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We decided to visit Osaka based on its reputation as the snack food capital of Japan. Our expectations were high. Were we disappointed? Let’s just say that we could easily live in this crazy Japanese city filled with amazing food, friendly people and kitsch galore.
After making our flight from Bangkok by the hairs of our noses, we arrived in Osaka excited to rest our weary bones after a challenging travel day. Our arrival at the ultra-modern, island-constructed Kansai Airport was simple enough. Only in a place like Japan can you see not one but two rail lines that can whisk passengers into town in a mere half hour’s time.
Our train ride was equally simple and direct, as was the walk to our Airbnb apartment. And that’s when things went crazy. It turns out that our Airbnb host sent us the directions for the wrong apartment. Since it was after midnight, he was not available to answer phone calls or emails.
If you’ve seen the film After Hours, then you can guess how our first Osaka evening went. This crazy night involved a random couple who tried to help us but couldn’t speak a word of English and two bumbling policemen who spent two hours with us trying to keep us off their spotless streets.
One of us (we won’t say who) got to experience her first ride in a police car, and we both spent our first Osaka night sleeping in an internet café. The one shining star in this bleak travel night was ramen. Yes, ramen.
Daryl stumbled into a branch of the rightfully acclaimed ramen chain Ippudo moments before its 3 am closing. It was love at first bite and the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Our Osaka visit was the perfect way to end our four-month stint in Asia. Although we arrived somewhat beaten after almost missing our flight and then spent our first night in an internet café, we didn’t let this bad start ruin our Osaka experience.
We had come to Osaka prepared. We researched Japan travel tips before our arrival. Despite the rocky start, the visit was pure magic.
Twelve days after we arrived, we left Osaka with full bellies and boundless enthusiasm for the city affectionately known as the Nation’s Kitchen. Yes, we fell in love with Osaka, the Japanese city that is so easy to love.
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Not surprisingly, we spent much of our time exploring the culinary treats in and around Osaka where we found great food everywhere we went. Our food exploration took us to different neighborhoods – every time we thought we found the best area in the city, we found an even better one like Tenma.
Similarly, we kept finding shopping streets like Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street, reputed to be the longest in all of Japan. But the food is just part of the story and only one of the reasons that you must visit Osaka.
Why You Must Visit Osaka
Somewhat in the shadow of mega-city Tokyo and temple-filled Kyoto, Osaka is a thriving city with a population of 2.6 million people and endless entertainment. The sprawling city has everything that we love starting and ending with the food.
This is a city that takes its food seriously. Living up to its reputation, there is an abundance of snack food at places like Dotonbori Street and on Oto-Road, but snack food is just part of the story.
1. Nation’s Kitchen
Japan is one of the great food countries of the world, and Osaka is its kitchen. This is the top reason why we scheduled a trip to Osaka and why you should too.
Taking it a further step, the Japanese refer to Osaka as a city of “kuidaore” or a city where people eat until they drop. As we traversed Osaka’s eatery filled shopping streets and ogled the seemingly endless food options in the city’s many department store food halls, we found this reputation to be spot on. This is a city where ramen is available at all hours of the day and night and if you want pizza, Osaka has that too.
The residents of Osaka are a friendly lot, always happy to share restaurant recommendations and a smile. One of our best experiences happened in our favorite coffee shop, Brooklyn Roasting Company.
An adorable couple used sign language and Google Translate to share their favorite egg sandwich shop and Korean barbecue restaurant with us and then laughed that inimitable Japanese laugh while watching our latest videos. Another involves a Brooklyn Roasting Co. employee literally walking us to his favorite ramen shop to make sure that we didn’t get lost.
Osaka is famous for its snack food and rightfully so.
The city is teeming with vendors selling fried treats and desserts. Most blocks have at least one 24 hour convenience store selling candy and fast food. On one main road there were two branches of our local favorite, Family Mart, directly across from each other.
If this were all the city had to offer, then that would be enough. Luckily for residents and visitors like us, Osaka’s snack food selection is just the tip of the city’s culinary offerings. The city has a full range of food at every price point including all of Japan’s most popular foods and some of the best steak in the world.
Japanese favorites like sushi, ramen, udon, yakitori and tempura are all easy to find in Osaka. The town of Kobe is near Osaka, but there’s no need to take the short train ride since many Osaka restaurants serve Kobe and Wagyu steak. If a food item is popular in anywhere in Japan, then it is likely popular in Osaka as well.
After first eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) in a Japanese department store in Hong Kong in 2009, our path to Osaka was inevitable. We fell in love with Japanese snack food on that day and solidified the love in Tokyo and Kyoto in 2013.
Once we learned that Osaka is the Japanese epicenter for snack foods like takoyaki, we planned our visit in Osaka. Once in Osaka, we hunkered down at Kuromon Ichiba Market for snack food and sushi. We also enjoyed snack food on Oto-Road right near the market.
