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Osaka, and how to be kind to your wallet

Here’s a guide to the ins and outs of the storied prefecture—if you’re skipping the luxury route.

If you’re a traveler from a third-world country, visiting a more developed country typically means taking a considerable sum from one’s coffers just to enjoy a memorable vacation. In some cases, shopping is reduced to a series of reveries, separated from reality by a sheet of glass and a wallet’s forced modesty, while the access to tourist attractions and scrumptious meals holds much influence on one’s budget. I’m no stranger to this phenomenon.

However, I had no such concern when I recently flew to Japan, known by some for its exorbitant prices. There are websites that dispel the myth that Japan is reserved for the luxury traveler, and I was fortunate enough to learn their assertions on two separate occasions, particularly in Osaka.

In both of my ten-day visits, US $900 was, in fact, more than enough to afford me a good amount of luxuries, inclusive of accommodations. And I had over a hundred dollars to spare by the time I boarded the plane back to Manila. This, with me not having to thrift it much to be honest, as I had a bit of a shopping spree, and I had a tendency to overspend on vending machine fare. Six to eight cans of beverages per day isn’t exactly what I would call smart spending. 

For both trips, I was lucky to be in the company of friends who knew the ins and outs of the city, from the bargain shopping areas to places for cheap eats, from tourist attractions that didn’t need hefty sums, to nifty transportation hacks. Their suggestions were on the money—minus the need for a lot of paper currency.

As such, I literally had a lot to unpack right after my vacation.  

On a shopping high

I have to admit, I’m not much of a shopper under normal circumstances. And it took some prodding from my friends before I would actually shell out cash, outside of the usual latte at a nearby Doutor or vending machine coffee. But my first non-caffeine-related purchase would open a floodgate that suppressed impulse expenditures. This would eventually fill my luggage—often left empty—with fabrics, footwear, and random fluff.

Our first destination was a shop in Shinsaibashi called GU, also known as Uniqlo’s cheaper (and sometimes trendier) sibling. At first glance, the clothes on offer bore a striking resemblance to those on the Uniqlo shelves and the ones worn by the throngs of local tourists in Osaka. My companions quickly dragged me to the section with men’s jackets, then indulged me with a series of options. They know me too well. 

One of them grabbed a black duffel coat that slightly resembled the school uniform of Yusuke Urameshi from YuYu Hakusho, and my inner weaboo squealed in delight. It was only 4,990 yen (around $45) despite not being covered by the Black Friday Sale, so I hurriedly put it on. To my surprise, I thought I was staring at a conquering anime hero in front of the mirror, far from the pompous foreign merchant that my buddies hilariously suggested. It was practically glued to my torso for the rest of the day (and even the days after).  

With my new coat in tow, I made my way to the racks covered by the sale, and that pretty much made my day. I found a light jacket that cost half the price of a movie ticket in Manila,  and an entire pajama ensemble which amounted to $10. Due to size constraints—AKA my six-foot, 200-plus-pound frame—I went with an extra-large brown corduroy jacket, which had me forking over 1000 yen (about 9 dollars). Not bad.

We stopped by Books Plus, a variety store in Ebisubashi that sells a ton of discounted goods, including a pre-loved Lumix camera (a little over 11,000 yen), a second-hand Olympus camera (12,000+ yen), a floor’s worth of clothes, and another floor dedicated to manga, toys, and console games. I decided to hold on to my money, overwhelmed by the number of choices.

Our next shopping destination was the Amerikamura District, more popularly known as “Ame-mura.”  It’s regarded as the center of Osaka’s youth culture. Urban brands like A Bathing Ape, Champion, and Dragon Beard had outlets in the area, but our real targets were the stores that sold pre-loved items. A joint named Jetrag was selling a wide selection of trendy coats, jackets, and button-down shirts for only 500 yen ($4.50) a piece, while Grizzly sold classics like Ralph Lauren shirts for 3,000 yen ($27) and coats and jackets for around 6,000 ($55). Last year, I picked up a trench coat, and this time, I snagged a button-down shirt without making too much of a dent in my budget.

