What to do with kids in Japan’s second city.
Japan always tops the list of destinations for Hong Kongers. While Tokyo might be the first stop on the itinerary for most; Osaka should not be overlooked. It’s an amazing destination to travel to with kids, and perhaps a little less intimidating to navigate than Japan’s capital. There are plenty of kid-centric and family-friendly attractions making Osaka the perfect balance for children and parents to enjoy a great getaway.
Osaka, and the wider Kansai region, is filled with important historical sites, museums, galleries, scenic nature spots and theme parks to entertain everyone from toddlers to teenagers. Oh, and then there’s the food! The food is worth the flight alone. Osaka is known as “the nation’s kitchen” and for good reason. When you go, go with an open mind, a hungry stomach and maybe an elasticated waistband – it’s heaven for tasty and affordable street food with lots of dishes unique to the area. The city is also a good starting point if you’re looking to explore more of the country, as both Kobe and Kyoto are only a short (bullet) train ride away.
It takes around four hours to fly from Hong Kong to Kansai International Airport. Short enough that you could plan to go for a long weekend, but there’s enough to do in Osaka, so it’s worth booking in for a little longer. If you’re travelling from within the country, you’ll likely visit Itami Airport which mostly handles domestic flights.
We were lucky enough to jet off to Osaka thanks to Asia Miles. We joined them for a celebratory affair, onboard its first-ever charter flight for its customers; a first for its members who could redeem an exclusive one-way ticket on a Cathay Pacific A330.
We know that travelling as a family adds up and as parents, we’re always looking for a way to save a little. So keep Asia Miles in mind during your planning as you can earn points while booking flights, hotels, travel insurance and rental cars. And as they say, points make prizes! Definitely remember to check out what holiday extras you can redeem, such as accommodation, citywide tours and activities like sake tasting and cooking classes.
What To See And Do
No trip to Osaka is complete without a trip to the iconic Osaka Castle. It’s not only hugely important to Osaka and the Kansai region, but also to Japan as a whole. The castle played a major role in the country’s reunification in the 16th Century. Its vast and sometimes violent history is fascinating and, no matter what time of year you go, you’ll have stunning views. The busiest period for visitors is from March to April for the sakura season as tourists flock to witness the beautiful cherry blossom. There’s also an upswing in September through to November for views of the autumnal foliage.
The castle grounds are large and sprawling and its 15 acres host a moat and a further 13 historical structures. Entrance to the grounds is free but it costs 600 yen per person to enter the castle tower (which hosts a museum and a viewing platform with some incredible views of the city). Plus, there are paid add-ons like hopping on one of the electric carts that circle the park while playing a jaunty little tune, which does kind of kill the whole “whoa-I-just stepped-back-into-Meiji-era-Japan” vibe!
The area is generally stroller-friendly and it’s about a 10 to 20-minute walk from either Tanimachi Yonchome Station or the closest JR station, Osakajokoen Station. The park has everything you’ll need for a memorable day out, with excellent family-friendly facilities and plenty of food stands to pick up some sweet taiyaki or matcha ice cream. In short: Osaka Castle is worth your time!
Osaka Castle, 1-1 Osakajo, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 540-0002, Japan, www.osakacastle.net
Universal Studios Japan (USJ)
If you plan to visit Universal Studios Japan (and you should — it’s amazing), our only advice is: be strategic. In 2018, it was ranked as the fifth most-visited theme park in the world with over 14,300,000 visitors that year alone. So trust us — you’ll need a whole day and a serious plan of action as the park is incredibly popular with locals, domestic and international visitors alike. If you’re a family of Potterheads, you will undoubtedly have a magical time at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter section of the park. Have your wands at the ready to explore Hogwarts and Hogsmeade Village which have been lovingly recreated on an epic scale. You can even cool down with a butterbeer or two at the Three Broomsticks.
As you plan your visit to USJ, consider:
- What type of ticket you need: you can either get a one or two-day Studio Pass that grants you access to the park. Or you can opt for an Express Pass. An Express Pass means that holders can skip queues for selected rides and have a guaranteed good viewing spot for the daily parade. Prices vary depending on how many rides you want included in the package and tickets are only available to buy in person and on the day. Beware, Express Passes often sell out on busy days.
- Book in advance. For regular Studio Pass tickets, you can buy advance tickets online or at selected JR stations. If you’re staying at a USJ partner hotel (see the full list here), you can purchase your tickets there. Remember when booking your hotels to check if you can earn Asia Miles from your stay!
- Look up the timetable of shows and attractions and note that the majority of the shows are in Japanese only.
- Height limitations for rides — be prepared for your child’s posture to magically improve as they try their luck against the measurement boards.
- How to get there. USJ is just a five-minute walk from Universal City Station if you take the JR Yumesaki/Sakurajima Line. Alternatively take the Captain Line Ferry, a short 10-minute cruise from Kaiyukan West Pier.
