If you’re looking for an alternative Osaka travel guide, you’ve just landed on the right page. Japan expert, La Carmina, shares her best tips and advice for exploring the more underground side of Osaka.
Only three hours from Tokyo by bullet train, Osaka is a great setting for a long weekend getaway. Although it’s worth seeing historic landmarks such as Osaka Castle, travelers shouldn’t miss out on exploring the underground culture for an alternative perspective of the city. For instance, Osaka is home to a gritty and raucous music scene that’s matched only by its drinking holes — where the staff has feathered and dyed hair, the speakers blast Def Leppard, and the walls are decorated with grinning skulls.
I’ve been writing about Japan and visiting Osaka for well over a decade on my La Carmina travel blog.
Here are some of my all-time favorite places to go in the city if you want to experience some outstanding subcultures. From art galleries and live music venues, to hipster cafés and underground clubs, there’s something for everyone!
So make sure to check out these spots on your next trip.
See also: A day in Osaka, Japan
Osaka shopping guide
This alternative Osaka travel guide starts off with a few vintage, indie and unique shopping spots.
Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade is a great place to find unique and vintage items. Dangerous Nude is just one of the many indie stores in the area. Amerikamura, or “Ame-mura” for short, is Tokyo’s answer to Harajuku. It’s full of Goths, punks and rockers who congregate in Triangle Park. If you’re feeling brave, poke your head through the beaded curtains into some of the cyber fashion stores there. You might also find tarot cards and 1980s toys on sale.
Just a stone’s throw from Umeda Station, you’ll find EST: a young women’s shopping district that pulses with dreams and excitement. The boutiques lure shoppers in with frantic J-pop music and the chic outfits seen in Cutie and ViVi magazines. And if the hundred-plus indie shops aren’t enough, across the street is Hep Five: a massive shopping and entertainment complex topped by a red Ferris wheel.
Sightseeing in Osaka
Here are a few more unique sights to visit in Osaka.
If you’re a fan of Pokémon, then the Pokemon Center is definitely a must-see spot in Japan. It’s one of the biggest and most popular stores devoted to all things Pikachu and friends, located in Umeda, Osaka. You’ll find every character imaginable here – plus plenty of souvenirs and merchandise to take home with you.
Children in Pikachu hats will remind you that the brand’s motto is “gotta catch em all,” so bring your wallet.
Kaiyukan is a top-notch aquarium and always a blast for families. Takumi Tanaka, a young Osaka resident, recalls his childhood visits fondly. “It’s delightful to see the penguins and dolphins frolicking about, but my favorite thing to do was watching the Floating Jellyfish tanks. The intertwining tendrils are so calming to watch,” he states with a smile. “I also loved observing the staff feed time sea otters; they play like little kids.”
Tanaka also recommends that first-time visitors check out the historic Osaka Castle, especially during cherry blossom season. “There are always festivals and gatherings in the beautiful park, and little stalls that sell traditional foods like takoyaki. It’s fun to just sit on the benches and watch people go by,” he says.
Related tour: Guided Walking Tour around Osaka Castle
Bars and Nightlife in Osaka
What’s an Osaka travel guide without a list of the best bars and nightlife?
Related tour: Osaka: Nightlife Experience
When fans of the now-disbanded J-rock group Blood found out that Fu-ki, the band’s former vocalist, was alive and working at a bar called Bar Midian, they were ecstatic. The bar is located in Umeda, and though it can be difficult to find, it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Here are some helpful directions: From Umeda station, walk east towards the Hep Five shopping mall with the red ferris wheel. Once you see the yellow Tsutaya bookstore sign, you’re getting close. Go to that side of street and turn left at the Big Echo and Drug store signs. You’ll now find yourself in a maze of side-streets and gay bars; but don’t worry, you’re going the right way if you spot the magic dragon (ahah). Keep going until you see the BINGO sign on the left and the red fish sign on the right; then turn left. Welcome to Bar Midian!
As you approach the building, you’ll see a number of signs. One of them says “2F, Bar Midian.” Go ahead and walk up to the skull entrance. Once you’re there, you’ve reached your destination!
