We loved our first trip to Japan in 2019. We spent five weeks exploring a few cities on the main island Honshu. We were in Japan during Golden Week and the imperial transition, which made it even more special. Our goal for this first trip over 5 weeks was to find one city we loved enough to return and stay in for three months on a future trip. Osaka is definitely a city we want to stay longer in on our next trip!
We traveled to Japan from Vietnam after our month-long stay there. I picked Osaka as our first stop in Japan since I found a regional flight from Hanoi to Osaka that was relatively simple. First we flew four and a half hours on Asiana Airlines from Hanoi to Seoul, departing at 7:55 AM. Then we enjoyed a 5 hour layover, with a two hour time zone change, in a really nice lounge in Seoul that accepted Priority Pass members. Finally, we took a two hour flight on to Osaka and arrived there at 9:20 PM.
While we were in Osaka we had two big objectives. The first was to get to know the city and the second was to have a good time exploring with our friend Laura who was with us for the first five nights of our stay.
When we got to Osaka it was the end of April, and the weather change was incredibly refreshing after the heat and humidity in Vietnam. Temperatures were 25°F lower in Osaka compared to Hanoi where we had come from. We were thrilled to have high temps ranging from 75°F to 80°F during our stay.
We stayed in an Airbnb in the Nishinari-ku ward. This was the perfect place for us to stay since we wanted a budget friendly apartment with two separate bedroom areas and a kitchen. Don’t get me wrong – this two bedroom apartment was fairly small at 35 square meters (376 square feet). The bedrooms were only slightly bigger than their double sized beds, but they had sliding doors to separate them from the kitchenette and shared space. We did hang out and cook dinner there a couple of times, though that was tough for us a bit challenging since the tiny couch was only big enough for two people. We also loved our high-tech heated toilet and our tiny soaking tub. Well actually I was the only one in the group really able to enjoy the tiny soaking tub, but I enjoyed it enough for all three of us!
The neighborhood worked really well for us since we had multiple grocery stores and restaurants we could walk to. Shopping at grocery stores in Japan was initially full of surprises. Being able to buy Grade A sashimi for only 358 Yen ($3.35 USD) was a treat, and getting it for half off later in the evening was crazy. Even the the process at the checkout station was interesting when we watched the cashier empty our yellow shopping basket, then transfer our items to a red basket to show we had paid so we could take that to a bagging station and bag our groceries ourselves.
Our apartment was a short ride away from the Namba transport hub, and we could walk to stations on the Nankai Railway line as well as the Yotsubashi and Sakaisuji subway lines. Having four different train stations within 6 blocks of our apartment was a transit lovefest! in an area that was just fun to be in with its narrow one-way streets and tons of character. And it was silent at all times of day while we were there.
After Laura headed back to Australia we moved on to a new Airbnb by ourselves. Since it didn’t have bedrooms and had a traditional open space layout the place felt much bigger, but it turned out that it had even less of a kitchen with only a kettle and a microwave. So we could eat cold food for breakfast and we could microwave some things and hard boil eggs in the kettle. But we ended up eating out quite a bit since we really couldn’t cook there. No complaints though because we were thrilled to eat out as much as possible!
Our Favorite Things to Do in Osaka…
We were out and about pretty much all of the time during our 10 days in this city, first because we had a friend with us for five nights, also because our apartments were small and that encouraged us to be out exploring. So what did we enjoy most when we were exploring Osaka?
Visit Osaka Castle
This castle is very impressive, and so is its gorgeous setting. The castle is a stacked platform building on sheer walls of cut rock surrounded by a moat. And it has seen a lot of war and a lot of peace between 1496 and today. We gawked at the castle and all of the stonework from outside in Osaka Castle Park, but we did not actually go inside because we didn’t want to stand in line to enter and we also didn’t want to pay for admission. We were more excited to have a closer look at the stonework, including finding the famous octopus stone, Taiko-ishi, which is 5.5×11.7 meters at the face and weighs over 130 tons.
