here, you can pop into one of the many standing izakayas, or casual bars that serve homestyle food and drinks. Sip a cold beer and snack on kushikatsu or inexpensive breaded and deep-fried meat and vegetable skewers (try the popular chicken or prawns on a stick). Adventurous travelers can sample fugu, a blowfish with a deadly neurotoxin in its liver that is carefully removed by chefs to render it safe to eat. Then, pop into a pachinko parlor to try your hand at the mechanical gambling game, which is similar to slot machines but dispenses wins in the form of clanging metal balls. Shinsekai is also a stellar spot for photography after dark, when the maze-like alleys are lit up with lanterns. 

Neon jungle

Boat riding through a canal lined with buildings in Osaka

In 1612, a successful local entrepreneur named Yasui Doton dreamed of turning Osaka’s waterways into a shopping and eating district. He invested the bulk of his riches into expanding the canals, and after his death in 1615, Doton’s descendents continued his work. By the late 17th century, the district was abuzz with successful restaurants and theatrical venues; Tadaaki Matsudaira, lord of Osaka Castle, named it Dotonbori in his honor. 

Today, Dotonbori is the city’s commercial core filled with neon billboards and 3D mascots, reminiscent of the cyberpunk chaos of Blade Runner. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds on the pedestrian bridge Ebisubashi, and take in the famous moving illuminations; look for the Glico Running Man with arms akimbo, which was first installed in 1935 and became an icon of the city. Then, stroll Dotonbori Arcade to marvel at giant mechanized food signs, which were first installed in the 1960s to draw in customers and set off a craze as restaurants competed to build bigger and wilder installations. Look for a dragon wrapped around Kinryu Ramen and a big red crab wiggling its legs above Kani Douraku seafood restaurant; both are famous for their delicious food as well as their signage. 

The best way to experience Dotonbori is following your nose to yatai (street carts) without long lines. For a few dollars each, you can sample takoyaki, bruleed egg tarts, and other snacks on the go.

Good to know

Is Osaka expensive? 

In keeping with its down-home attitude, Osaka is a more affordable destination than Tokyo or Kyoto—though if you’re looking for luxury, you’ll find it. Enjoy hearty street food for a few dollars a pop (such as $3 for six takoyaki octopus balls), or splurge at a Michelin-starred restaurant like Hajime for a few hundred dollars. A basic but spotless business hotel goes for $70 a night, while a ritzy property can cost $1,000 per evening. Osaka is full of lively, walkable neighborhoods and has plenty of free attractions like temples, while a ticket to Universal Studios Japan costs $65.

Best time to visit Osaka

Osaka’s weather is similar to that of the American East Coast: cold in the winter and increasingly hot and humid in the summer due to climate change. Spring is a popular time to visit because of cherry blossom season, but prices rise and the city gets packed with tourists. Consider autumn for your trip so that you can enjoy the changing leaves, pleasant weather, and Halloween events. Try to avoid Japan’s Golden Week (a brief period with multiple holidays) from late April to early May, as it is a peak time for travel among the local community, as well as international visitors due to cherry blossom season.

What languages are spoken in Osaka?

The main language spoken in Osaka is Japanese. Most Osakans will not be able or willing to communicate with you in English. However, Osaka has become more tourist-friendly over the years. Popular restaurants now have English menus, and malls and major attractions put English-speaking staff at the welcome desk. If you’re in the outskirts or at a traditional small restaurant, then the menus and service will likely be only in Japanese.

Osaka with kids

Osaka is a safe and accessible city, making it an excellent choice for families. While Tokyo has more child-friendly attractions, Osaka has plenty to offer, such as a Pokémon-themed cafe, “kawaii” cute shops, peaceful public parks, one of the world’s largest aquariums, and Universal Studios.

Osaka public transportation

Osaka’s public transit is clean, inexpensive, and efficient. The best way to get around is by the subway, which reaches all the major districts for a few dollars per ride. Osaka’s bus system is also decent, but the trains tend to be faster and more reliable. For ease, load up a prepaid Icoca electronic card (or use a Suica or Pasmo from Tokyo); beep it at the gates, and the fare is automatically deducted.

Is Osaka safe?

Japan ranks #9 out of 163, according to Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index. Japan is a notoriously safe country, so there's no need to worry about theft, scams, touts, or crime of any sort in Osaka. People leave their bags unattended without trouble, and if they lose their cell phone or wallet, it usually gets returned to a front desk or police box within the day.

Japan also ranks #42 with a score of 64/100 for LGBTQ+ equality, according to Equaldex's LGBT Equality Index. Osaka has a vibrant LGBTQ+ district, Doyama-cho, and residents are quite open and accepting—even if you’re dressed in drag on the subway. However, Japan does not legally allow gay marriage (only a partnership agreement with fewer protections), and the law does not provide discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals.

Getting to Osaka

More destinations in Asia: 

La Carmina

La Carmina

Freelance Writer

La Carmina is an award-winning travel writer and the author of four books. She runs the leading alternative travel blog, and freelances for publications including The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Eater, and Time Magazine. La Carmina has hosted travel television shows for Food Network, Travel Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic. Follow her adventures at @LaCarmina.

Published May 13, 2024

Last updated May 16, 2024

hand pointing
mobile app screen
circled text
Explore the Going app
Discover your next trip by downloading the Going app on iOS and Android.
apple app store
google play store