I better say this straight away that I loved exploring around Kyoto and seeing all the old temples, shrines, and gardens. It’s one of the most culturally rich cities in all of Japan and definitely a must-see place.
But I’m writing this from a travellers perspective and this is what the difference between Osaka and Kyoto is.
Osaka vs Kyoto
I’ve visited Kyoto two times now spending roughly a week there and Osaka 3 times for almost a month in total. I can easily say that for the budget traveller looking to have fun and meet loads of cool locals Osaka is the place you want to be.
Meeting many travellers while in Kyoto it was surprising how many of them were overlooking Osaka as a place to visit, and those that did only planned a day trip to see the castle and a quick walk around.
But they are missing one of the most vibrant and fun cities in Japan.
Osaka is the second biggest city in Japan and has a reputation for very friendly people who know how to eat good and party. It has a certain rough edge about it and very importantly a good vibe.
It’s that vibe that makes it perfect for travellers, but it’s something you probably won’t pick up on when just visiting for a few hours. You need to hang out for a few days, especially at night when the bars and food joints explode into life.
Yes every city in Japan has good bars and eating options, but were comparing Osaka to Kyoto, and I’m sorry Kyoto but Osaka just has a much better drinking and food scene.
Osaka is well known throughout Japan for its food, most notably it’s fast food takoyaki which is a wheat flour ball with a small piece of octopus inside. You can find these places everywhere, often easily spotted by the bright red octopus head (see cover photo).
In fact I love Osaka just as much as Tokyo.
Certain neighbourhoods are so much fun and you can even find some graffiti, along with cosplay and punks. Where Kyoto has a reputation for culture, it’s also more conservative. Step in Osaka to take up the mantle as the party city of Japan.
I totally understand that people might not care about the whole “youth vibe/party thing” but then this is all about most travellers, especially young ones, who for sure enjoy that.
But let’s look at those other tourists. Why stay in Osaka? Especially when Kyoto has so much more history and culture to see.
That’s all good and all, but staying in Osaka you will get the feeling of what it’s like more as a local. Yes Osaka get’s tourists visiting, but nowhere near the level of Kyoto, and if you get away from the main tourist drag of Dotonbori you can find yourself almost away from tourists altogether.
Osaka is also perfectly located for day trips to get your culture fix. One and a half hours by train and you are in beautiful Koyasan in the mountains with it’s old temples and massive Buddhist cemetery. Thirty minutes by train and you are in historic Nara, again with loads of temples.
Then there’s Kyoto itself only 20-30 minutes by train from Osaka. Why not do day trips to Kyoto instead of staying there? It only costs around $10 for a return train ticket.
While were on the subject of costs (this is very important for the budget traveller) Osaka can be better value for money, being a working city. Did you know you can get a private room in a budget hotel for $15 a night? And that’s relatively in the centre so you can walk to the main party/food zone.
So what I’m trying to say with this whole post is that many travellers are overlooking this fun city and just concentrating on Kyoto. Totally understandable. But also totally unfortunate.
Not everyone will love Osaka, but some travellers come for 1-2 nights and are so surprised at how cool the city is, wishing they had planned to stay longer, or used it as a base to explore the surrounding area/cities instead of Kyoto.
I even met people who liked it way more than Tokyo even though Tokyo has a lot more to do.
Osaka really is just one of those cities you stay for the vibe. And with travellers the vibe is so important. Well at least for the ones that appreciate feeling something different that doesn’t just involve visiting tourist sites.
To experience a country properly delve into what the locals do. In Kyoto with so many tourists around people often miss out on that aspect.
Patrick, a regular visitor to Osaka sums it up –
Yes I know Kyoto has more and better temples. Yes I know it has a bigger and more spectacular history. But once you have visited all the tourist attractions it’s time to compare city to city, people to people. What makes Osaka stand out for me over Kyoto or even Tokyo is it’s raw, down to earth atmosphere.
It’s not a pretty city, it’s an industrial city and it shows. But with that also comes that down to earth feel that sets Osaka apart from the other big cities in Japan. I love the feel of the Amerikamura and Shinbashi district with all it’s great (rock) bars filled with locals and tourists alike, tattoo parlors and underground shops.
I know that’s only just a small part of this big city but in my opinion it’s there that you get a best feel for the city and it’s people. And I did not get that feel as much anywhere else in Japan.
Go And Stay In Osaka
Again this post is not about knocking Kyoto. I would say everyone should definitely go to Kyoto on a trip to Japan, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time there and miss Osaka like to many people do.
And I’m not talking about just a day trip to Osaka. Go for a few days and delve into this fun and vibrant city.
So if you were wondering whether to stay in Osaka or Kyoto, then this should help answer your question.
Either way you can’t go wrong. They are both awesome cities!
(Tip) Buy a JR Rail Pass to save money on train transport in Japan.
Kyoto tours from Osaka
While you visit Kyoto from Osaka (or if you end up staying in Kyoto instead) then find out some of the best things you can do there with the link below:
Things to do in Osaka
And likewise you can find loads of things to do in Osaka with the link below:
Pick up a copy of the Lonely Planet Pocket Kyoto & Osaka for your travels there.
When you are in Osaka (or Kyoto as they are close) then check out my post where I go into lots of detail on some of the day trips from Osaka.
Japan is an expensive destination so be sure to have some travel insurance before going. I personally use World Nomads –