Osaka with kids: “The Kitchen of Japan” welcomes traveling families

Vibrant outdoor spaces and tasty food galore are just the beginning of what makes Osaka great for a family trip

I’m writing this on a bench surrounded by trees, green space, flower beds, and approximately 117 children. None of them stay still long enough for even a dedicated team to get an accurate count, but they are further evidence that Osaka with kids is a great idea—and you’ll be in good company. Each kid ranges in age from still-in-diapers toddler to teens who are walking and chatting. My 8-year-old daughter is behind me, playing in a sandbox.

Looking in front of me, a sloping evergreen has been shaped into what is effectively a large bonsai. A little farther on, rows of ornamental cherry trees turn the buildings behind them into an impressionist landscape of white and pink shapes.

“Osakans love the inner and outer calm that is a national virtue of Japanese culture. But they also believe in using a smile, a touch of sass, or both, to liven things up a little.”

Wait… you said you’re in Osaka with kids, right?

You might be among those a bit perplexed. I said we’re in Osaka with kids, in, Japan, after all. We’re in a bustling, yet serene, workaday neighborhood centered around the famous, 2,000-year-old Sumiyoshi Taisha Temple. None of these descriptions are probably what you were expecting. The high rises of the city center are a couple of train rides away. In my field of vision, the tallest building is a 10-story apartment block, and the balconies all have an expansive view.

That’s what my family of four and I love about Osaka. This city bustles, hums, and sizzles—perhaps not as much as Tokyo, but aplenty for a metro area of over 12 million. But Osaka also has a down-to-earth, friendly side. It’s a place where people want to know how we like some of the area’s signature dishes, such as takoyaki and okonomiyaki (spoiler alert: The kids are still training up on takoyaki, but these dishes are faves for me and my wife, Jodie).

It’s also the sort of city where a person will check to see if you are okay, make sure you know where you’re going, and that they’re glad you are there. One rainy day, two elderly ladies mistook our rain coats for regular jackets, and offered to give us their umbrellas.

Or to put it another way, when the four of us were walking down the street one day, I happened to catch eyes with an older gentleman in a security uniform. He bowed and, as we passed, said, “Thank you for coming to Japan!”

Yes, Osaka is a wonderful place for families to visit

Takoyaki in a home cooker

“People in Tokyo are known for being polite, formal, even a little cold,” said our tour guide as we wandered through Osaka’s bustling, central Dotonbori area. “People in Osaka are known for being warm, funny… and a little crazy.”

Sure, Osakans love the inner and outer calm that is a national virtue of Japanese culture. But they also believe in using a smile, a touch of sass, or both, to liven things up a little.

We’ve traveled to Osaka twice, once in 2013 when Connor was a toddler, and again in 2023, as a family of four with a vibrant 8-year-old Aster and 11-year-old Connor. On both visits, we have enjoyed a clean, safe city. Osaka prides itself on incredible food, lush local parks, and a zest for life that shows up in everything from jiggly tender cheesecakes to the massive, stylized red octopi on the facades of takoyaki shops. You never know when someone will come up and start chatting with you about Japan, the food, or how cute your children are.

In short, Osaka is an incredible city to visit with your kids. Here are some takeaways from our experiences here—and a few recommendations on where to go and what to do.

“The secret to eating well in Osaka is following your nose, your heart, and anyone who smiles kindly when you open the door.”

Dine well in “The Kitchen of Japan”

When talking about Osaka with kids, it’s only right to start with the food.

For example, during our 2023 visit to Japan, we stayed in a rental townhouse in the Sumiyoshi area, not far from the famous, must-see Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine. Within a five-minute walk, we could tuck into…

Sweet pastries and savory bread treats from a family-run corner bakery. They bag each item individually, and close it with a strip of washi tape from an impressive collection on a dowel hanging above the counter.

Umami-rich ramen or gyoza made in front of us, at a small “ramen diner” where the counter faces the burners and the owner, an elderly man with a big smile, might have a baseball game on the TV. (When we were there, it was Japan vs. South Korea. Aster shouted that she hoped Japan would win, which got the owner grinning.)

Takoyaki and okonomiyaki, grilled in front of you at a corner shop on the way to the supermarket…

And speaking of the supermarket, it’s full of incredible yet affordable ingredients, from karaage (fried chicken) to a sushi-grade seafood section that we could spend months sampling.

Just down from the market, there’s an udon restaurant, run by a wife and husband, where the atmosphere and kindness are as warm and heartfelt as the savory bowls of udon noodles and broth in front you.

And that’s all in just one direction.