Another place of note is Flying Tiger, a variety store that sells all sorts of trinkets laced with the quirk that has come to define today’s Japanese culture. Some of the items that you’ll find are cutesy products like headbands, sandals, and hats with cat ears, board games, fluffy cat paws that you can wear, and home items that go the extra mile. Many of the items are priced less than 500 yen ($4.50), so shoppers have a tendency to go overboard with their purchases. I should know, as I wound up grabbing a boatload of items— a pair of flasks, two cat paws, and a duo of fish-shaped water canteens— just to name a few, last year.

Honestly, those stores made up only a tiny fraction of places that sold goods for cheap in Amerikamura. It took my friends five visits before they discovered Jetrag, which we passed on our way to Umeda. The entire district was peppered with bargain stores, so dedicating at least a day to the area could lead to even cheaper finds.  

Returning to Shinsaibashi, we enter perhaps two of the most attractive stores in Osaka: Daiso and Three Coins. In Manila, the goods at Daiso are sold at a little under PhP 100 ($2); in Osaka nearly everything is sold at 100 yen ($1), and the range of products offered is staggering. Think four floors of affordably-priced food, home items, electronics, toys, and some of the most random trinkets you could find. Three Coins, similarly, peddles useful goods that cost no more than three Japanese coins, and some of its most popular products include foldable bags, diatomite bath mats, and stuffed toys.

Towards the end of our ten-day trip, I thought that I needed a new pair of sneakers after taking around 20,000 steps daily from walking all across town. Fortunately, many of the footwear stores in Osaka were selling shoes at comparable (often slightly cheaper) rates to those in the Philippines. I got a pair of running shoes for only $50 at Shinsaibashi, and I still had sufficient financial room to treat a friend to parfait, some karaage, and a beef bowl; purchase several goodies at the Kansai International Airport; and leave the $100 I assigned for emergency purchases untouched.   

Convenient for the tummy

Low rates and the presence of Toto Washlets aren’t the only considerations we have when finding a place to stay in Osaka. A factor of equal importance is its distance to a 24-hour grocery called Super Tamade. One might wonder what’s so special about a rather obscure grocery, seemingly a gem known only to the locals, up until they wander into the section that features ready-to-eat meals. During my initial visit last year, I couldn’t help but sing to myself, “I didn’t know I was looking for lunch until I found you,” upon seeing the stacks and racks of Japanese food throughout the space.

Think of it as an expansive buffet that offers nearly every type of food within the spectrum of Japanese cuisine: from the tempura fiesta in the fried section, to packed meals that can serve two people like katsu curry; from okonomiyaki and what appeared like the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Lauriat, to a bevy of salads and sandwiches; a wide variety of packed sushi. The options are endless. Those who prefer soup can drown themselves in an overwhelming number of instant noodle variants, some of which are manufactured by renowned chains like Ippudo and Ichiran, and the same goes for dessert.

Best of all, the food is cheaper than those found in convenience stores, which, in turn, are more affordable than restaurant fare. Visit the grocery during the wee hours and you’ll find the already cheap products subjected to special discounts, as they are to be replaced by a fresh batch in the morning. Moreover, the items are of high quality and can give any Japanese restaurant a run for their money. 

A meal at Tamade that consists of fried rice, sweet and sour pork, mapo tofu, and a pork dumpling, for instance, costs somewhere around 325 yen ($3). This is comparable to the price of a decent fast-food meal in the Philippines, but the value for money is certainly higher.

As for the convenience stores, Family Mart and Lawson are sources of tasty affordable meals, with the karaage (Japanese fried chicken) at the forefront of their menus. (Apparently, there was an ongoing karaage battle between the convenience store chains, as the boneless chicken fillets and chunks offered have their own branding and come in a variety of flavors.) A few bites would suggest that Japan’s convenience store chicken is better than what you find in fancy restaurants in the Philippines, for only a fraction of the price. 

The craving for chicken fillet and chicken bites was a constant during my stay in Osaka. I often partnered both dishes with the rice variants and Japanese mayo bought from Tamade.

