Japan: 10 ways Osaka beats Tokyo

Shop and restaurant signs lit at night
Colourful shop and restaurant signs light up the Dotonbori district at night

Exotic yet familiar, traditional yet ultra-futuristic, Japan rightly features on many a bucket list. But don’t book that ticket to Tokyo just yet. For the first time in 10 years, there’s an alternative to consider.

Starting spring 2019 – just in time for the cherry blossom – British Airways will be flying from Heathrow to Osaka, in the south-central Kansai region.

Great for business travellers, of course, but for a holiday? Here are ten reasons why that’s a resounding yes.

1. It’s friendlier

Toasting each other at a bar
Raising glasses in one of Japan’s many bars, or izakaya

If Tokyo is Japan’s London, Osaka is more like Manchester – down to earth, unpretentious and fun-loving. Don’t get us wrong, we love Tokyo, and Japanese people are unfailingly polite wherever you go. It’s just that classy Tokyoites can sometimes come over as hurried and aloof. Osakans are by reputation more approachable – they’d probably say it’s no coincidence that some of Japan’s top comedians have come from the city.

2. Taller skyscrapers

Abeno Harukas and cityscape
Abeno Harukas, left of centre, is the tallest building in Japan

Three of Japan’s four tallest buildings are in Osaka. Daddy of them all at 300 metres (984ft) is the catchily named Abeno Harukas – visit the observatory at dusk to watch the sun set over the bay and the city lights come on, then hang around for drinks at the rooftop bar. Daredevils can even lean over the very top of the building and hang in mid-air, a vertigo-inducing 60 storeys above street level.

To be fair, Tokyo does have Japan’s highest structure, the Tokyo Skytree – the world’s second-highest structure at 634 metres (2,080ft). It has two observation decks, at 350 and 450 metres high, offering 360° panoramic views. On a clear day (when else would you visit?) there’s a view over the city to Mount Fuji.

3. It’s a city that can feel more like a town

River bridge with cherry blossom
Spring cherry blossoms near a river bridge in Osaka

Let’s not go overboard here. Osaka had 2.7 million residents at last count and its sprawling cityscape covers 86 square miles. It’s either Japan’s second- or third-largest city by population, depending on whether you measure by day or night.

At the same time, it’s a city that feels manageable. It has green parks, views over the bay to the Inland Sea, and a public transport system that’s easier to navigate than Tokyo’s. Even the city’s busy international airport – built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, 20 miles from the city centre – has two fast rail links. It’s less than an hour to almost anywhere in Osaka.

4. It still has a castle

Osaka Castle in spring
Osaka Castle has been razed and rebuilt numerous times in its long history


Osaka Castle
is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks and still looks impressively impregnable, even amid the high-rise cityscape. Originally built in 1597, the castle has been destroyed multiple times by fires and military campaigns, only to be rebuilt and restored. And if you still can’t feel the history, there’s a museum inside.

The ruins of historic Edo Castle in Tokyo can still be found. Parts have even been reconstructed. But they’re in the Imperial Palace complex, so unless you’ve reserved a tour, you probably won’t see much.

5. It’s right next door to Kyoto …

Old Town, KyotoYasaka Pagoda seen from the Higashiyama district, Kyoto old town

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for 1,000 years and you’d need several days to see all the temples, palaces, museums and pagodas. It’s the traditional heart of Japan, spiritual home of geisha and tea ceremonies. We also loved our family-friendly ninja lesson, covering everything from stealth tactics to swordplay. Oh, did we mention that it’s under half an hour away on the bullet train?

If you’re in Tokyo, a day trip to the early medieval capital of Kamakura is certainly worthwhile. But Kyoto it isn’t.

6. … and even more cultural treasures

Temple and lake, Nara
Nara, one of Japan’s ancient capitals, retains an atmosphere of times past

In fact, Osaka has not one but two ancient capitals within spitting distance. Nara was the imperial seat from 710AD until 784AD, and a day spent wandering its parks and landmarks (don’t feed the deer!) is as atmospheric as it gets. It’s an hour from Osaka by train.

Or, try Himeji Castle, commonly considered to be Japan’s finest, and also an hour’s train ride away.

7. Gateway to the West

Viewpoint in Miyajima
Mountain-top viewpoint on the island of Miyajima, looking over the Inland Sea

If you’re heading for Hiroshima, picture-perfect Miyajima, or the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu – and you should – flying into Osaka will get you there so much sooner.

8. Pancakes!

Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is a classic dish of the Kansai region

They don’t call Osaka the ‘Kitchen of Japan’ for its fine dining so much as its historic status. Nonetheless, the local cuisine is well worth exploring. Specialties include okonomiyaki (a griddled pancake with shredded cabbage and meat or seafood, topped with sauce) and takoyaki (balls of batter with octopus pieces, served as street food).

9. Universal Studios Japan

Tokyo has Disney, Osaka has Universal Studios Japan. That must at least be a draw, right?

10. It isn’t hosting the 2020 Olympics

Which, depending on your point of view, means either a chance to escape the crowds, or else more available seats to get you to Japan for the Games in Tokyo. Win-win.

Share your Japan tips

We love Japan right now and we’d love to hear your tips, questions and travel tales. Let us know in the comments.

Heathrow to Osaka with British Airways

Graphic: Osaka, JapanDirect flights to Osaka start 31st March 2019, departing Terminal 5 at 14:20 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Flight time is 11 hours 30 minutes (similar to the Tokyo route) and arrival time at Kansai International Airport, Osaka, is 09:50 local time the following day.

British Airways plans to use its ultra-modern Boeing 787 aircraft on the route, with Economy, Premium Economy and Business Class seats available.

Find fares with British Airways

3 thoughts to “Japan: 10 ways Osaka beats Tokyo”

  1. Where else other than Osaka would you find an Okonomiyaki house in the Michelin Guide? It’s a fascinating, hip city so it’s great to hear we can get there so easily from Heathrow.

  2. Osaka, a truly great destination, with Nara, Kyoto, and Kumano Kodo pilgrim trails all on its doorstep. One of our very best family holiday started there last Spring. The friendliness and helpfulness of its people are rarely matched elsewhere.

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