Japan is full of good food. But Osaka takes its love of food to such a level, that one of the city’s nicknames is “The Kitchen of Japan.” And like a proper kitchen, Osaka is as welcoming as it is delicious.

The secret to eating well in Osaka is following your nose, your heart, and anyone who smiles kindly when you open the door.

How do you choose where to go?

"Dangerous!" is the translation of this sign, which warns baseball fans about foul and fly balls.
“Dangerous!” is the translation of this sign, which warns baseball fans about foul and fly balls.

Jodie researches places to eat mostly via Google, based on where we’re staying. Here in the Sumiyoshi neighborhood where we rented a townhouse for a month, we are not going to find guidebooks teeming with recommendations. But on Google, we can get a sense of tasty places within a few minutes’ walk.

An important hint about online reviews in Japan

Hint: Japanese culture in online reviews tends to be less focused on awarding the maximum number of stars. A tip we learned through the Japan episode of the All the Hacks Podcast was that if a place has, say, a 3.6 rating, it’s amazing. A restaurant in Japan could have a Michelin star, yet average 3.8 in its Google reviews.

How many days is enough for Osaka?

Like any great city, a lifetime is enough… and barely a beginning. But for real, Osaka deserves at least three nights, and more if you can wrangle it. Heading west from Tokyo, Osaka with kids is a natural stop-off (especially when heading to or from Kyoto.)

How to get around Osaka with kids

Google Maps.

Full sakura in Sumiyoshi Park

No, seriously.

Anytime we were going somewhere, Jodie used Google Maps to set our course. Osaka syncs its public transit system—including trains, buses, and trams—in Google Maps. You can set your course based on where you are, where you’re going, when you’re departing, or when you’d like to arrive. Once set, you can follow your route for trains, platforms, stations, and more.

Real talk about travel times

Osaka has a wonderful public transportation system. In addition to reliable, clean, and safe trains and buses, there’s also a network of trams. A couple of tram lines ran near our townhouse, and helped us quickly connect to fun-to-visit areas such as Shinsekai.

However, always give yourself some extra time, especially when traveling with kids. Train stations can be huge. Getting from platform to platform, line to line, or even train to train takes more time than you think. This can also be a very good thing, since train stations, especially larger ones, tend to always have at least one tasty place to snag some food from.

Which area to stay in Osaka with kids?

If you are staying in Osaka with kids for a shorter time, you might prioritize being close to must-visit areas, such as Dotonbori and Shinsekai. We’d suggest starting your search there. Since Osaka is so huge but also so well-connected, you can likely base your accommodation on what matters to your time in town.

We wanted to be in a quiet neighborhood. It can take us a little longer to get places, but we consider public transportation a form of sightseeing that’s lined with snacks and treats. Friends of ours have preferred to stay closer to attractions. Either way, we’ve all used public transportation to get around, the neighborhoods are excellent, and it’s hard to make a bad choice.

We’d suggest choosing what you want to do in Osaka with kids, and then see if you can triangulate an area to stay that lines up with your budget, timeline, and priorities.

What to do in Osaka with kids?

Okonamiyaki and takoyaki joint near our house in Osaka, Japan.

During our month in Osaka with kids, we explored on our own, participated in a Worldschool Popup Hub with fellow travel families from all over the world, and also listened when other folks talked about their sightseeing experiences. Based on all that, here are some things we’d suggest you consider:

Kids Plaza Osaka

Is it a museum or an indoor playground? Better question: why not both? Kids Plaza combines elements of play with education. The result is a rich environment of imagination, wonder, and making.

Osaka free walking tour

For starters, the Osaka free walking tour guide is hilarious. He even managed to hold together a tour with about three dozen people, most of them kids, as one of the activities in our Worldschool Popup. From Dotonbori to Shinsekai, we got a taste of the history, culture, and, of course, food of Osaka.

LEGOLAND Discovery Center Osaka

Not to be confused with a theme park such as LEGOLAND Malaysia, the Discovery Centers provide an indoor experience where you truly feel immersed in the world of the brick.

The walkthrough attraction Miniland shows a cityscape made of over 1.5 million bricks—and it has a daytime and a lit-up night. There’s also a huge LEGO-themed play zone, and the factory where you can discover how LEGO bricks are made.

Osaka Aquarium

When Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan opened in 1988, it was the world’s largest public aquarium. With 15 tanks and other exhibits, the space still amazes, especially when a whale shark swims past.

Each tank hones in on a part of the Pacific Rim, such as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, the Tasman Sea area around New Zealand, and even Antarctica. All told, you’ll encounter over 30,000 creatures across over 600 species. If your schedule allows, consider a nighttime visit, where silvery light and accompanying music bring an otherworldly feel.