Universal Studios Japan, 2 Chome-1-33 Sakurajima, Konohana Ward, Osaka, 554-0031, Japan, www.usj.co.jp
Day trip to Nara
It takes less than an hour to get to Nara by train either on the JR Yamatoji Line or Kintetsu Nara Line. At Nara Park, you’ll meet the famous and very friendly, free-roaming deer. The park also contains several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beautiful temples including Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and Kasuga Shrine along with Nara National Museum. Nara Park is an open public park (free to enter) located in the centre of the city and dates back to 1880. There are said to be around 1,000 Silka deer living there and you’ll even find them chilling out in the temples and around the city. They’re very comfortable around people, tame and mostly docile, but will pester you for food.
You can buy special deer crackers from stalls all around the park for 150 yen a pack. Many are more than happy to approach you for some good head scratches, too. They’ll greedily eat out of your hand; just always be on your guard with your little ones, one moment you’ll be happily feeding one little fawn and the next, you’ll have a crowd of does and bucks swarming in from nowhere. To make the most of your day in Nara, consider renting bikes to cycle between temples and around the city. There are several bike shops close to the nearest train and subway stations, including Nara Rent-A-Cycle.
Nara Park, 469 Zoshicho, Nara 630-8211, Nara Prefecture, Japan
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
The impressive Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is one of the largest public aquariums in the world and can be found right next to Tempozan Harbor Village. This aquarium has been designed with visiting families in mind; there are handy coin lockers to store any bulky bags or buggies as you first enter. From then on you’ll slowly descend into the depths of the building, following a spiralling footpath around the nine-metre-deep central tank, home to two giant whale sharks. Kaiyukan beautifully recreates habitats for all sorts of creatures found in the Pacific Rim and some of the larger exhibitions stretch over several floors, so it’s possible to observe the animals from different perspectives. There are even comfy seats in front of some tanks, so you can take your time gazing at the creatures from the deep.
The highlights for us were the giant otters playfully dunking each other (which drew quite a crowd) and the monstrous Japanese spider crabs, lazily clambering over each other. At the end of the route, you’ll be led to an interactive zone, where you and the kids will have the chance to get up close and personal with rockhopper penguins, starfish, eels, baby sharks (do do, do do do do) and rays. We were particularly impressed with the kind and attentive staff here – we witnessed one over-excited little boy take a tumble and before any tears could spill, a friendly member of staff was at his side with a selection of sea life stickers.
Sassy Mama Tip: Book your tickets online and plan your visit around feeding times to see the most action.
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, 1 Chome-1-10 Kaigandori, Minato Ward, Osaka, 552-0022, Japan, www.kaiyukan.com
Glico Man Sign
A modern icon of Osaka and a standout favourite of downtown Donotribi’s blinding neon lights, animated billboards and giant screens. The Glico Man sign was originally installed in 1935 to advertise Glico candy and has stood the test of time. Join the crowds in front of the classic LED sign on the Ebusu-bashi Bridge and recreate the classic arms-in-the-air pose. Admittedly, there’s not much to do once you’ve got your picture, so factor in wandering time as Dontoroni is a feast for the senses and the beating heart of urban Osaka. The crowds are bustling here at all times of the day and the area only becomes more electric when night falls, with shops and restaurants open till late.
Follow the canal and the charming lantern-lined streets and you’ll easily stumble upon a mix of traditional and tourist-friendly eateries offering local delicacies (tonkatsu for days, thank you please) and plenty of bars for waterside drinking. If you’re there in the daytime and your group has a head for heights, check out the absolutely bonkers vertical Ferris wheel above the famed discount store, Don Quijote.
Glico Man Sign, 2 Chome-4 Dotonbori, Chūō-ku, Ōsaka-shi, Ōsaka-fu 542-0071, Osaka, Japan
LEGOLAND Discovery Center
Suitable for kids aged from 3 to 10 years old, you can shop, take the factory tour, and get creative at the building stations and play areas. For younger tots aged 1 to 5, there is a special DUPLO section. If you have a LEGO addict, remember to bring any old miniatures your little collector will be happy to swap at the trade-in available here. Don’t confuse this with a full-blown theme park though, there are only two rides, so don’t expect the size and scale of other LEGOLAND destinations. Still, the kids get to play with blocks without you stepping barefoot on a stray brick. That’s a win in the parenting handbook.
Sassy Mama Tip: A word of warning — it’s best to book your tickets in advance because the centre only allows a limited number of visitors at a time, to make sure you have the best experience possible. Plus, there are added discounts for booking family tickets online and you can even earn Asia Miles!
