1) Visit Osaka Castle
Dating back to 1583, the Edo-era Osaka Castle (admission $39) is decked out with striking white walls crowned with graceful sloping tiled ceilings. The castle is actually more of a historical reconstruction of its former glory, as the castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times due to warfare and a ruinous lightning-sparked fire. Early April is the best time to visit, as the cherry blossoms scattered around the 2-square-kilometer castle grounds light up the views from every angle.
2) Devour takoyaki balls
Nicknamed the “Nation’s Kitchen,” Osaka has no shortage of delicious eats. The staple street snack is takoyaki: essentially fried dumplings with bits of octopus inside. It’s hard to miss the open-air stalls cooking up rows and rows of these savory treats, but the alfresco market around Doˉtonbori, which runs parallel to the Dotonbori Canal, is a great place to graze.
3) Sleep in a capsule hotel
Though I wouldn’t recommend committing a whole week to one of these cramped compartments, capsule hotels are a cheap and memorable way to spend a night. You can find authentic, retro-style capsule lodges available throughout the city, and walk-ins are welcome. Upon check-in, you’ll trade your shoes for a pair of keys to a storage compartment. Traditionally men and women are separated, each with their own public spa area. The spa is nothing fancy: just hot baths and basic massages. Are the capsules comfortable? Not especially. Don’t expect to be able to control your pod’s temperature or the volume of your neighbors’ conversations. But it makes for great dinner chat when you get back.
4) Drink chūhai
This is less of a uniquely Osaka recommendation and more of a nod to Japan’s general excellence. Get your hands on some chūhai, a simple yet endlessly refreshing mixed drink. There are dozens of derivatives, but a basic chuˉhai is made with shochū alcohol, soda water and a fruit flavoring of your choice. Find these bad boys on menus everywhere, or pick up a few cans at 7-Eleven.
5) Explore Kuromon Ichiba Market
6) Savor craft beer
Japan’s craft beer scene has been all bottled up and is prime to explode. You may recognize some of the bigger exports—like Hitachino Nest Beer or the Baird Brewery’s bottles—but there are dozens more that rarely make it out of Japan. One of the masters of Japanese microbrewing, Minoh Brewery (3 Chome-19-11 Makiochi, Minoh, (+81) 72-725-7234), is just a 20-minute train ride from central Osaka, in a suburb of the same name. I visited for a morning buzz and had the best imperial stout of my life. The family-run brewery is best-known for its IPA, as well as creative seasonals such as Minoh Cabernet (part beer, part wine) and Ganja High (brewed with hemp seeds). Why is it so good? The bartender at Minoh Brewery says it’s all about the water quality. That, and some good old-fashioned craftsmanship. If you don’t want to make the trip out to Minoh, then you can try the beers at the cozy Beer Belly pub (7-4 Ikedacho, Kita-ku, Osaka, (+81) 66-353-5005) in Tenma, a lively nightlife neighborhood that’s packed with restaurants and diminutive “micro bars.”
7) Eat okonomiyaki all day
Few foods work for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but Osaka’s famous (sorta like a marriage between a pancake and an omelet) is an all-day, every day kind of creation. You can’t walk a block without seeing these savory cabbage pancakes flipped in the window of small stall or on the menu of a big resto. Can’t get enough? You’re in good company. Osaka actually has its own maxim, “kuidaore,” which means “eat yourself into ruin.” It’s restaurant after restaurant in the city, so pack stretchy pants.
8) Try Matsusaka meat
You’ve surely heard of Kobe beef, but have you heard of Matsusaka? Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku, or “M” (three locations including 2/F, Daruma Building, 1-5-24 Namba, Chuo-ku, (+81) 66-211-2904), specializes in melt-in-your-mouth black-haired wagyu from the Mie region of Japan. The dark-wood booths have a cozy, casual vibe, but M takes its food extremely seriously: you choose from a selection of marbled Matsusaka cuts, and then cook them yourself on a built-in charcoal grill.
9) Take a day trip to Kobe
Kobe’s not just famous for its beef. About a half hour by train from Osaka, the sister city has more going on than delicious cows and it’s great for exploring on foot. Take the scenic Shin-Kobe Ropeway up Rokko Mountain, visit sake producers and museums in the Nada district, and stroll around the colonial mansions and romantic laneways of the Kitano-cho neighborhood.
10) Stay overnight in Kyoto
Also known as “the City of Ten Thousand Shrines,” Kyoto offers a glimpse into historic Japan and is about 30 minutes from Osaka by train. Take the rapid JR line for the fastest route, and spend a day or two marveling at the old Japanese architecture, gorgeously zen temples and dreamy bridges that dot the charming city. You’ll want to splurge on a refined kaiseki multi-course dinner while you’re there, but don’t pass by the street food either. Be careful to avoid traveling on a national holiday or you’ll be elbowing your way through crowds the entire time.
Where to Stay
Real Deal Ryokan
Capsule hotel left you sore? For comfier surrounds, go for an urban ryokan inn. Kaneyoshi Ryokan is located along the Doˉtonbori Canal. This frills-free ryokan offers tatami-style rooms and a public steam bath, and is close to hipster-friendly neighborhoods like Amerikamura—aka American Village, which is filled with vintage stores and live music venues.
From $850. 3-12, Soemoncho, Chuo-ku, (+81) 6-6211-6337, www.kaneyosi.jp.
High Roller Hotel
Can’t sleep on the floor? You’re so fancy. Ball out and stay at the Ritz-Carlton Osaka. It doesn’t really feel like Japan—the interiors are actually modeled after a Georgian residence—but the woody atmosphere, excellent service, classic comfort and posh restaurants should have you recovered from those capsule hotel cramps in no time.
From $1,639. 2-5-25, Umeda, Kita Ward, (+81) 6-6343-7000, www.ritzcarlton.com.
HK Express has great deals all year round, with flights making the 3.5-hour trip to Osaka more than a dozen times a week.
From about $2,300, www.hkexpress.com.
This article originally appeared in HK Magazine, in print and online.