One of the reasons I love Osaka so much is that everywhere you go, around almost every corner, there is something new to discover. It doesn’t matter if it’s down one of the many back streets, or even in the basement of a building, there’s so many things to do in Osaka that are hidden just out of sight! Maybe you've already been to Osaka before and ticked off the main attractions; now it’s time to go off the beaten path and really get to know this. It’s the unique experiences in Osaka that have the ability to steal the heart of any visitor, things that you just can’t get in Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan, like our undying love of street food or our almost unlimited amount of super mysterious izakaya. In this guide to Osaka’s hidden gems I’m going to reveal a few of the amazing local things to do in Osaka, because that’s what makes this city so special. If you’re searching for these secret treasures in Osaka, you’ve come to the right place. If Osaka is the “Nation’s Kitchen” I’m about to reveal the top ten things that would be kept at the back of the bottom drawer; hidden and rarely visited, but once you discover them, they’re hard to say goodbye to!
Walk down Hozenji Yokocho
Hidden in the super modern district of Minami you will find one of my favorite secret spaces in Osaka; Hozenji Yokocho. As you walk down its cobbled streets, past mysterious moss-covered shrines and sleepy traditional restaurants, perhaps a restaurant owner contemplatively practicing Uchimizu (the traditional sprinkling of water from a bamboo bucket) to cool the pavement down, it might seem as though you’ve traveled back in time to Osakan streets of long ago. For me, this area totally sums up Osaka, you have this ancient place just a few minutes’ walks from Dotombori, which is probably the most futuristic-looking place in Japan, maybe even the world! The epitome of old-world Japan, a playground for camera lovers, the street is not the only attraction here. Some of the most authentic among Osaka’s hidden restaurants and bars are tucked away here, with some of Osaka’s specialty foods waiting to be tried, especially in the okonomi-yaki restaurants which offer easily some of the tastiest food in the city.
Discover Japan's Oldest Temple
As a tourist coming to Japan to visit the intricately ornate and historical temples, it must be quite overwhelming to know where to begin; after all, there are so many to choose from! Osaka is no different, but it does have one temple that you absolutely can’t miss; Shintennouji. Many people would say that visiting this ancient site is one of the most unique experiences in Osaka, and I’d have to agree, simply because it’s the oldest temple in the whole of Japan! Although this is a pretty popular spot with tourists, I always thought that it never seems to get the proper attention that a place with that title of the first Buddhist temple in the country deserves. As you might expect, the temple grounds are very tranquil, although to avoid crowds I’d recommend coming early in the morning so that you can see the temple exactly how it was meant to be.
Eat at Okonomiyaki at Botejyu
High up on my list of favorite hidden gems in Osaka, and a frontrunner runner for the best spot to experience top-quality food in Namba, Botejyu is my number one recommendation. There are so many hidden restaurants in Osaka that just don’t get the attention they deserve, and Botejyu is right up there with the best! A quaint, family-run affair turned restaurant chain that has been creating delicious okonomiyaki for over sixty years. Botejyu offers a singularly authentic okonomiyaki experience; in fact it was even the first restaurant in Osaka to start serving it; it doesn’t get more authentic than that, and after sixty years of producing the dish you just know that it’s going to be good. Okonomiyaki is essentially a traditional base of cabbage and batter; apart from that, the ingredients are up to personal preference, really allowing the dish to live up to its name which translates to “what you like”. Usually, with the addition of vegetables and some kind of sauce, which varies between restaurants, the dish is typically whipped up right in front of you; dinner and a show! You can find the original restaurant right in the heart of the popular Namba area, and for authentic Okonomiyaki that’s definitely where you need to go.
Walk Through the American Village
If you really want to begin discovering Osaka off the beaten track, then you’ll have to start leaving the main districts such as Namba and head into other parts of the city. The American Village is one of the hidden gems in Osaka that I tell everyone to go and see, it’s such a weird and wonderful place and you could spend a whole day exploring it! For over forty years this area of the city has been the home of Osaka’s vibrant youth culture, lending a creative flair to the entire area. Sure, it’s about as American as you can get in the heart of Japan, but with an edgy vibe that continuously morphs and evolves with the new generations, America-Mura are kept distinctly unique. The graffiti-covered streets are apparently home to over two-thousand shops around these streets too, so if you want to find a whole load of American branded clothing, used records or even just want to hang out at the Hard Rock Café, then you’ve come to the right place! If you're a sucker for the macabre and happen to be in the mood to lounge about in a quirky cafe, throw on your best goth attire and head to Anamune; a hospital themed cafe full with anatomy posters and body parts, where your milkshake is likely to come in a beaker, your waiter is wearing a lab coat and your cake looks like a science project.