It’s important to note that the typical restaurant fare in Japan is relatively pricey. Those who opt for upscale establishments are likely to encounter first-world prices. However, there are a ton of not-so-hidden gems that offer premium items for cheap, at least by Japanese standards.

Fast-food places like Nakau, Suki-ya, Yoshinoya, and Coco Ichibanya feature full meals, which include drinks and soup, at around 400 – 600 yen ($4-6). A parfait at Ebisubashi nets you a little under $2, while a fancy crepe, be it a dessert or a savory snack, at Shinsaibashi costs around 350 – 750 yen ($3-7).

Similarly, Osaka’s coffee scene features slightly higher price points compared to its Philippine counterpart, but the coffee is top notch, so paying a little extra shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Travelers who look to devote a sizable portion of their budget to food can treat themselves to a fine meal at any of the mid-range establishments throughout the city. Dotonbori is home to one of the world’s most popular ramen places in Ichiran, as well as the stall that reportedly sells the best takoyaki in the country.

We, on the other hand, settled for less popular but equally remarkable options like Funky Junk Chicken, which served a mean Chicken Leek rice bowl, and a restaurant whose name is in Japanese characters – we know it only from the large baby mascot sticking above the entrance – that offered enormous servings of karaage and French fries good enough to feed 10 people. It’s best to allocate around 1000 yen per person for eating in such establishments, just to be on the safe side.

Should you find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of food choices Osaka, especially Dotonbori, has on offer, just pick a random place that catches your eye and you will probably find a slew of fantastic meals. That’s how we stumbled upon Funky Junk and the karaage and fries place. Osaka, after all, is regarded as “Japan’s Kitchen” as well as the country’s food capital, and not a lot of people dispute those claims.

Hostels over hotels

The Japanese are well-versed in domestic efficiency, given the size of most homes and buildings in the country. Luckily for travelers, some of the systems in place at a typical Japanese household are extended to the modes of accommodation not only in Osaka, but throughout Japan as well. What a living space lacks in size is made up for by smart space-saving techniques and simple amenities that either have notable auxiliary functions or afford utmost convenience.

As far as hotel rooms are concerned, they are a lot tinier than their Philippine counterparts, as you need only a few paces to reach the bathroom from the bed. It gets worse in the restroom – I could barely move inside, whether in the shower or in front of the sink. There was a Toto Washlet and there were compartments where I could slide in clothes and other things, so I was still beyond satisfied.

Hostels, in regard to the sleeping quarters, are even more cramped, but the same cannot be said for the restrooms. Those rooms are meant for communal use, so they are quite expansive and are religiously maintained. You will also find diatomite bathmats, designed to swiftly absorb copious amounts of water, outside all shower rooms. In fact, finding stray droplets is surprisingly akin to spotting a four-leaf clover in a garden. 

I quipped, “The restrooms here are cleaner than my soul,” and my buddies laughingly agreed.

Some hostels also have kitchens where you can prepare food – ideal for heating the ready-to-eat dishes purchased from a grocery or convenience store – and most of them have large dining areas.

Furthermore, don’t let the modesty of hostel sleeping quarters fool you – I was able to fit a lot of clothes, a couple of phones, a power bank, a laptop, and my tablet in the spaces provided. Each capsule-like bed was fitted with gaps on all sides that could be used to stow used and clean clothes, and a tiny compartment for charging multiple devices. A table and sometimes filing cabinets were also provided in the room, boosting its overall storage capacity.

Both of the hostels we stayed at, Bon Hostel and E-Hostel, had extremely polite and accommodating staff, reflective of the Japanese people who are kind and helpful to tourists despite the language barrier. We wound up befriending some of them. I even bought a female receptionist a curry pan, as we shared a pretty embarrassing moment–I forgot to lock the ground floor restroom after consuming a huge meal. But I digress.

Perhaps the most notable quality of the hostels in Osaka is the price. In both of my visits to the prefecture, I spent around $20 per night, which was a huge surprise considering the stiff accommodation rates in the Philippines.

