Osaka Travel guide

Osaka Travel guide

Rather more laid-back than Tokyo’s samurai citizens and boasting a cosmopolitan vibe not found in Kyoto is the criminally underrated merchant city of Osaka. Awaiting under an endless skyline pulsing with neon and blown through with cherry blossom, you’ll discover ancient temples, towering futuristic constructs and more street food than you can shake a Yakitori skewer at. The warm, quirky personalities in Osaka will have you spellbound, particularly behind the Kabuki Theatre in Namba and within the niche nightlife offerings of Doyama. As well as the bears, twinks and salarymen that frequent Osaka’s cabin-sized bars, the Kansai Rainbow Parade and Queer Film Festival are annual events uniting Osaka’s most open-minded people. While face culture means gay rights issues are not often discussed in Japan, the live and let live attitude of locals makes Osaka an inviting destination for gay travellers. Wondering about what to do in Osaka? Make you trip one to remember with our curated Osaka gay city guide.

The best hotels in Osaka

Opening our Osaka gay travel guide is a selection of the finest hotels in the city. Five stars all the way is Conrad Osaka, centrally located near Higobashi Station. With stunning views across the city, Conrad Osaka positively drips with decadence, home to exceptional facities, including a spa, wellness centre and a heated indoor pool. You’ll never go hungry either, because there are four dining options at the Conrad; Atmos for European and Asian fusion, KURA for teppanyaki and sushi, C:Grill for seafood and, most importantly, the 40 Sky Bar and Lounge up on the 40th floor for cocktails and nibbles. Another stunner, this time in the Osaka Bay district, is Sakishima Cosmo Tower Hotel. Supplying all the home comforts you could ask for, the serene location of the hotel is its key feature, three kilometres from Tempozan Ferris Wheel and 10 kilometres from Universal Studios.

Despite the challenge of stuttering this one to your taxi driver after one to many sake cocktails, Waqoo Shitaderamachi remains an exceptional choice for its quintessentially Japanese design and convenient location. Situated in Tennoji, just minutes from Tsutenkaku and Shinsekai, a stay at Waqoo is also a lesson in Japanese culture and hospitality, providing traditional tea service, air purifiers in each room and a restaurant serving Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.

Back towards the central Chuo neighbourhood, moments from the glittering Dotonbori River and the ‘America Village’ shopping district, lies HOTEL THE FLAG Shinsaibashi. Gratefully staffed with multi-lingual locals and all the usual amenities, HOTEL THE FLAG stands out for its flawless design that delivers muted modern elegance. Also in Chuo, just two kilometres from Shinsekai, is Residential Hotel HARE Kuromon providing something a little more homely. With a traditional Japanese garden and jutting roof crowning its slated entrance, a stay here will have you feeling like you are in a Miyazaki animation, at home in a new world.

Photo: Alex Block

Photo: Alex Block

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Recommended hotels in Osaka
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Nara Park | Photo: Joey Huang

Nara Park | Photo: Joey Huang

Away from the chaos of the arcades lies a whole world of serenity. Nara Park is one of our favourite retreats; a nature park, temple and sanctuary all in one

Things to do in Osaka

Japanese culture is all about hard work, but occasionally the odd student and well-groomed salaryman will venture out for some downtime. When they do decide to have some fun, Osaka locals choose their proclivities well. And what better way to let off some steam than to manically jab the buttons on a retro arcade machine to defeat a ripped warrior demon twice the size of your comically melon-chested avatar. This is one of the go-to things to do in Osaka and video game arcades can be found all over the city, often hiding in basements and department stores. The most famous is found in Taito Station, with another location in Namba. As well as Street Fighter, these arcades come fitted with dance battle machines, coin karaoke booths, air hockey, shoot-em-up games, Mario Kart and more. You will also find that many local players mean business, so if you don’t fancy joining in then you can always marvel at the gloved professionals as they vie madly for a top score.