LEGOLand Discovery Center, Tenpozan Marketplace 3rd Floor Osaka-shi Minato-ku Ocean City, 1 Chome-1-10, Minato Ward, Osaka, 552-0022, Japan, www.osaka.legolanddiscoverycenter.jp
Tempozan Harbour Village
Situated next to Osaka Bay, Tempozan Harbour Village should be on any family’s Osaka hit list. It’s incredibly touristy and for the childless, single traveller, it perhaps could be missed. But it will certainly thrill little explorers and is bound to make parenting while on vacation a little easier. The whole area has been designed with families at the forefront, with a mix of fun indoor and outdoor attractions. Here you’ll find tourist hotspots like the aquarium and the dock for cruising on the Santa Maria sightseeing ship. Enjoy the sea breeze as you stroll along the boardwalk, watch the street performers, or do a full 360 in the largest Ferris wheel in Osaka. Open from 10am to 9:30pm daily, the wheel is a staggering 112.5 metres and takes 17 minutes to do a full loop. Shopping complex, Tempozan Marketplace, makes feeding the fam easy with its cheap and cheerful food court and, if you delve a little further into the complex, you’ll find more local-style restaurants serving up warming curry and rice dishes, kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers) and more. It’s easy to get to too — only a five-minute walk from Osakako station where you’ll pass many takoyaki stalls on your way. Squid balls for the road, anyone?
Tempozan Harbour Village, 1 Chome-1-10 Kaigandori, Minato Ward, Osaka, 552-0022, Japan, www.kaiyukan.com
Read more: Top Family-Friendly Theme Parks In Asia
Where To Shop
Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Street
The most famous and by far the busiest shopping destination in Osaka is Shinsaibashi-suji. It’s estimated 120,000 visitors flock to this covered shopping arcade (or “shotengai” in Japanese) on an average weekend. There are some independent stores selling goods such as traditional kimonos but most of the shops are commercial brand names, large cosmetic stores, 100 Yen shops and department stores. It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs. If you’re not averse to crowds and have the stamina for it (it is 600 metres long), you can certainly find a bargain here thanks to the many duty-free offers tourists can enjoy. Even if you’re just window shopping, the scale and buzz of Shinsaibashi-suji is a sight to behold, but it is very easy to get lost in…
Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Street, 2 Chome-2-22 Shinsaibashi-suji, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 542-0085, Japan
Just three minutes from Umeda Station, HEP Five is one of the most visited malls in Osaka. You’ll find an abundance of department stores and underground malls in the shopping and business district of Umeda, but none have the same quirky energy that HEP Five has. A landmark shopping complex that’s easy to spot thanks to the giant red Ferris wheel on top (apparently Osaka cannot get enough of its big wheels). It hosts 170 branded stores and independent shops offering trendy and alternative fashion, kawaii-style accessories and J-beauty boutiques. Teens and tweens will love it. The higher floors also have a variety of restaurants and cafes with the eighth and ninth floors dedicated to arcade games and photo booths.
Sassy Mama Tip: If you’re wanting views of the CBD and beyond, other than the Umeda Sky Building which is close by, HEP Five’s Ferris wheel is your best option. It takes 15 minutes and costs 500 yen.
HEP Five, 5-15 Kakuda-cho, Kita-ku, Osaka, 760-8521, Japan, www.hepfive.jp
We loved strolling through Amerikamura, also known as “Ame-mura” locally. Originally named so due to the American trade that influenced the area, it’s the centre of pop culture in Osaka. We enjoyed taking it all in and appreciating the street style of its intimidatingly-cool residents. The coolest of which congregate around Sankaku-koen, also known as Triangle Park. Which is not so much a park, rather than a concrete junction from which you can spot the famous Statue of Liberty replica standing gloriously on a nearby building top. Vintage clothes, shops for sneaker heads, independent jewellery stores (from high-end silversmiths to quirky bead stores), each blasting out mixtures of booming hip hop, J-pop and K-pop. Amerikamura turned out to be our favourite neighbourhood to leisurely explore thanks to its more relaxed vibe and charming back streets. Plus, there were plenty of places to pick up some bubble tea or a specialist coffee. If you’re still looking to drop some yen on independent finds, Orange Street is an easy 10-minute walk and a favourite of Osaka’s hipsters; it’s full of indie cafes, antique furniture shops and trendy fashion boutiques.
Amerikamura, 1 Chome-2-4 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 542-0086, Japan
Orange Street, 通り界隈-7 Minamihorie, Nishi Ward, Osaka, 550-0015, Japan
Rinku Premium Outlet Mall
This outlet mall is like most standard outlet malls, but it is a godsend if you have an awkward amount of time to kill before heading to Kansai International. There’s a shuttle bus to the airport that only takes 20 minutes and costs 200 yen for adults and 100 yen for children. There’s a selection of discounted big-name brands; Nike, Coach, NorthFace, Michael Kors and much more. Oddly enough, the mall is designed to resemble old-town Charleston, USA, but it comes with baby changing and nursing rooms, lockers to store bulky luggage, rental buggies and a decent enough food court, serving mainly Japanese and east Asian food. Unless you’re into outlet shopping, it’s not worth the trip alone, but it is a very handy stop-point.
