It isn't the first choice most visitors think of when they book a flight to Japan, but it should be. Not quite as big as Tokyo, but still one of the country's largest cities and packed with action, Osaka is a not-to-miss destination with warm people, unique culture and great food. It was the last stop on my tour, and on many tours is just a pitstop on the way to other areas, but it was the undisputed favorite for everyone in the group. When you arrive into Kansai, you can schedule time to shop, snack or see the gorgeous Osaka Castle, but there are a few things that you absolutely cannot miss, people and places that make Osaka a special place.
Visit the original cat cafe
Feline lovers rejoice! Japan's (disputed) very first cat cafe is in Osaka! At Neko no Jikan, in the heart of the Shinsaibashi district, you'll meet a dozen adorable felines in their cozy natural habitat just waiting for your companionship for an hour or two. So put on your dressing slippers, order a hot cup of matcha tea, and pick your catnip toy or streamer.
Think Times Square with triple the people and much better shops. This shopping zone in the center of Osaka is packed with everything from comedy clubs to sushi joints to beauty stores. You'll find a great selection of souvenirs here, particularly if you need to stock up on candy or Hello Kitty before you leave town. And don't forget to take a photo of the Glico Man. His name may not ring a bell, but you have him to thank for that delicious pack of Pocky.
And while you're in the neighborhood...
Order veggie Tempura piece by piece
You're probably able to find tempura in the US, and you might even have a favorite place that hits the spot. But absolutely nothing beats sitting at the tempura bar while your chef in Osaka puts large vegetables into the fryer, piece by piece, and presents them to you with a tiny bowl of sauce. If you can make it to the tempura shop in Dotonbori, do not miss the avocado slices with a spread of cream cheese.
Get intimate at Onsen Spa World
Japanese culture is infamous for its rules, logistics and behaviours, but let it be said that the Japanese love to let off some steam, too. And one of the best spots to let off some steam in Japan is at a local Onsen; Osaka just happens to have the Onsen Spa World, one of the best baths in the country. These Onsen baths are all-nude (there are no tattoos allowed in most spas, but my Contiki tour director suggested trying anyway!) and a great way to unwind in steaming hot waters. At Spa World, there's also a sauna, gym and spa.
See a baseball game
American culture has rubbed off on parts of Japan, for better or worse. You'll definitely sigh at the number of McDonald's or Starbucks you see around, but as for a more positive cultural exchange, the Japanese love their baseball. Take a 30 minute train ride from Osaka to see a game at Kyocera Dome for the Osaka Buffaloes or Koshien Stadium, one of the last stadiums with real grass on the field, where the Hanshin Tigers often play their rivals the Tokyo Giants (the Yankees of Japan!).
The amazing guide on my Contiki tour made sure we were full the entire trip, stuffing us full with the specialties of each area, which can be really varied. But after days and days of sushi, fish and seafood specialties in Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto, I was dying for something different. Then, she blew my mind. Enter: the Japanese version of a savory pancake. This Osaka specialty has roots in the city's origin as "the nation's kitchen" during the 16, 17 and 1800's. The dish is expertly made from flour, yam, eggs and different vegetables flattened into a pancake-like shape and grilled.
Enjoy a game with a drink at Space Station
Japan is famous for its kitschy cafes, bars and restaurants, but if you get homesick you'll find a kindred spirit at this video game cafe. It's a total nostalgia trip to see your favorite retro games while sipping on drinks on the other side of the world. The decor lives up to the name, and the bar lives up to the hype. Enjoy both older and newer gaming systems with your libations - including a menu of gaming themed drinks.
Get lost in Hozenji Yokocho
Thin, winding alleys, little restaurants lit with lamps, and hole-in-the-wall bars. The hidden walkways of Osaka's Hozenji Yokocho, in the shadow of Hozenji temple. The area was nearly burnt to the ground during War World II but rebuilt in an homage to it's Edo-era charm. It's a great place to learn about Japan's history, meet people, and find a great little neighborhood dive bar.
Bring home some food... plastic food
In Japan you cannot escape the elaborate window displays highlighting each restaurant's feature meal. You'll spend hours staring at the glossy perfect looking dishes in each window, and if you're dying to bring some home with you, then you're in luck. Osaka happens to be the home of Japan's plastic food industry. Make a stop in Douguyasuji, the kitchen district, for an expertly sharpened sushi knife, gorgeous cutlery... or delightfully quirky plastic food to share your culinary adventures with all the friends you left back home.
Meet the locals over Karaoke at Kama Sutra
You cannot leave Japan without a little late-night karaoke and Kama Sutra has a cult following among expats and locals alike. This closet-sized bar, hidden away in the corner of a building packed with other tiny watering holes, packs a punch with an expansive song list that includes everything from Barbra Streisand to Journey. The most overplayed song? According to bartender Ryan , it's "Don't Look Back in Anger," by Oasis.
Have a Brooklyn Donut
Mister Donut, a fantastic Japanese chain, is much more than their answer to Dunkin Donuts. Along with coffee and drinks, the franchise features specialty treats like the Strawberry Donut, or the Brooklyn series of donuts, which this New York native was tickled to order thousands of miles from home. The puffy donuts, which look like a round of beads of cinnamon-sprinkled gems, are like tastier cronuts, while the creamier concoctions, like maple and custard, are big enough to be shared between friends.
See the city from above
You can't leave without capturing a view of Osaka from the famous Umeda Sky Building, a gorgeous piece of architecture where you can get a bite to eat in a basement food court that replicates the winding alleys and antique stalls of the city of old, or you can pay to take the elevator to the Floating Garden Observatory. From that observation deck, you can check out expansive views of the entire city; the perfect spot for a last-minute photo op of Osaka.