Photo: Nick Hamze

Photo: Nick Hamze

Away from the chaos of the arcades lies a whole world of serenity. Nara Park is one of our favourite retreats; a nature park, temple and sanctuary all in one. Opt for either an organized day tour or a self-planned adventure using your Japan Rail Pass, to travel back as far as the 8th century to this UNESCO World Heritage Site and imperial capital. As well as being rich in ancient history and the site of a number of Buddhist temples, including the beautiful Todaiji Temple, Nara is also a famous spot for getting up close and personal with Japan’s tame ‘bowing’ deer. Totemo kawaii desu! Then there’s the Amami Onsen Nantenen, an awesome hot spring spa, another short train ride away but more than worth the trip. Designed by the mastermind architect behind Tokyo Station, this spa effortlessly merges traditional culture with a backdrop of lush greenery to create an experience of ultimate relaxation.

Back in the city, we suggest elevating yourselves to the next level, to glimpse a spectacular bird’s eye view, equally jaw-dropping by day or by night. The Umeda Sky Building Observatory in the Kita district is uniquely designed for this purpose, also happening to be one of the most applauded architectural structures in the world. Featuring ‘The Floating Garden’ (Kuchu Teien), an open-air deck at 173 metres high with 360° views, the Umeda Observatory connects the building’s two towers with a futuristic donut-shaped roof like something out of a science fiction movie. If all that altitude has got you feeling peckish, shoot down to the basement and travel back in time to the Takimi-Koji gourmet street, with 1920s recreation dining. Another of the many Osaka points of interest is Osaka Expo Park, a popular spot just 20 kilometres from the city, famed for its symbolic ‘Tower of the Sun’ created by esteemed Japanese artist, Taro Okamoto. A recent addition to the park is the Redhorse Osaka Wheel, Japan’s tallest Ferris wheel at 123 metres, where each of the 72 dangling gondolas has a see-through floor for hair-raising city views.

Tōdai-ji Temple | Photo: Benz Lee

Tōdai-ji Temple | Photo: Benz Lee

Umeda Sky Building Observatory | Photo: Pen Ash

Umeda Sky Building Observatory | Photo: Pen Ash

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Recommended experiences in Osaka
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Photo: Alessio Ferretti

Photo: Alessio Ferretti

Osaka’s temples range from the ornate to the understated and from miniature to magnificent

What to see in Osaka

As well as being a tech-savvy trade hub – the birthplace of Nintendo and Panasonic – Osaka is also a city filled to the brim with traditional culture and ancient history, all waiting to be discovered. One of the most famous historical landmarks in Japan is the Osaka Castle, a key structure during the 16th-century unification of Japan. Spanning eight floors with an additional observation platform, Osaka Castle and its surrounding grounds are great places to roam, chill and try plenty of street food. One more castle for the books is Himeji Castle, an hour train ride from Shin-Osaka Station. Displaying a snowy white façade and 17th-century features, Himeji is one of the most beautiful of Osaka sightseeing spots, allowing visitors to ride a boat around its moat and climb the original keep.

Osaka’s temples range from the ornate to the understated and from miniature to magnificent. One of the smallest – but probably most memorable – temples you’ll find is the Hozenji Temple, an unlikely respite right in the busy centre of neon-lit Namba, home to a charming moss-covered Buddha. Our second choice temple is Shitenno-ji Temple built in the year 593 AD as a result of the import of Chinese Buddhism. Known to many as the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, and surviving numerous fires over its 1,400-year history, Shitenno-ji also has its own flea market, selling second-hand kimonos, antiques and pottery pieces.

Serving as the city’s main artery and epitomising Osaka culture is Dotonbori Road, packed as it is with flashing neon lights and animatronic advertising vying for space among ever-attractive restaurants and bars. To catch the best sight of the iconic Glico Man, shuffle through the throng towards the Dotonbori Bridge view. While you’re passing, peek into Don Quixote discount store to pick up an unusual KitKat flavour, while keeping your eye out for the outrageously costumed hosts. Away from the lights of Dotonbori, you’ll find a different city awaits. Shinsekai, Osaka’s old downtown district, is one of the best places to experience an authentic Osaka, where nostalgic vibes and charmingly retro shop displays make for the perfect photo opportunity. A landmark of the area is Tsutenkaku Tower, built in 1912 to resemble the Eiffel Tower and a great spot for panoramas of the entire city.

