Japan’s Capital of Cool

Osaka is Tokyo’s hipper cousin, a central hub in the country that knows how to have a little more fun, and is a lot more welcoming to the LGBTQ traveler.

Words by Marc Graser

If you’re visiting Japan for the first time, head straight to Tokyo. If you have some extra time, and want a truly local experience, get on a bullet train and hurtle yourself past Mount Fuji to Osaka. Once you arrive, you’ll instantly notice it: a relaxed calmness. Not that uncomfortable, I’m-in-the-middle-of-nowhere kind of feeling, but after exploring the modern metropolis that is Tokyo, with its constant hustle and serious focus on perfection, shoulders are lower in Osaka. Smiles have formed. You hear more laughter and chatter on the street. You even see a bit more color.

That’s because Osaka is that cool, more loose and laid-back cousin who’s excited to see you and wants to have a little more fun.

Osaka is to Tokyo what Melbourne is to Sydney; Bordeaux to Paris; San Diego to Los Angeles — less conservative, uptight and ready to please because they’re also college towns where fun hasn’t been pushed aside for career just yet.

Here, you won’t see intimidating throngs of black suit-wearing locals marching silently to work every day; you’ll likely find them in more fashionable hoodies and t-shirts because they’re off to class.

Osaka is easily one of the most under-appreciated cities for foreign travelers in Japan, because Tokyo and its more historic temple-famous neighbor Kyoto are typically higher on the list.

But Osaka shouldn’t be ignored.

From exceptional bars and restaurants to attractions, hotels, convenient airports and central location, this is a city that will provide any visitor with the kind of memorable Japanese experience they seek no matter what time of year.

The locals have always been welcoming to foreigners, and that’s true for the LGBTQ community, too.

In fact, Osaka’s government-backed institutions have been making great strides to make sure that the city embraces gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender travelers, educating local businesses on the value of pronouns, for example, hosting the Kansai Rainbow Festa, its version of PRIDE that attracts more than 5,000 to Ogimachi Park in October, and other events that it hopes will make it more inclusive to the world.

There’s a charmingly weird, electric whimsy to Osaka. It’s a neon-lit city that seems like it took over the grounds of an old amusement park designed by Willy Wonka. Everything in Osaka is vying for your attention.

There are nearly two miles of covered shopping streets with all the fashion finds you might be looking for. There are three Ferris wheel-like attractions ready to whisk you above the city’s entertainment districts.

Restaurants beckon diners with oversized mascots: a giant red crab with mechanical moving arms, a floating pufferfish lantern, a smoke-breathing dragon wrapped around the facade have all become Instagram-famous.

Osaka is to Tokyo what Melbourne is to Sydney; Bordeaux to Paris; San Diego to Los Angeles — less conservative, uptight and ready to please because they’re also college towns where fun hasn’t been pushed aside for career just yet.


One of Osaka’s main landmarks — and helpful central meeting points — is a large, brightly illuminated sign of a marathon runner crossing the finish line, sponsored by Glico candy (the makers of Pocky sticks). Wonka would approve.

The city even has its own ornate Osaka Castle that projects digital light shows on its exterior at night. It should be a required excursion for its pristine architecture and surrounding park. Disney would like that one.

There’s an amusing proverb: “Ruin yourself with fashions in Kyoto, ruin yourself with meals in Osaka.” Others have associated the city with the phrase “kuidaore,” or “eat till you drop.”

That’s because Osaka’s kitchens are where dishes like savory okonomiyaki pancakes, deep fried kushikatsu skewers, breaded takoyaki octopus balls, and kitsune udon noodles were perfected. Poisonous fugu, or pufferfish, is a local delicacy, with nearly 70% of it eaten in Osaka.

The city’s street food vendors rival any famed food truck and have been profiled by the filmmakers behind “Chef’s Table.”

Shops like 551 Horai have also been specializing in handmade pork buns, or butaman, since 1945. Check out Zubora-ya, which specializes in pufferfish; for takoyaki, head to dumpling shop Kukuru; and Kani Dōraku for crab (look for the moving sign).

For prime Japanese beef shabu shabu and sukiyaki, Hariju has been the place since 1924. Kushikatsu Daruma has been frying sticks of meat, fish and veggies since 1929. Otakoya is a popular takoyaki stand; Kinryu is recommended for ramen and Imai for udon. You won’t have to go far to find them.


The downtown area of Dōtonbori — Osaka’s entertainment hub — is crowded with restaurants, bars and food stalls. If you’re looking for Japan’s version of fast food, hit up Moss Burger and CoCo Ichibanya (which also has locations in Honolulu and California), but none as fully satisfying as the original in Japan.

Osaka has always been a little more playful, with Dōtonbori having boasted six Kabuki theaters, five Bunraku theaters, a Takeda Karakuri mechanical puppet theater, restaurants and bars in 1662.

It’s also long been welcoming to LGBTQ community, with over 100 gay bars, 10 lesbian bars, and a burgeoning trans nightlife scene, mostly found in three main gay areas, with Doyama-cho the largest, where Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert have sung karaoke at gay bar FrenZ FrenZY Rainbow Haven.

Bars tend to cater to specific tribes, and can seem unexpectedly small, so do a little research before you go, or start with FrenZ, Grand Slam, Dungaree, Bull and Jack in the Box.

Or, make things easier, with a pre-arranged guide. Deep Experience is one local company that offers a number of curated LGBTQ-friendly excursions, including one where you join drag queens on a bar crawl, boat cruises or cooking classes.

No visit to Osaka is complete without visiting Osaka Castle, a pristine five-story landmark, built in 1583, that played a major role in the unification of Japan during the 16th century.

For thrill seekers, make a day of Universal Studios Japan, a theme park that’s similar to its counterparts in Hollywood, Orlando, Singapore and Beijing, except that it boasts the fantastic “Jurassic Park”-themed Flying Dinosaur roller coaster that lays you flat like you’re a pterodactyl.

Super Nintendo World


But the biggest draw is now the first and currently only Super Nintendo World, which lets you explore Bowser’s castle and compete in a real-life version of Mario Kart, flinging shells at other riders, before dining on Mario- and Yoshi-character inspired food.

A Donkey Kong land expansion is planned for 2024, with more rides. For those who want to take some day trips, Osaka is centrally located, making it an easy home base for travelers looking to explore nearby cities or take in the natural beauty. Hiroshima and its iconic floating torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine is just 90 minutes away.

Kyoto is a 30-minute train ride, and a must for its historic temples, while deer roam wild in nearby Nara, which will make your Instagram feed even cuter. Osaka offers a number of lodging options for any budget.

For Marriott Bonvoy loyalty members, we highly recommend the chic Marriott, new Moxy and W boutique hotels. Another favorite is the Courtyard, just steps from Osaka’s main train station, a great option for those who want to explore other nearby cities.

Hilton’s Conrad Osaka is another exceptional luxury hotel, with fantastic restaurants and service. Try their Kura sushi bar, and splurge for breakfast at Atmos, which boasts some of the best views of the city. It’s a testament to Osaka’s sophistication that the W Hotel, which has always been an ultra hip brand that seeks out the new and now, chose the city over Tokyo for its first-ever property in Japan.

Keep an eye on Osaka. This Japanese ally to the LGBTQ community is definitely one worth visiting in the future, if you haven’t been, and a city worth revisiting if it’s been awhile.

Click this link for more information on how to plan the perfect trip to Osaka.