Captivating Kansai: Exploring Osaka

Osaka Castle

Many people view Osaka as a jumping off point, a place to lay your head at night while you spend your days exploring the rest of Kansai, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some excellent sites (and food!) in its own right. We spend a lot of time walking when we travel just to get to explore different neighborhoods so we usually try not to cram getting to too many major sites in a day. Here's a (relatively) low key guide to a day spent exploring Osaka.

Our first site of the day was Osaka Castle. Like many castles and temples in both Japan and Korea, it's a recreation built on the foundation of the original but the surrounding park with an impressive moat and parts of the original fortress wall, as well as the view from the top floor, definitely make it worth an exploration, especially if you happen to be visiting while the leaves are changing (and I imagine also during cherry blossom season). We spent some time walking around the park before heading to the castle, it's quite beautiful, but unfortunately a large part of it was closed off due to construction when we went.

The castle museum itself is a bit dated and kitschy, with a lot of lenticular photos and dioramas that light up one after another to tell a story. It's a bit silly but also probably a fun way to learn some Japanese history if you don't happen to go to the museum on the same day as about a million groups of schoolchildren. After spending time admiring the view from the observation deck, we kind of did a speed through on our way back down, trying to stay one step ahead of school groups. The lower floors are less kitschy and more typical displays of clothing, weapons and other aspects of court life.

We decided to take advantage of the food trucks parked in the courtyard outside the main entrance for lunch and I had gingery, crispy karaage with mentaiko mayonnaise which was much more delicious than I ever would have expected food truck fried chicken to be. Of course, I followed up the chicken with a green tea swirl soft serve because, hi, have you met me?

Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan

We explored the park a bit more while heading in the direction of the subway to head over to Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. The Osaka Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in the world, focuses entirely on animals that live within the Ring of Fire (also known as the Pacific Rim) and houses TWO whale sharks. Admission is 2,300 JPY (around US$19.00) but we thought it was well worth it. The aquarium is set up so that you start above ground where there things like capybaras, penguins, seals and sea lions hanging out at the top of tanks and where, if you time it right, you get to see feeding time and then slowly circle around winding down deeper and deeper into the "ocean". On each level you get to pass through tanks dedicated to different regions and see how the marine life changes as you get down into the depths. The highlight of the aquarium is definitely the HUGE Pacific Ocean tank with the whale shark, hammerheads, reef sharks and many types of rays though I always love the jellyfish section of aquariums and Dan was giddy after gently touching two different little sharks and a ray.

Right next to the aquarium is the Tempozan Ferris Wheel, which at one point was the world's largest ferris wheel. It takes seventeen minutes to go all the way around and feels like it moves so slowly, I sometimes would take a break from admiring the view and stare into the middle of the wheel just to make sure we were still going. We decided to go at night to get a good view of the city lights, though I'm sure the view is extraordinary on a clear day too. My only annoyance with the ferris wheel was that there was an endless loud loop of music and a woman telling us facts playing inside the booth that was a bit of a distraction from being able to just enjoy the view.

Tempozan Ferris Wheel, Osaka

We hopped back on the subway for dinner of delicately flavored hot soba at Ayamedo, which despite its Michelin star, didn't require a reservation and was incredibly reasonably priced. The sweet fried tofu in Dan's soba I think actually complimented the dish better than the duck in mine but both were excellent and I drank about a gallon of the delicious housemade buckwheat tea. After dinner we took a long stroll back to where we were staying, with a stop in Dotonburi to see the lights.

Osaka may not be as pretty as Kyoto but its space age neon, billboards and architecture definitely give it a charm all its own.