Osaka Castle | Photo: Sharon Ang

Osaka Castle | Photo: Sharon Ang

Where to eat in Osaka

Known locally as ‘tenka no daidokoro’, or ‘the nation’s kitchen’, it’s clear from the outset that eating will be a key priority on your list of what to do in Osaka. With such dedication to craft and unfailing attention to detail, Japanese cuisine is no stranger to international attention, with Osaka alone being home to 99 Michelin-starred restaurants. Boasting one Michelin star for its affordable yet delectable sushi is Sushidokoro Amano, located in the residential backstreets just one stop from Osaka Station. Kitamura is another Michelin-awarded gem, where visitors have been flocking for over 100 years to dunk prime Wagyu beef into steaming, fragrant broth in sukiyaki and shabu shabu cooking styles. If you’ve never tried Japanese Wagyu beef before, now’s your chance!

Boasting not one, not two, but three Michelin stars is Spanish restaurant Fujiya 1935 established by European-trained chef Tetsuya Fujiwara and presenting the best of Mediterranean-Japanese fusion. His flawless dishes ranging from crab spaghettini to Tanba kuromame come beautifully presented, all created using the best meat and seafood, sourced from across the nation. Save room for just one more Michelin star because you’ve not yet tried the exquisite soba and tempura at Takama, probably the most affordable Michelin-starred fare in Osaka, with a hearty lunch no more that JPY2,500.

One of the few Halal restaurants you’ll find in Japan is yakitori restaurant Tsuki no Odori, hugely popular among foreign visitors – Muslim or otherwise – for its foreigner-friendly menu offering a selection of grilled meats, including smoky chicken and foie gras skewers. One of the oldest and best veggie eateries in Osaka is Green Earth, a restaurant and café selling various Western dishes, from pizza to vegan cookies, in an eco-space with its own plant-laden terrace. The curious mock-meat menu of hotdogs, karaage (fried chicken) and hambaagu, is so good it almost tastes like the real deal.

Dotonbori Street-Food | Photo: Agathe Marty

Dotonbori Street-Food | Photo: Agathe Marty

When a sit down meal is not what you’re after, Dotonbori street food is the place to go. Running parallel to the Dotonbori Canal in the heart of the city, the food street is signposted by a giant crab fixed high on the wall and hungry crowds at street-level. It’s hard to miss

Featuring a sleek modern design an enviable array of a vinyl lining the walls, is bar/café concept INC & SONS, a relative newcomer in Kitahama area. Newly opened sister store of Kobe’s BAR Inc., serving up café staples by day and mouth-watering cocktails and whiskey blends by night, INC & SONS has already garnered much international attention, particularly for its steak and lobster dishes. When a sit-down meal is not what you’re after, Dotonbori street food is the place to go. Running parallel to the Dotonbori Canal in the heart of the city, the food street is signposted by a giant crab fixed high on the wall and hungry crowds at street-level. It’s hard to miss. Across the course of about eight blocks, food stalls and vendors selling every type of Japanese speciality you can think of line the streets in orderly fashion while the hordes contend to be served. At 5 pm the area becomes a crowded mass, so try coming earlier or later to get your fill of yakitori, yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, sukiyaki, you yaki well name it!

Photo: Adl Wahid

Photo: Adl Wahid

Shopping in Osaka

The top destination for Japanese streetwear labels in Osaka is menswear store Delight, throwing shade on other streetwear stockists with its stunning minimalist design and impressive range of innovative brands such as MAGIC STICK and ADSR. The brand walso has plans to expand its reach with experimental concept store GROUND Depot opening on Tachibana Street in late 2019.

Newly opened in Osaka and featuring the same ultra-cool industrial design found in its Tokyo flagship store, is menswear store HUF, known for its laid-back street styles catering to skaters and young urbanites. Found in the lovely Minamihorie area, come to pick up an iconic baseball cap and stay to browse the display of Norwegian graffiti artwork by REMIO. One of Osaka’s OG independent menswear retailers is Hunky Dory, a menswear store curating import labels such as Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Converse, Dickies and Champion.

Photo: Andrew Leu

Photo: Andrew Leu

Rare Groove Store often hosts after-hours sets with some of the world’s top DJs and artists, most recently The Avalanches, BENEDIK and Ben UFO

From threads to vinyl, next we discover Osaka’s Rare Groove music store over in Shinsaibashi district, a store with a fine reputation for providing obscure treasures in the genres of leftfield dance, new wave, and old school Japanese pop. As well as offering far-reaching musical inspiration, Rare Groove often hosts after-hours sets with some of the world’s top DJs and artists, most recently The Avalanches, BENEDIK and Ben UFO. Porcelain store Yumiko Iihoshi meanwhile features a nice mix of manufactured and handmade products, crafted by potters across Japan. Each piece at Yumiko has a unique look, varying in shade and finish, meaning customers can get their hands on affordable yet one-of-a-kind tableware that supports artisanal tradition.