To obtain that price, however, my friends had to devise a little strategy. They booked several months early via a booking website to reserve our slots. Painstakingly checking the site daily, they waited for a few months until a promo period that they call “Crash Sale” occurred. By then, they canceled and then rebooked our existing reservation so we could take advantage of the price drop without losing our slots.

While at it, they were also on the lookout for seat sales released by airline companies like Jetstar, Philippine Airlines, Air Asia, and Cebu Pacific, which is how we managed to secure cheap flights to Kansai International Airport for two straight years.

Low to no-cost attractions

Osaka is blessed with a multitude of attractions, many of which need no hefty budgets. In fact, Dotonbori in itself, along with the adjacent shopping centers, is a major attraction with no price for admission. Above the bridge that separates Shinsaibashi from Ebisubashisuji is the iconic Glico Man sign, which draws droves of local and foreign tourists at all times daily. The same can be said for the dozens of food stalls and renowned restaurants in the area, including the much-hyped Ichiran and the popular takoyaki stall by the bridge.

The bridge also affords a picturesque view of Dotonbori River, which you can explore via the Dotonbori River Cruise or the Tombori Riverwalk, a strip that is host to quite a number of restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops.

In a nutshell, foodies, shoppers, and Instagram junkies will have their fill of attractions to last them for days in this area alone–part of the reason why both of our trips to Osaka lasted for at least nine days.

For travelers who have a penchant for long walks, a five-kilometer trip to Umeda on foot is a worthwhile experience. Along the way, the sheen of the loud and campy tourist areas trail off gradually; their ends encroached by the more reserved parts of the city – the real Osaka for residents, I reckon. The highly industrial space gives off a clear picture of the rigid and systematized lifestyles of salarymen, who walk in unison like the moving parts of a massive assembly line, occupied with their routines yet discipline and politeness too ingrained in them, and they never break from the rather unconscious formation. 

This is pretty much the opposite of the vibrancy that pervades touristy areas like Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori, but the city is still quirky enough to generate a lot of interest for any traveler, including those who have been to the district multiple times. The city planning is also something to marvel at, with strategically located train stations and walkways conducive for comfortable travel. 

We took advantage of the lack of tourists to take photos of the area, ourselves included. A short distance from the river was a rose garden, which we passed as we made our way to the Umeda Sky Building, one of the area’s foremost attractions. When we reached the foot of the tower, there was a German-themed Christmas fair that featured a wide array of trinkets and eats. Hungry from the trip, the aroma of freshly prepared baby cakes lassoed me, and I parted with 500 yen ($4.5) with no objections. It also helped that the Eurasian seller was attractive and offered extra-mile service like any of the locals; she goaded me to try the hot chocolate sold at a nearby booth, which served as an ideal complement to the cakes and came with a free mug. My friends, on the other hand, tried some of the goodies at one of the fair’s crepe stands, rummaged through a selection of toys at another booth, and indulged in some Christmas candy.

By nightfall, on the way back to the Dotonbori, we passed by an area lined with trees adorned with Christmas lights, foreshadowing our next destination. Beguiled by the arrangement, we marched to another walkable attraction past the Ebisubashi strip – Namba Parks – instead of heading back to the hostel. The area was known for its stellar light arrangements and installations in a fancy garden, nestled in a shopping mall akin to Greenbelt’s park if it had multiple floors of shrubbery.

See Also

The other attractions in the Kansai region can be accessed by train. Some pre-planning is required, however, if you are to maximize your budget given that the modes of transport in Japan are quite costly. The train ticketing station at the airport offers several passes designed to trim the fat on your transport spending. Research the places you intend to visit prior to your trip as well as their possible alternatives, so you would know which passes to purchase.

For instance, the one-day Osaka Amazing Pass affords you unlimited use of the subway, bus network, and tramway for 2,700 yen ($25). The pass grants you access to places like Osaka Castle, Dotonbori, Umeda, the HEP Five Ferris Wheel, Shitenno-ji Temple, and the Osaka Museum, among others, for a lower price. 

Since we wanted to see the deer at Nara, the Hoshi no Buranko bridge, the orange bracket-like gates at Fushimi Inari, the baths at Kobe, and the temples at Higashiyama last year, we availed of the Osaka Amazing Pass for cheaper transport within Osaka, then used the prepaid subway card for the other trains required by each trip. 