Midian’s decor is heavy metal-themed and includes dripping candles in Dracula wine bottles and axes in the umbrella stand. The night we were there, we sat with tattooed rockers who headbanged to Black Sabbath videos and scandalized us with their boy-on-boy antics.
Drinks are 500 yen and have names such as Black Rose and Satan. Fu-ki mixes strong cocktails and will gladly make you a special one, or pour you a Belgian Satan Beer. He’s also known to pick up the tab for newcomers, especially if you bond over music — so don’t forget to ask him about his Motley Crue cover band.
If you’re a fan of metal or rock music, Moonwalk is definitely worth checking out the next time you’re in Osaka. It’s a bar that pumps Marilyn Manson and Japanese glam metal to a young, heavily pierced crowd.
My travel comrade and I instantly crushed on our eyeliner-smeared server Kouta, who plays bass in a new Visual Kei band. The fantasy faded a little when he went into the kitchen to cook our orders: tasty 315 yen plates of Korean fried rice and lotus pork cakes. There’s a 400 yen cover charge, but the drink menu – which has over 300 offerings for 200 yen each – more than makes up for it. Got a sweet tooth? Try the raspberry yogurt cocktail. More of a hardcore type? Go for the brandy ginger mixer. And don’t be surprised if the charming bartender brings over free shots.
Bar Rock Rock
Alice Cooper. Bad Religion. Motley Crue. Metallica. They are among the hundreds of famed faces who have raised hell at Rock Rock since the bar opened in 1995, leaving behind autographed photos and tales of destruction.
The atmosphere at Rock Rock reminds me of a really chill jazz club, only with screamo vocals sometimes playing in the background. The bar plays anything from punk to metal, and has events throughout the year that bring in throngs of rock fans. These include special DJ nights such as Hell’s Bells (AC/DC), Emotion is Dead (emo) and the self-explanatory Loud & Heavy.
The menu is pretty diverse, offering everything from pizzas and pastas to salads (600-800 yen). The drinks are also standard fare, plus a selection of fruity cocktails (500-800 yen). Prices can be a little steep, but it’s worth it when your drink is poured by celebrity bartender “Noxl Rose.”
Food in Osaka
Take your tastebuds on an adventure.
See also: Japanese Pork Chop in Downtown Osaka
If you’re not Japanese, make sure to memorize the word “okonomiyaki”. It’s a tragedy if you leave without tasting the grilled savory pancake (usually with seafood, and topped with bonito flakes and brown sauce) that is Kansai’s soul food. Look for family restaurants such as Tengu, where recipes are passed down from several generations.
Osaka is famous for its takoyaki — grilled octopus balls made from pouring batter into molds. You can find a variety of creative flavors at every major street corner, such as egg or melted cheese. For something more authentic, try Tako House at Umeda station, run by a shy grandma who personally cooks each ball to perfection.
Yuzu (citrus fruit)
Yuzu is a delicious combination of a lemon and tangerine. In Osaka, you’ll find this flavor in many different dishes, like sorbet, sake, and shochu. The fruit is rarely found fresh outside of Japan, so make sure to enjoy it while you can!
Related tour: Eat Like a Local Street Food Tour
Day Trips from Osaka
If you want to escape from Osaka for a day, check out a few of these nearby places.
To explore Kobe, visit its amazing parks, zoo and harbor. For a dark twist, check out Gothic / fetish / occult / Satanic Bar Idea. The lovely ladies behind the nail-spiked bar will chat with you and perform dark rituals, including shibari or rope bondage demonstrations.
Nara is a great place to visit if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s only an hour away by subway, and there’s plenty to see and do. You can explore six different Buddhist temples, a Shinto shrine, and the Imperial Palace. And of course, one of the highlights for tourists of all ages is getting up close and personal with the sacred deer that roam around in Nara Park.
Related tour: From Kyoto or Osaka: Private Walking Tour through Nara
Kyoto is a charming city located north of Osaka. It’s home to thousands of beautiful and well-preserved places of worship, such as Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). First built in the 14th century, the three-story gilded structure holds the Buddha’s ashes and is set in an exquisite garden with a mirror pond.
Related tour: From Osaka: Kyoto Top Highlights Day Trip