Reflecting the country’s effortless synthesis of the natural and the manmade, is commercial oasis Namba Parks, a mall and a park combined. Browse fashion boutiques while enjoying the lush trees and flowers that line the entire complex. Covering nine stories above and below ground, Namba Parks also hosts an outdoor event space, a rooftop garden, cinema complex and various specialty stores. For all your Japanese tea needs and cravings, head to Yamaguchien Tea Store where you’ll find a fragrant assortment of teas picked from throughout Japan, specifically the delicious Meicha grown at Ujiyama Castle – the birthplace of Japanese tea.

Photo: Lee Campbell

Photo: Lee Campbell

osaka credit to Chamaiporn Kitina

osaka credit to Chamaiporn Kitina

Osaka is as incredible as you’d expect when it comes to gay nightlife offerings. Whether you want an all-singing all dancing night out or an upscale evening in fancy environs, Osaka can provide it all

Osaka nightlife

One of the most gay-friendly destinations in the whole of Asia, alongside the likes of Taipei, Bangkok, Phuket and Hong Kong, Osaka is as incredible as you’d expect when it comes to gay nightlife offerings. Whether you want an all singing all dancing night out or an upscale evening in fancy environs, Osaka can provide it with all. While most gay bars are to be found in Doyama, you can also find a smattering of gay bars in Namba/Shinsaibashi areas, as well as a more mature local scene in Shinsekai, a post-war gay area near Tennoji. Most bars throughout Osaka are intimately sized and frequented by locals, many operating a bottle keep system where you buy a bottle of liquor which is then kept behind the bar. While most bar owners are very foreigner friendly, some may not speak English and be so welcoming. Don’t let that concern you, however,  because your Mr Hudson’s Osaka gay scene guide is here to help.

Kicking things off is Bar Nayuta, a fabulous cocktail lounge adjacent to Amemura’s Triangle Park. Gothic in an indulgent, cosmopolitan sort of way, this “nocturnal apothecary” is a hub for shisha-puffing internationals with a soft spot for bespoke cocktail concoctions made by the friendly staff to the sounds of live DJs. Next up is Horie-based Café Absinthe both a restaurant and club serving up authentic Mediterranean cuisine alongside an absinthe-heavy cocktail list and shisha menu. In support of local talent, Café Absinthe displays the work of a different local artist every month.

Nayuta Bar

Nayuta Bar

Back in the thronging gay village of Doyama is the painfully trendy Pump Up Bar with friendly – though non-English speaking – bartenders. Don’t hesitate however because the intimate stretch of bar counter will allow you to make friends with eager-to-help locals, before relocating to the sofa lounge. Despite charging admission, Pump Up Bar’s regular line-up of events, including steamy go-go dance acts, never fails to draw a crowd. As the night loosens you up to a little, you might consider partaking in the traditional custom of belting out various classic hits in good company. While there are countless private karaoke booths throughout Osaka, at Grand Slam karaoke lounge just downstairs from Pump Up Bar, you’ll be able to mingle with locals and travellers until 5 am in comfy, LGBT-friendly environs.

With your inhibitions successfully lowered, make your way to gay dance club Explosion for loud music, fun drag and all the dancing and debauchery you can handle. Often packed with partygoers for its themed LGBT events, regularly featuring go-go dancers, guest DJs and drag queens, Explosion is open to all, so you’re bound to find your tribe, be that among shirtless muscle boys, lipstick lesbians or other! While all their weekend events such as the huge bi-monthly gay mixer Global Kiss draw large crowds, the vibe on weekdays is much more downbeat. One last classy spot to mention before you book your flights would be gay club The Suite, popular among gays, straights and unicorns for its New York City stylings and decadent ‘Great Gatsby’ vibes. While the opulent ambience alone is enough to sell it, The Suite is a weekend hotspot for speciality cocktails and live music.

Café Absinthe

Café Absinthe

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