Visit Sumiyoshi Shrine
Sumiyoshi was our first Shinto temple visit. Seeing this historic temple complex, founded in the year 211, during the Golden Week holiday period made it extra festive. The temple is said to grant special protection to travelers – that’s us! We loved the forked rooflines and thatched roofs on the temple buildings. We also loved the gorgeous taiko bashi (drum bridge) in front of the main gate. And we were fascinated to learn the Empress Jingū who ruled from 201 to 269 is enshrined there. What do we like about Shintoism? It’s Japan’s traditional religious culture and honors the essence and energy in rocks, trees, rivers, animals, objects, places, and people. Everything is connected.
Visit Isshin-ji Temple
This Buddhist temple absolutely rocked our world. It was founded in 1185, and houses the Okotsu Butsu, the Bone Buddhas. People visit this temple to pay their respects to the Buddha, combined with paying respect to their ancestors. According to some records, the bones of local people have been brought to this temple for cremation since the Edo period in the early 1600s, and possibly for many centuries before that time. By 1887 the number of urns containing ancestral remains at the temple was tremendous, so the head priest decided to create a statue of the Buddha combining the ashes of the honored ancestors that were left in their care. The result was as a relic people could honor with prayer and respect, and that tradition has continued ever since and is ongoing today. Tragically, during WWII the temple was bombed by the US and the existing six statues of Buddha created from honored ancestors were all destroyed. The solution was to collect the ashes that remained from the six original Buddhas destroyed in the war, and combine those with ashes from post-war bones, to build a new Buddha relic statue in 1954. The most recent 14th bone Buddha at Isshin-ji was created in 2017. We felt awe inspired to bow and pay respects to each of the exhisting Buddha statues. We found this temple and their practices to be quite beautiful.
Visit Hozenji Temple
This temple was established way back in 1637 but destroyed by WWII bombs, except for one statue. The sole survivor was Fudo Myo-o, a Buddhist spirit that destroys ugliness and ignorance and frightens away evil spirits. Amazing that Fudo Myo-o would be the one to survive the bombs! This Fudo is also unique for a second reason, he is the moss covered Mizukake-Fudo (Splashing water Fudo). The usually frightening looking Fudo looks quite cheerful and charming here because of the moss. They say when you visit Mizukake-Fudo you should make a wish here by throwing water not just on your hands to purify yourself, here you also throw water on the statue to make your wish come true. Done! We’ll let you know if it works for us.
Walk the Dotonbori and Shinsekai Districts
We first walked between the Dotonbori and Shinsekai districts at night, and were wowed by the crowds and all of the lights. We were told this walk would feel like a mishmash of bright Paris and old New York City, and that description was actually pretty perfect. We saw a combination of old and new Osaka, with tons of bars and restaurants to choose from. Walking along the Dotonbori canal with all of the lit up signs along the way was fun. We don’t usually spend a lot of time out and about at night but we felt very safe there. And it was fun to return a few times to walk these streets during the day, and try some of the restaurants and bars we found as well.
Walk the Covered Passageways
On one of our first days in Osaka we walked through the Shinsaibashi-Suji Shotengai (shopping streets) from Namba to Shinsaibashi. We also walked the Tenjinbashi-Suji shopping street and had some lunch along the way. These covered passageways are full of people, which makes them some of the best places in Osaka to do some people watching and enjoy being among the local residents.
Drink Japanese Whiskey
Alison and I are huge fans of Japanese whiskey so we wanted to go whiskey tasting while we were in Osaka. Our friend Laura was a whiskey novice but excited to go for a tasting with us. I searched around online and picked BAR Freedom for our tasting since we were in the Chuo Ward near the the Dotonbori Canal when we decided we were ready for some whiskey. We picked out three different tasting sets and after we sipped each one and compared tasting notes, Laura declared that she’d prefer a mixed drink. Lucky for us! So Alison and I got to enjoy Laura’s whiskey in addition to our own. Alison’s favorite whiskey that night was a special 5 year old Cask Strength Single Malt Anejo (Tequila) Cask Finish. Ali’s favorite Japanese whiskey that night was a limited edition release Fuji Gotemba Blenders Choice.
