La Carmina’s Alternative Osaka Travel Guide
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 turbo-charged 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 favorite subculture hangouts in the city, which I hope you’ll get to check out on your next trip.
Osaka shopping guide
Let’s start off this alternative Osaka travel guide with a few vintage, indie and unique shopping spots in Osaka.
Shinsaibashi’s Shopping Arcade is a bustling treasure hunt: look for indie and vintage boutiques, such as Dangerous Nude, amidst the mass retailers. Nearby Amerikamura is the cultural equivalent of Tokyo’s Harajuku, with Goths, punks and rockers hanging out in Triangle Park (here’s a map of the best stores). Poke your head through the beaded curtains for cyber fashion, tarot cards and 1980s toys.
A stone’s throw from Umeda Station, EST is a young women’s “shopping town with dream and excitement.” The boutiques lure you in with frantic J-pop music and the chic outfits seen in Cutie and ViVi magazines. If the hundred-plus indie and alternative shops aren’t enough, across the street is Hep Five, a shopping and entertainment megalopolis with a red Ferris wheel.
Sightseeing in Osaka
Here are a few more unique sights to visit in Osaka.
Believe it or not, the Pokemon Center is one of the top tourist attractions in all of Japan. The gargantuan Umeda, Osaka store is stocked with every character imaginable. Children in Pikachu hats will remind you that the brand’s motto is “gotta catch em all,” so bring your wallet.
Kaiyukan is one of the largest aquariums in the world and a family favorite. Young Osaka resident Takumi Tanaka reminisces on his childhood visits. “It’s always fun to see the penguins and dolphins playing, but my favorite thing to do is visit the Floating Jellyfish tanks. It’s so relaxing to watch the intertwining tendrils,” he says. “Also I love to watch the staff feed the sea otters, who play like children.”
Tanaka also encourages first-timers to visit the historic Osaka Castle, especially during the 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,” says Tanaka.
Bars and Nightlife in Osaka
What’s an Osaka travel guide without a list of the best bars and nightlife?
Fans of Visual Kei/J-rockers Blood were heartbroken when the group disbanded. But like a Goth Elvis, vocalist Fu-ki is alive and ominously wielding an ice pick behind the counter of his Bar Midian.
The Umeda dive is near-impossible to find, so I suggest studying these detailed directions on my La Carmina Blog. Midian’s decor is a heavy metal wet-dream: a dripping candle sits in a Dracula wine bottle; an axe rests in the umbrella stand. That night, 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 a strong cocktail 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.
When metal and rock bands tour Osaka, they frequently stop by Moonwalk, a bar that pumps Marilyn Manson and Japanese glam metal to a young, heavily-pierced crowd.
My travel comrade and I had an instant crush 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 reminds me of a really chill jazz club, only with screamo vocals. 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 a typical selection of pizzas, pastas and salads (600-800 yen). The drinks are standards, plus a selection of fruity cocktails (500-800 yen). A little pricy, but worth it when they’re poured by celebrity bartender “Noxl Rose.”
Food in Osaka
Take your tastebuds on an adventure.
Non-Japanese speakers, 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.
Takoyaki — grilled octopus balls made from pouring batter into molds — are another Osaka specialty. Every major street has a stand where you can buy a dozen for 500 yen. Twists on the original include egg or melted cheese toppings, and takoyaki stuffed in a crepe. But nothing beats mom-and-pop shops, such as Tako House at Umeda station, where a shy grandma oversees the cooking.
Yuzu (citrus fruit)
Yuzu is a divine mating between a lemon and a tangerine. In Osaka, you’ll find the flavor in seemingly every type of dish: sorbet, sake, shochu. The fruit is rarely found fresh outside of Japan, so don’t hesitate to gorge on it at every meal.
Day Trips from Osaka
If you want to escape from Osaka for a day, check out a few of these nearby places.
Take a jaunt to Kobe to explore its outstanding parks, zoo, and harbor. For a walk on the dark side, visit Gothic / fetish / occult / Satanic Bar Idea. The friendly ladies behind the nail-spiked bar will chat with you and perform dark rituals, including shibari or rope bondage demonstrations.
Get away from the grit with a day trip to Nara, only an hour away by subway. The cultural capital dazzles with six Buddhist temples, a Shinto shrine and the Imperial Place. But the biggest thrill, for tourists of all ages, is petting the sacred deer that roam in Nara Park.
Kyoto is located north of Osaka, and home to thousands of 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.