There is no shortage of off-the-beaten path attractions and unusual things to do in Osaka and Kyoto if you know where to look. Like in Japan’s other major cities, you can find just about every kind of diversion that you can think of while traveling here. What most don’t realize is that Osaka and Kyoto’s quirky attractions extend to much more than just the cosplay or maid cafe venues that foreign visitors often find intriguing. The attractions here are both modern and traditional – sometimes even coming straight out of the unexpected and mundane.
I visited the Kansai Region recently as part of a collaboration with Hotels.com to check out these relatively unknown places. If you are looking for something new during your first (or subsequent) trip to Osaka and Kyoto, make sure to include these sights into your itinerary.
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Sayamaike Prefectural Museum (Osaka)
Located in Osakasayama City, a suburb of Osaka 40 minutes by train from the city center, the Sayamaike Prefectural Museum is as much an architectural destination as it is a venue for learning about flood control works in the region. The unapologetically modern construct of the museum is the creation of renowned architect, Tadao Ando. Today, the building is known as one of the most “instagrammable” places in Osaka. Don’t miss the picturesque water plaza with its waterfalls on both sides.
To get to the museum itself, walk past the water plaza and you’ll end up at a cylindrical hall that leads to the doorway to the indoor museum.
How to get there: Take the Nankai Koya Line from Namba Station. Get off at Osakasayama Station and walk 10 minutes to the northwest towards the reservoir.
Address: 2 Chome Ikejirinaka, Osakasayama, Osaka Prefecture 589-0007, Japan
Hours: 10:00 to 17:00
Namba Parks ( Osaka)
With the myriad of shopping options in Osaka, it is probably easy to dismiss the Namba Parks as another cookie-cutter upscale Japanese shopping mall. That would be a mistake. Sure, Namba Parks has your typical shops but the real attraction here is the sumptuous curves of the shopping mall exterior as well as the 8-level roof gardens. Make your way to the topmost one for a wonderful view of Namba and surrounds.
Address: 2 Chome-10-70 Nanbanaka, Naniwa Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 556-0011, Japan
Getting there: 5 minutes walk from Namba Station, to the south.
Hours: 11:00 to 23:00
Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum (Cup Noodles Museum – Osaka)
The Instant Ramen Museum located in the suburb of Ikeda is proof of the Japanese ability to make interesting monuments out of seemingly mundane things. The museum offers a peek at the history of the instant noodles industry which originated in Osaka including a replica of the shed where Momofuku Ando made the first instant noodles.
More than just a place to view exhibitions and dioramas, the venue also allows for interactive instant noodle-making sessions for a minimal fee. These are a hit with locals as well as tourists who just can’t get enough of the instant ramen.
Address: 8-25 Masumi-cho, Ikeda-shi, Osaka 563-0041 Japan
Getting there: Take the Hankyu-Takarazuka line and get off at Ikeda station. The museum is 5 minutes walking distance to the southeast
Hours: 9:30 to 16:00
Admission: Free. 300 Yen for the Cup Noodles Factory and Chicken Ramen Factory.
Osaka’s version of the hipster district is Nakazakicho. Just one station away to the northeast from Umeda or a 15 minute walk from Umeda itself, this quiet neighborhood is filled with neighborhood cafes, specialty shops and vintage clothing stores tucked away in hidden alleys – a sharp contrast to the unabashedly neon signs you see prevailing commercial spaces elsewhere in Japan. Choose one of the uniquely decorated cafes for a caffeine fix or stop by the striking wooden building that houses the likes of Amanto Cafe and La Granda Familia and mix with Nakazakicho’s artistic community.
Unlike the hipster districts in other major cities, Nakazakicho is remarkably spread out. The greatest concentration of cafes and shops are located in the alleys directly north and south of Seibi Park.
Getting there: Walk 15 minutes from Umeda station. Otherwise, Nakazakicho has its own subway station.
Hours: Depends on the store
Hozenji Yokocho Alley (Osaka)
While the Dotonbori area of Osaka is especially popular with tourists, the hordes seem to concentrate themselves by the canal near the Glico man advertisement. Located just a few blocks away to the east, the Hozenji Yokocho Alley is a slice of old Japan right in the middle of bustling Osaka. Within this short stretch, you will find a temple, traditional houses as well as plenty of shops and restaurants. The Meotozenzai shop is particularly famous. It is said that eating the zenzai dessert as a couple brings luck.