Cup Noodles Museum Osaka Ikeda
Instant noodles have become so prolific in modern society that it’s almost guaranteed that at some point in your life – while you might not have sampled it – you have certainly come across the cultural phenomenon of instant cup noodles. Whether the treat your mom fed you after school, or your student-days staple, cup noodles are a small but concrete part of modern life – but did you know that instant ramen was born right here in Osaka? Momofuku Ando, the father of Nissin Food Products, invented instant Chicken Ramen – the very first kind of instant ramen – in 1958, forever changing the face of ramen and establishing the instant ramen industry. At the Cup Noodles Museum Osaka Ikeda you can learn all about humble instant cup noodles, and get to make your very own flavor of instant ramen; down to the packaging! The museum is dedicated to instant ramen and cup noodles, as well as its creator and founder. Located in Ikeda within walking distance of Ikeda Station on the Hankyu-Takarazuka Line, the museum is free to visit and is a must-see when on the hunt for unusual things to do in Osaka.
Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church
You might think you know Christian churches, seeing there is about one on every block in Western countries, but I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen a church quite like this one. Being a Christian church in a sea of Buddhist temples is in itself unique, but the very architecture of the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church is fascinating. Built by architect Tadao Ando, the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church is often called the church of light because of the way the stern cement front of the building is sliced into four quarters by a cross that allows natural light to pour in, creating an ephemeral beam of sunlight which in the interior, in the shape of the sacred Christian emblem. Even the agnostic or entirely atheist among visitors will feel a reflexive hush when stepping into the somber interior of this almost entirely concrete church. A unique work of architecture that, with its calming atmosphere, offers a quiet sanctuary from loud and bustling city.
Step Back in Time in the Misono Building
To pick just one highlight of the vibrant Ura Namba District for this list of non-touristy things to do in Osaka was always going to be hard, but I think the Misono Building is easily the winner. This is a complex that was built back in the 1950s for drinking, eating and socializing, however very little seems to have changed in the intervening decades! There are still countless tiny restaurants and bars that belong in a different era, especially down in the basement which I think is the best place to go. You really could spend all night bar hopping around this floor alone and yes, this is definitely one of the most unique things to do in Osaka. This is the true Osaka off the beaten track experience at its weirdest and most wonderful, trust me.
Suntory Yamazaki Distillery
About 40 minutes from the center of Osaka is the award-winning distillery of Yamazaki whiskey, known for its single malt whiskeys which have won many awards across the globe. Far beyond the whiskey, the value of a visit to the Yamazaki Distillery lays in the serenity of the region, a break from the chaotic city living of Osaka that will come as a welcome relief to nature lovers. Surrounded by lush greenery the quiet and serene district is known for its quality water, which – being a key ingredient to good whiskey – naturally lends this area to whiskey making. At the distillery you can witness the entire process from distillation – done in beautifully ornate pot stills, where the distillation process begins – to aging in old wooden barrels, and finally to bottle; where you will be able to not only taste the fine produce of the distillery, but purchase bottles from the impressive store to take home with you. Tours of the distillery are 80 minutes long, and are available in English and French. These can – and should, to avoid disappointment – be booked in advance for the price of 1000 yen.
The Expo’70 Commemorative Park
The monolithic Tower of the Sun statue alone makes a visit to The Expo’70 Commemorative Park worthwhile. Like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli movie, the tower stands at a grand height of 70 meters, with a base that spans 20 meters in diameter. The wingspan – because the strange, multi-faced statue has two wings flanking either side – stretches a staggering 50 meters across. The tower features three faces; two faces on the front, and a face in the back representing the future, present and past. Perhaps the oddest thing about the statue; a fourth, most eerie effigy called “Sun of the Underworld” was once located in the basement of the statue, but has since gone missing without a trace. Housed at the core of the tower is the Tree of Life – almost 41 meters tall and presents an artistic interpretation of the evolution of life from the early life forms like the amoeba through to man. The park itself was built on for the Japan World Exposition in 1970. A gargantuan 260 hectares, the park houses facilities originally set up for the Expo’70, such as the Japanese Garden and the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, forests and seasonal flower gardens. Breathtaking during sakura season, the park is known for embracing the natural environment and offers a relaxing day out.
Explore the Tondabayashi District
Just a 10-minute walk from Tondabayashi Station will see you enter a town frozen in time. One for history buffs and foodies alike, Terauchi town is an independent settlement that was built around the temple of Jodo-Shinshu mainly during the Middle Ages. In Tondabayashi City, the traditional cityscape of Terauchi Town still has all the features of its early medieval days, from the ornate architecture to the pristinely manicured zen gardens. Start off your hours of sightseeing by grabbing a map at the Jinaimachi Community Center, before spending easy hours strolling down the cobbled streets, lined with ancient rubble-roofed houses, stylish retro cafeś and pretty little shops.
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