Eat Curry Udon at Tokumasa Udon Morinomiya
Before we visited Japan we had never heard of curry udon! And when we stumbled upon it we felt like we had discovered a life changing dish. We went to Tokumasa Udon Morinomiya for the first time with Laura during our visit to Osaka Castle, and it was so amazing that we returned there a few times during our stay. The restaurant is tiny and it had a line out the door and down the street each time we went. Curry udon became a real favorite for us in Osaka immediately. We tried the beef curry udon, and the Tonkatsu pork curry udon, and loved them both.
Eat Osaka-Style Okonomyiaki at Okonomyiaki Chitose
We were big fans of okonomiyaki after trying it for the first time at Tanaka San in Seattle where we used to live (a restaurant that is no longer in business). We were thrilled to try Osaka-style okonomiyaki. The best we had during our mission to taste everything was at a tiny restaurant called Okonomiyaki Chitose. We met a father and daughter duo running the place, and they were really fun to chat with while we were there.
Before We Wrap Up…
Where We Spent Our Time
Just a Bit on Spending
Our average daily spending goal for 2019 was $115 per day, or $57.50 per person per day (PPPD). That’s total dollars spent for the two of us in each city. And that number is meant to be an average across all locations we visit during the year, so we assume our spending will be lower than that average in lower cost of living locations and higher than that average in higher cost of living locations, including Japan.
Bottom Line – Our Osaka Score
Money Crush Score: Great, worth every penny.
At $70.49 PPPD our spending in Osaka was relatively low considering this is a higher cost of living location and the fact that we were acting like tourists on vacation since we were having a blast traveling with one of our close friends for the first half of this trip. We are comfortable with this spending as is, and we are also aware that we could improve a bit on a return trip by skipping the day trip to Kyoto and picking the right Airbnb for a longer duration.
Travel Score: We loved it and plan to return. Many times!
We loved Osaka Japan feeling excited to return, knowing we would be happy to stay in all four of the cities we visited on this first trip. This is one of the most beautiful countries we have visited. Whenever we try to name our favorite country so far Japan is named as first or second choice. And within Japan we debated whether Osaka was our first or second favorite city so far. Every person we met or interacted with in Osaka was warm and welcoming,
LGBT+ Score: Not good, way behind the times.
There are no laws that criminalize same-sex interactions between consenting adults in Japan, but LGBT+ people are expected to basically remain invisible in Japanese culture. Sex-change operations are legal, but transgender people are categorized as having a mental disorder. They also have some abusive prerequisites for a legal change sex changing ones legal sex or gender to meet international standards put forth by the United Nations. This includes eliminating involuntary sterilization, medical surgeries and hormonal therapies, and psychosocial treatment. Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan, and apparently LGBT+ couples are not expecting to gain marriage rights anytime soon. There’s actually a workaround that is said to be fairly common in Japan where LGBT+ couples use the adoption system to legally become parent and child in order to gain the right to share a family name, make decisions for each other in medical situations, and inherit money and property after the death of one partner. Let’s be honest – that is ridiculous. Japan is a remarkably advanced and civilized nation, but the country still has a long way to go in terms of equality and protections for LGBT+ citizens.
Japan is also more traditional and conservative in terms of gender equality and surprisingly behind other advanced nations in this category as well. During our visit we were shocked to see that the new Empress wasn’t permitted to attend the ritual ceremonies when her husband the new Emperor took the throne. There was only a single woman allowed to attend the imperial ceremonies, the one and only female minister in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. Women are criticized in Japan for being too forward if they do something as bold as walk through a doorway ahead of their husbands. But we are hopeful that things will start to change more quickly under the current Prime Minister and the new Emperor. Who knows, we might even see a woman emperor in Japan in our lifetime, even if it’s only because of a serious shortage of male heirs!