Expect crowds, especially if going on a weekend or rainy day. It’s also right across from the iconic Tempozan Harbor Village, with its massive shopping center, array of restaurants, and even, tucked in the back, a sort of winding, traditional Japanese neighborhood feel with traditional Japanese food.

Osaka Castle Park: Grounds yes, castle optional

Coming for the day is wonderful, and the massive public grounds around Osaka Castle are a destination all their own (especially during sakura season). But whenever you can, head to Osaka Castle in the evening. If you want to tour the castle, come in the mid afternoon. Otherwise, the dramatic lighting that illuminates the multi-tiered, white and green exterior of Osaka Castle is a sight to behold.

Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine/Temple

For over 2,000 years, people have come to Sumiyoshi Taisha to seek health and good fortune for business ventures, newborn children, a trip to sea, and more. The baby thing is especially cool. We visited one Sunday afternoon, and the temple grounds were full of well-dressed parents holding itty-bitty babies, who they would present at various parts of the temple’s many shrines and altars.

The temple is also home to the iconic (and quite photogenic) Sorihashi Bridge. An area just a little north can be a great spot for bridge photos, especially if your timing lines up with a good reflection of the bridge in the water.

Just beyond the Sorihashi Bridge as you leave the grounds, the wee bag of pancake rounds is worth every yen.

Osaka Sewerage Science Museum

The aquarium might be regularly packed, but we had Osaka’s Sewerage Science Museum pretty much all to ourselves. And that’s a darn shame.

Anthony had found out about the museum from a piece in Atlas Obscura. The free museum is full of interactive, hands-on exhibits that did an amazing job of engaging a group of kids. We wound up being there for three hours, taking in everything from why Osaka has to design such deliberate, intricate water catchment systems, to piloting a virtual drone as it cleaned and repaired a pipe.

Shinsekai

We’ve gone to Shinsekai twice (here’s the official Japanese site, which your browser can translate), and both times leave us giggling. Maybe it’s the artful, larger-than-life designs on the buildings: an octopus (holding what the kids thought was a popsicle), or a pyramid of takoyaki where each was the size of a basketball, or the giant wooden ship sticking out of the top of a restaurant.

Shinsekai is where you can take selfies with massive things on sticks, visit quirky shops, and never run out of incredible places to eat (such as our fave, Kura Sushi). You can orient yourself by the Tsutenkaku Tower in the midst of the action (and there’s an elevator to the observation deck at the top). The angular, stylized gates around Shinsekai’s perimeter have a retro-futuristic style that—which actually inspired set designs for the 1982 Blade Runner movie.

Our next visit, though, will focus on the shared platters of kushi-katsu, or fried skewers of veggies and meats.

Dotonbori

We’ve seen Dotonbori called the “bright heart of Osaka.” We can get on board with that.

Huge digital billboards on the sides of buildings? No worries (and near the Ebisubashi Bridge is where you’ll find the iconic running man from Glico, makers of Pocky treats). Boardwalks along both sides of the Dotonbori Canal (and you can also take a canal cruise)? Of course. Street stalls selling treats such as takoyaki and the area’s famous ten-yen pancake? Aplenty.

Dotonbori combines big city, well, bigness, with a touch of cartoon and a dash, even, of romance and tradition. It’s where dragons stick out of buildings. Explore the sights, scents, and tastes of the vast, covered Kuromon Ichiba Market. It’s also the place that brings to life the combo of quirk, humor, and a zest for life that defines the heart and character of Osaka.

Cup Noodle Museum

Stone lanterns along the outer edge of Sumiyoshi Temple in Osaka, Japan.

For a more sedate yet delicious experience, you’ll head to a very different part of the city. From Ikeda Station on the Hankyu-Takarazuka Line, a few blocks are all that separates you from the fun, slightly goofy yet dazzling simple science behind one of Japan’s most iconic convenience foods: The Cup Noodle.

Cup Noodles came onto the scene in 1958 as, well, packet noodles. However, the steamed and fried noodles kept well, and were quick and easy to prepare. They went a long way in assuaging hunger for many during a time when Japan was focused on rebuilding after World War II.

The all-in-one cup hit the market in 1971. The world—and some of our quiet evenings at hotel rooms worldwide—have never been the same.

The Cup Noodle Museum itself is free to enter. Exhibits showcase the history of the noodle, designs of its iconic packaging, and how the noodles are made. There are lots of hands-on, interactive areas as well. Upstairs, a ramen class teaches you how to make the noodles. Consider reserving in advance—or you can stand outside the glass walls and watch.