After twelve days of tireless, on-the-ground research, we can confirm that the Osaka snack food is for real. Takoyaki stands are everywhere, many also selling okonomiyaki (savory pancakes).
We fell in love with taiyaki, little fish-shaped cakes stuffed with ingredients like red beans and yam, a snack food that we had not previously eaten as well as treats like soy dogs and octopus lollipops.
Of all the snack food we ate in Osaka, and there were many, our favorite was the okonomiyaki taiyaki. This snack item is an ingenious invention that combines two popular Osaka snack foods into what may be the perfect snack food.
2. Kitschy Fun
Osaka is a city that celebrates kitsch like these adult toys for sale on Oto-Road. Osaka’s kitsch factor is wacky, wonderful and downright weird. This is a city that celebrates the western holiday of Halloween for an entire month and where 50-year old women proudly carry teddy bear smartphone covers.
Food is cooked and baked in the shapes of puppies and fish. You don’t have to seek out kitsch in Osaka – it’s everywhere.
3. Maid Cafes
We became fascinated with maid cafes during our first visit to Japan.
Though we were intrigued by the attractive, scantily clad women walking around the Akihabara neighborhood in maid outfits, we never made it to a maid cafe in Tokyo. As it turns out, Osaka has its fair share of maid cafés on and near Oto-Road, a street that’s like a miniature version on Tokyo’s Akihabara.
We almost ate at one of these kitschy cafés but were turned off by the borderline creepy atmosphere and high food prices. At least we enjoyed window shopping and eating on Oto-Road after we skipped the maid café.
4. Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum
Osaka has several serious museums like the Museum of Housing and Living. We didn’t go to those worthy institutions. Instead, we took a short train ride to Ikeda and visited the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, a museum that celebrates instant ramen with a sense of style and loads of kitsch.
A large statue of Ando welcomes guests who can make personalized cups of noodles in the on-site factory. Our favorite part of the museum was the colorful Instant Noodles Tunnel with 800 Instant Noodles packages going back to the 1950s.
5. Mr. Kanso
For us, though, nowhere illustrates Osaka kitsch better than Mr. Kanso, a tiny Osaka bar that serves a full menu of food – all served in cans. Yes, Mr. Kanso has a full selection of canned food sold at a premium price and served with beer. For our meal, we “enjoyed” delicacies like scallops and chicken galbi.
Did we love the food at Mr. Kanso? Not really. Did we love our experience at this tiki decorated bar with a wall filled with exotic canned food? Absolutely.
6. Dotonburi Street
Relatively nondescript by day, Dotonbori Street comes alive at night when the neon signs light up and lines start queuing for food in this downtown area that dates back to the 17th century. The street is quite a scene with a huge mechanical crab at the start of the block and numerous restaurants, street food vendors, theaters and shops along eight blocks.
Food aside, Dotonbori Street is an excellent spot for photos and people watching, making it a must-visit for any trip to Osaka. As an extra bonus, the neon reflections on the Dotonbori Canal are mesmerizing to watch. And, hey, if you overdose on Dotonbori’s craziness, you can always take a bucolic day trip to Nara the next day.
7. Spa World
If you like spas, then you will love Spa World. Not your ordinary spa, Spa World is an adult theme park where the theme is spas, spas and more spas.
Alternating monthly, men and women are separated on two floors, one of which has Asian spas and the other has European spas. These are not tiny spas but rather grand, ornate hot tubs and saunas decorated to match the spa theme of each country.
As if this isn’t enough, Spa World has other floors with restaurants, ice cream parlors, rock beds and massage parlors. The top floor features a huge pool with tons of slides and a lazy river.
Warning – people with tattoos were not allowed entry into the spas or pool during our visit. Check the current policy if you have any tattoos.
Spa World is in the Shinekai district which specializes in fried meat on a stick. Stop at one of the many restaurants near Spa World for a snack after indulging in an afternoon of pure relaxation.
8. Music Scene
We’ve been fans of Japanese music since we watched GS Wonderland at the Philadelphia Film Festival several years ago. How lucky that we finally go to experience it in person in Osaka where the music scene must be experienced to be believed.
For the equivalent of $5 each, we got entry into Fireloop plus two cocktails. Though both bands had excellent stage presence and put on awesome shows, it’s the crowd that stood out as unique to us. In ages ranging from 20s to 60s, the audience sang along and danced to the music.
However, a hush filled the venue between songs, with the audience showing respect to the bands and their neighbors at the same time. During these silent moments with strangers who could be friends, we felt a bond with Osaka that we have kept in our hearts as our most favorite Osaka souvenir.
Plan Your Osaka Stay
Some businesses may revise their hours and menus due to COVID-19. Others may close, either temporarily or permanently, without notice. Be sure to check websites for updated information and make advance reservations where possible.
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.