Rinku Premium Outlets, 3-28, Rinku Ourai Minami, Izumisano-Shi, Osaka, Japan, 598-8508, www.premiumoutlets.co.jp
Where To Eat
Kuromon Ichiba Market
A seafood and sushi lover’s dream, Kuromon is the length of five football pitches. Offering up the best catches of the day, BBQ skewers and inviting deep-fried desserts, it’s best you go hungry. The freshness of the sashimi and sushi selections here are unparalleled for the price. You can sometimes catch bigger bargains at the end of the day as vendors are looking to get rid of their stock, but for what you save in yen, you lose out on greater choices and the lively atmosphere. Easy to get to via public transport with Nipponbashi subway station close by (but prepare for steps if you’re sans stroller — accessible exits can be difficult to find in Osaka’s subway system). Schedule it in for a very long lunch.
Kuromon Ichiba Market, 2 Chome-4-１Nipponbashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 542-0073, Japan
Gyukatsu Kyoto Katsugyu
We visited Gyukatsu Kyoto Katsugyu twice for dinner. It’s that good. Originally from Kyoto, the brand has multiple branches across Japan. The interior of the restaurant is nothing special with generic wooden panelling and traditional red lanterns strung around. But the mouthwateringly tender, medium-rare steak, coated perfectly with crunchy breadcrumbs and then deep-fried to a light crisp…that’s what you come for. Dunk your beef cutlet into a thin curry broth and enjoy served with yam salt, beef cutlet sauce and dashi soy sauce for dipping, a steaming bowl of miso soup and fluffy white rice. Pair it with a tall, crisp Highball or a cool Asahi for the full experience. You’ll feel at ease bringing your tots in here thanks to the relaxed atmosphere; it’s casual dining that leaves a big impact. Plus, there’s a reasonably-priced children’s menu offering up smaller sample-size portions.
Gyukatsu Kyoto Katsugyu, 3-chōme-3-7 Nanba, Chūō-ku, Osaka, 542-0076, Japan, www.gyukatsu-kyotokatsugyu.com
At Isono Ryotaro, you won’t find the fanciest sushi dining experience. But there’s plenty on the menu, an infectious buzz about the place, and it’s ideal for families on a budget. The sushi conveyor belt snakes its way around the restaurant delivering all sorts of fresh delights for only 100 yen a plate. Between our eagle-eyed scouring of what was coming up next in the sushi conga line, we had fun trying to figure out how to order drinks from touch screens at the table. Leave satiated and satisfied with the final bill.
Isono Ryotaro, 12-35 Nambasennichimae Chuo-Ku, Swing Yoshimoto Bldg. 2F, Chuo, Osaka 542-0075, Japan
Dotonbori Street Food
Osaka is a paradise for street food and Dotonbori is where you’ll find the best. Go in the evening to appreciate its full glory. To know what’s popular just follow the queues. The food here is fresh, cheap and you’ll be lining up with both tourists and Osakans alike — so you know it’s good. The street itself is an eccentric symphony for the senses and is lined with dozens of mad, giant, 3D adverts that have become tourist attractions in their own right. Spot giant octopuses, dragons, pufferfish and more. The craze for the larger-than-life advertising started when Kani Doraku, a crab restaurant still in business today, erected a huge mechanised crab above its shop in 1960.
You’ll easily find Japanese classics like fresh sushi, sashimi and handmade gyoza. But when in Osaka, there are several dishes famous to the Kansai region that you, absolutely, must try. The most well-known is takoyaki; small squid balls made from diced squid and wheat flour, topped with tangy sauce, pickled ginger, dried bonito flakes and tempura scraps — but many stalls offer up their own versions of the speciality. Next on your must-try list is okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake where the egg and flour batter is mixed with varying ingredients such as cabbage, spring onions, octopus, shrimp, pork and more. Enjoy it best made fresh on the griddle, right in front of you. And finally, you can’t leave Osaka without trying the kushikatsu; deep-fried skewered meat, seafood or veggies — different to tempura as the batter is made using breadcrumbs.
Dotonbori, Chuo-ku, Osaka, Japan
Ending on a sweet note, Pop Sweet is a little dessert store tucked away in Amerikamura that claims to serve up the longest soft-serve ice cream cone in all of Japan. The Mr Whippy-style cones reach heights of up to 40cm here. Deliciously sweet and satisfying on a hot day? Absolutely. Extremely dangerous in the hands of a child? Most definitely. Handle with care.
Pop Sweet, 〒542-0086 Osaka, Chuo Ward, Nishishinsaibashi, 2 Chome−11−9 津久紫ビル, Osaka, Japan