Downstairs, the Cup Noodle workshop gives you a chance not only to design your own cup, but to choose your own fillings and seasonings. It’s fun, it brought a lot of smiles to our family, and the noodles made for a tasty dinner.

Takoyaki

Speaking of food, let’s touch on two of Osaka’s iconic dishes.

Takoyaki is the everyperson street snack that can be as dressed up or down as you want. At its most simple, takoyaki is a wee bite-sized piece of octopus surrounded by a dough of wheat flour, egg, and dashi broth. The batter gets cooked in pans divided with little hemisphere depressions. The end result is tender, soft, browned, slightly chewy, and toppled with a sprinkle of bonito flakes (smoked fish) and a drizzle of sauces.

It’s a touch of paradise that you can eat with a toothpick.

Takoyaki is virtually omnipresent in Osaka. You can seek out renowned restaurants for sure. But the little place just around the corner also deserves to be on your list. Or if, like us, your accommodation has a takoyaki maker in the kitchen, you owe it to yourself to make takoyaki at least once.

Parent tip: When making takoyaki at home, swap out the octopus if you or your kids aren’t keen on it. It’s okay. We’ve made takoyaki batches with shrimp, with cubed cheese, and with pieces of mushroom. (The kids devoured the mushroom ones, btw.) Takoyaki mix is available in pretty much any market, and here’s a handy recipe.

Okonomiyaki

Shredded cabbage, flour, and egg. It’s a pizza. Cooked on a griddle. Drizzled in kewpie mayo.

It’s changeable. It’s almost undefinable. But it’s also pretty much whatever you want, however you want it.

And that is okonomiyaki.

At heart, the dish’s simple base is cabbage and fat, such as butter or oil. We’ve seen some made with eggs that look like frittatas. Others use wheat or rice flour as a binder and to add toothsomeness. Bits of seafood, such as fish or shellfish, might be tucked inside.

If you’re accustomed to things like griddled fritters or crab cakes or such, okonomiyaki is similar. Only bigger. The ingredients are mixed into a batter, poured onto a griddle or sizzling hot pan, cooked through and browned on each side, and served up with your choice of toppings.

Some places simply serve up their house recipe and any variations. Others give you options, or there are places where you can combine your choice of ingredients and cook on a griddle inset at your table.

We suggest you try them all. This is the sort of food that satisfies—and you even get your veggies. It’s brilliant and delicious.

It’s okonomiyaki.

Day trip to Nara

Feed deer at Nara Park, and give your jaw-dropping muscles a workout at two massive nearby attractions

A stay in Osaka is also a great jumping-off point for various day trips. While there are many to choose from, a kid-pleaser we’d suggest is a day trip to nearby Nara.

Less than an hour away by train from Osaka (aim for Kintetsu Nara Station), Nara is home to Nara Park. Here, wild wee deer roam freely along the grounds. Visitors can buy packs of wee crackers and feed them to the deer. (And yes, our understanding is the crackers are totally safe for the deer to eat). Visiting at the right time of year gives you a dose of sakura from the park’s cherry trees.

The area is also home to the Buddhist art of the Nara National Museum, as well as the massive Nandaimon Gate and the also massive Todaiji Temple.

I can’t overstate how giant these latter two places are.

To call Nandaimon a gate means that the word “gate” needs a sort of larger sibling alternative. If your thoughts go to a picket gate in a garden, or an orange torii gate such as Kyoto’s, I shake my head. Those gates are like the planet Earth compared to Jupiter. Nandaimon made us stop in mid-step.

Todaiji is also giant, yet serene and beautiful. The calm grounds especially showcase their best during sakura. Going inside the temple has an additional fee. The giant Buddha statue, carved wooden figures, and the temple’s scale are worth a visit for the craftsmanship alone.

The city that never stops eating… or being welcoming

Girl swinging high at a playground in Osaka, Japan

We had the good luck and good sense to stay in Osaka for a month. The sprawling city is complex, has its noisy bits, and can be crowded. It can also be narrow neighborhood lanes lined with flowering pots, with silence and solitude like a temple at night.

And delicious food is everywhere. So is a warm welcome. Traveling in Osaka as a family has been a lovely experience. From Connor and Aster romping with kids, to the conversations we’ve had with people in shops and eateries, we’ve appreciated every insight, chat, and opportunity to understand more about this incredible city.

Or to put it another way, that day the older gentleman bowed and said, “Thank you for coming to Japan!”

We immediately bowed in return, and said, “Thank you for having us!”

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