Hours: Depends on the store
Kyoto has plenty of temples that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which ones are must-sees. Unless you are a temple fanatic, visiting around 3 is probably enough. One that you should not miss – especially if you don’t have enough time to go to the farther sites – is the Entoku-in located within the historic Gion district.
The area surrounding this temple is a well-trodden one but most visitors seem to walk past its unassuming gate. What makes Entoku-in particularly picturesque is the gorgeous karensansui or dry stone garden that can be viewed from a symmetrical pavilion like a theater. It’s definitely one of Kyoto’s hidden attractions as it is known mostly to locals and devoid of the bus tours permeating other more well-known temples such as the Kinkakuji or the Ryoan-ji.
Getting there: The temple is located within Gion, two blocks north of the famous Yasaka Pagoda.
Hours: 9:00AM to 17:30PM (last entry 17:00PM)
Admission: 500 Yen for adults
Tenjuan Garden (Kyoto)
Another one of Kyoto’s hidden attractions, the Tenjuan Garden is located within the complex of Nanzen-ji Temple. While the main temple attracts a fair share of visitors, very few make it past the southern wall which houses the garden. For a relatively small place, it is surprisingly diverse.
You enter with the sight of a dry zen garden that’s especially picturesque in autumn (mid-November to first week December). Walk a bit to the south and you’ll end up at the lush wet garden featuring large koi ponds filled with lotus, footpaths lining the pond and plenty of bamboo trees. It’s definitely worth a visit even for those with just a passing interest in Japanese gardens. This one allows you to see a couple of styles in one go!
Address: Nanzenji Fukuchicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 606-8435, Japan
Getting there: Nearest subway station is Keage. From there, walk north and you’ll reach the main Nanzen-ji Temple. Tenjuan is directly south of the main hall of the temple.
Hours: 9:00AM to 17:00PM
Admission: 400 Yen
Kyoto Owl’s Forest (Kyoto)
While the rest of the world has just started to pick up the concept of cat cafes, Japan has taken another step by introducing owl cafes. These are essentially places where you can grab a bite or have a cup of coffee while being surrounded by various kinds of owls. These birds are tamed and guests are free to pet them and even take photos with them. There are quite a number of these venues in Osaka and Kyoto as well. One that is conveniently located close to Kyoto’s Kawaramachi area is the Kyoto Owl’s Forest. Located near the end of the Nishiki Market, visitors can have their fill of these cute feathery creatures.
Address: 556 Nakanocho (Shinkyogokudori), Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu 604-8042
Getting there: The venue is located within the Shinkyogokudori shopping alley
Admission: 680 Yen (adults)
Tips for Osaka and Kyoto
- Purchase the JR West Kansai Pass for savings when traveling between city and airport. The 1-day pass is cheaper by 680 Yen compared to buying a one-off ticket to/from the airport. If you purchase online, there is also a further 100 Yen discount versus purchasing in the station and that gives you a total of 780 Yen savings for your airport train ride.
- Japan is an expensive country and this is one of the places where getting travel insurance is most worthwhile. I usually purchase one when visiting Japan in case of unexpected incidents and typically buy from Singsaver. The aggregator allows me to compare between insurers for the best plan, depending on my budget and requirements.
- Japan uses Type A or B outlets for electricity so make sure you have the right adapters for your devices.
- I typically purchase my prepaid data sim card beforehand in order to avoid wasting time queuing when I arrive at airports. It is also cheaper when you pre-book. NTT Docomo is quite reliable in terms of connectivity and their sim cards can be collected at Kansai Airport.
Where to Stay in Osaka and Kyoto
In Osaka, I stayed in Hotel Il Monte which is just steps away from Osaka Station and Umeda Station. It’s very convenient for trips to the airport or Kyoto as well as for exploring the city of Osaka. Room prices are also reasonable. You can also book other hotels in Osaka HERE.
In Kyoto, I stayed at Hotel The Celestine Kyoto Gion, a really charming boutique hotel right in the heart of the old town offering the plushness of a luxury hotel at 3 and 4 star prices. You can also book other Kyoto hotels HERE.
You can also check out the coupon code HERE for additional discounts for hotel bookings.
Know of any other off-the-beaten-path attractions in Osaka and Kyoto? Share them here!