OSAKA, JAPAN, in 3 DAYS with kids
Updated: Feb 17
Osaka, population just under 20 million, is the ultimate metropolis (second to Tokyo) for city-loving travellers, with no shortage of bright neon signs, giant digital screens, shops and restaurants galore. Even though we generally tend to avoid the big city scene, it can be loads of fun in small doses! 1 week in Japan was all we could comfortably spare with our long-term travel budget, and for us, it will be the fastest, shortest time spent in one country. After an exciting 3 days in Kyoto, we took a train and headed straight to the heart of Osaka: Dotonbori.
We stayed at Hostel Enisia Namba, one of the more affordable, centrally located places we could find that could accommodate a family of 4. The private room was simple and super tiny, but for 3 nights, we managed with our sanity MOSTLY intact. It helped that there was a bright and spacious common area and access to a fully equipped kitchen. With only a few days in Osaka, we chose this hostel mainly for the location, so that most things were within walking distance and we wouldn't have to waste our time and money getting to places. You literally step outside of this place onto a covered street packed with restaurants and shops, and it is one block away from Dotonbori street.
It is easy to wander around Osaka for days without any specific sightseeing plans and still be thoroughly entertained, if not overwhelmed by all that this fun, futuristic city has to offer. Just by window shopping and people watching along the main commercial districts, you can get a pretty good sense of what modern Japan is all about. SO many shops and lots of eye candy in and around Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi-suji, both right at our doorstep.
Oh, and apparently Osaka is also known for its vibrant nightlife. What's that? We are parents. We don't know what that means anymore. Our idea of a fun night involves buying some cheap beer, huddled up in front of the laptop and catching up on Stranger Things after the kids go to sleep!
Surprisingly, in the land of talking toilets and high speed bullet trains, CASH is still KING and most shops and restaurants in Japan do not accept credit cards. Coming from Korea, where we almost exclusively used plastic for everything but market and street purchases, we assumed Japan to be the same. ATM machines were also not easy to find on the streets. Best way to get to one is to look for the nearest 7 Eleven and FamilyMart, a Japanese convenience store chain.
The food scene in Osaka, was one of the big highlights, especially for the kids. Owen, in a matter of days, became a TAKOYAKI connoisseur and Molly was in Ramen heaven. There aren't really a ton of budget eating options that we saw. Even the street food isn't cheap. However, Japanese culinary standards are so high that you really get what you pay for in terms of quality. In other words, everything is DELICIOUS! (More on Japanese food soon)
Dotonbori is known to have a ton of food options, but we especially loved eating at the KUROMON ICHIBA market, also appropriately known as "Osaka's Kitchen". We like to stroll and snack rather than sit and eat, and this busy, covered market is the perfect place to do just that. All the food was meticulously showcased and stunning to look at, especially the seafood. Also, watching the vendors masterfully prepare food in front of you was fun and free entertainment all on its own.
From Hello Kitty and Totoro, to Gundam and Godzilla, Japanese pop culture is world-renowned and we got right into it. Easy to do when your kids also appreciate it! About a 15 min walk south of Dotonbori, along Otaku Road in the Nipponbashi-Denden area, there is a toy store district which includes shops like Jungle, Hero Gangu and Joshin Super Kids Land. Many of these stores sell both new and previously-owned toys. Some great bargains can be found as well as some of the most expensive toys you will ever see.
It is uniquely fascinating that Japanese kids AND adults alike enjoy things like anime, video games, toys and manga (comic books). No wonder we love Japan...our family fit right in! There were often more adults than kids at what we thought were typical "toy stores" with robots and stuffed animals.
GACHAPON, vending machines with plastic capsules containing tiny collectible items like toys and souvenirs, are found in every corner of the country. Like most things in Japan, though they are not cheap, you pay for quality. Owen took a long time browsing through the endless selection and agonized over his decision on the last day until he finally bought a little Gundam guy.
One interesting thing we noticed is that the bicycle culture in Japan is very CASUAL. Helmets, bike locks and reflective spandex wearing cyclists are rare. It's not uncommon to see a poncho wearing grandma on a bike meandering past pedestrians on the sidewalk in the dark downpour, holding grocery bags on one hand and an umbrella on the other, all while also eating a bowl of instant ramen. (Ok, that last part probably isn't true, but you get the idea...!) We have lived in rainy, bike-friendly Vancouver, BC for more than 20 yrs and we have never seen someone riding a bike and carrying an umbrella! Dodging bikes on the sidewalk was the only minor hazard we encountered in what is probably one of the safest countries in Asia.
First built in 1593 and most recently restored in 1997, the Osaka Castle is one of the most famous landmarks in Japan, which is why we chose to check it out for our one and only sightseeing excursion. Getting there was easy enough on the subway and we walked through the beautiful parkland and garden that envelopes the castle. There is a paid children's playground just outside, but we opted out as it was pleasant enough to just let the kids explore the vast greenspace.
What people often refer to as the castle is actually the central tower. The castle itself consists of two enormous stone walls, each with a significant moat around it. The stonework of the walls was really something to marvel at. The way they used these gigantic monoliths was reminiscent of Incan masonry.
There is a lot of walking to be done just to get to the central tower. There are restaurants, food stalls, gift shops and the Illusion Museum in the Miraiza Osaka-Jo Complex. We were lucky to arrive on a free admission day but that also meant huge line ups. We decided it wasn't worth the long wait and appreciating its beauty from afar was impressive enough. It was a good thing too, as the cumulative fatigue from previous days was setting in at this point and we got pretty tuckered out by the time we headed back to the subway.
Osaka has so many more KID-FRIENDLY things to do that we didn't get to. Attractions like Universal Studios (with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter), The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan (with the 2nd largest water tank in the world and a WHALE SHARK), and the Kids Plaza Osaka, to name a few. In the end, we opted for what was more uniquely Japanese, close to our location and easy on the budget.
One week in Japan with the kids was a whirlwind to say the least, and 3 days was certainly not enough time to fully explore Osaka. It was an intense dose of busy city, and we left Japan exhausted and overstimulated. But the kids still remember Japan fondly as one of their favorite places so far!
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