The prepaid cards also work in Tokyo, so it is wise to keep them if you intend to return to Japan.

This year, we secured the Nankai Pass (2100 yen) – which covers the subway and bus systems in Osaka and Wakayama – to visit Mount Koya and Sagano, the region that plays home to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and hordes of kimono-wearing tourists.

If you have never been to Osaka, I suggest that you purchase at least a two-day Osaka Amazing Pass so you can visit the most popular areas like Nara, Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama, Dotonbori, and Higashiyama, as they have become part and parcel of any quintessential trip to the Kansai Region.   

Explore the slightly more obscure attractions like Mount Koya, Arima Onsen, Osaka Castle, Umeda, the Himeji-jo, and maybe Cat Island in your succeeding trips. You can also devote time for a more thorough look at the shopping districts (Shinsaibashi, Amerikamura, etc.) and restaurants and pubs (Dotonbori) at and near Namba.

Furthermore, should you wish to purchase electronic gadgets like phones and gaming consoles as well as anime and manga, visit Den Den Town in Nipponbashi, which is a short distance away from Ebisubashi. A smaller version of Tokyo’s Akihabara, the shopping district features sprawling selections of geeky items, as well as tons of cutesy accessories worn by many of Japan’s youth. If you’re lucky, you might find at least a few cosplaying sales personnel and you can take photos with them.

Many of the aforementioned locations don’t have admission fees at the forefront, but certain areas would require a bit of cash to visit. Also, you might want to up the ante on campiness by renting a kimono or riding a bike, which would also require paper currency. If you plan to rack up on experience points, I suggest that you allocate at least $100 for your sightseeing expenditures and secure an Osaka Amazing Pass, which grants you free access to some attractions, if needed.  

But should you intend to spread your finances more evenly, you can hop from one free or low-cost area to another, then splurge on food and a bit of shopping afterwards like we did. In doing so, you can partake of equal-sized slices of the flavorsome Osaka pie.

The lowdown

It’s hard to pin a singular definition on a culturally diverse region like Osaka, which is host to an endless array of attractions and quirks. One of the many things that separate it from its bigger and more popular cousin, Tokyo, is that many of the things that you’ll find there are well within reach of relatively modest budgets, from discounted clothes, to grocery meals, to cheap hostels, to affordable tourist sites.   

As I found out for two consecutive years, $900 is beyond sufficient to grant me the basics along with several luxuries, like new clothes, an abundance of food, several sightseeing tours, for an action-packed ten-day trip. 

Had I settled for the bare minimum and struck off the emergency fund allocation, I could have brought $700, perhaps even less, and still declared it a wonderful vacation. But I have found my sweet spot at $900 to $1000. 

It seems that a primordial element to Japanese efficiency has rubbed off on me from my two Osaka trips, with a lot of help from my friends and, once again, the Toto Washlet. I realize that going the extra mile with everything is paramount to one’s utmost fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of those around you.

Simply put, I was not much of a shopper.

It’s hard to pin a singular definition on a culturally diverse region like Osaka, which is host to an endless array of attractions and quirks. One of the many things that separate it from its bigger and more popular cousin, Tokyo, is that many of the things that you’ll find there are well within reach of relatively modest budgets, from discounted clothes, to grocery meals, to cheap hostels, to affordable tourist sites.   

As I found out for two consecutive years, $900 is beyond sufficient to grant me the basics along with several luxuries, like new clothes, an abundance of food, several sightseeing tours, for an action-packed ten-day trip. 

Had I settled for the bare minimum and struck off the emergency fund allocation, I could have brought $700, perhaps even less, and still declared it a wonderful vacation. But I have found my sweet spot at $900 to $1000. 

It seems that a primordial element to Japanese efficiency has rubbed off on me from my two Osaka trips, with a lot of help from my friends and, once again, the Toto Washlet. I realize that going the extra mile with everything is paramount to one’s utmost fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of those around you.

Simply put, I was not much of a shopper.



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