Last updated on October 17, 2023 by Wandering our World
Japan is a wonderfully diverse destination, with a fantastic mix of the old and the new. One day, you can be taking in the peaceful splendor of an ancient temple. The next, you could dive into a futuristic virtual reality video game arcade. And if you want to experience the full breadth of all that Japan has to offer, Tokyo and Osaka are two of the top cities to choose.
They’re also two of Japan’s most-visited cities, attracting the highest numbers of tourists from around the world. But, with over 250 miles separating them, it may not be possible for the average traveler to see both of these terrific places on the same trip. Instead, you may have to pick just one of them for your Japanese adventure.
But which one to pick? On the one hand, you have Tokyo, the Japanese capital and the world’s most expansive metropolis. This city just seems to go on and on and on, with so many districts to explore, each with its own character and vibe. It’s a buzzing megacity, quite unlike anywhere else on earth, with temples, malls, and a long list of landmarks to see.
On the other hand, there’s Osaka, Still a big city, but several times smaller and quieter than Tokyo, this city offers a slightly more traditional experience than the capital, with wonderful historic sites like the ancient Osaka Castle and hundreds of sacred shines. It’s also got more of an offbeat and less touristic feel than Tokyo, with a number of quirky attractions to check out.
Both cities are worth visiting, and both have their benefits and key features. But, if you’ve only got time for one, this guide will help you make up your mind. Below, we’ll put Tokyo and Osaka side-by-side, comparing their attractions, culinary scenes, nightlife, average prices, and other key factors, before finally deciding on the very best Japanese city to travel to.
- A Quick Overview Of Osaka vs Tokyo
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Shopping?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Is Best For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheapest?
- Osaka vs Tokyo: Which Is Better?
A Quick Overview Of Osaka vs Tokyo
Osaka: A Quick Overview
Osaka is the third-largest city in Japan, with an estimated population of more than 2.7 million people. It’s located in the Kansai region of Japan’s biggest island, Honshu, and it’s part of the Keihanshin Metropolitan Area, which is the second biggest in all of Japan and also encompasses the nearby city of Kyoto.
Historically, Osaka was the main economic hub for Japan, and it was even the nation’s imperial capital for a period in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the Edo period, between the 17th and 19th centuries, it made great contributions to Japanese art and culture, becoming the birthplace of traditional theatrical styles, like Kabuki and Bunraku.
In the modern era, Osaka is one of Japan’s primary financial centers, as well as being one of the most multicultural cities in the country. Lots of big businesses have bases in this city, and it also houses many leading educational institutions and universities, such as Osaka University and Kansai University.
But Osaka isn’t just a thriving financial city and educational hub. It’s also a fantastic place to travel, with a thrilling food scene, a great mixture of old and new landmarks to admire, plenty of fun family attractions, excellent shopping opportunities, and a live entertainment scene to rival the best and biggest cities in the world.
Tokyo: A Quick Overview
Tokyo is the capital and biggest city in Japan, as well as being the largest metropolitan area on the planet, with all of its special wards and surrounding prefectures extending across more than 5,000 square miles of land and housing over 40 million people. As for the city itself, it has a population of more than 14 million.
Of course, Tokyo wasn’t always such a sprawling metropolis. It started life as a small and simple fishing village called Edo, but it didn’t take long to start growing. It expanded enormously during the Edo period, becoming one of the world’s first cities to have a population of more than a million people. In 1868, it became Japan’s capital and was renamed.
Nowadays, Tokyo is famed not just for its size, but for its innovation, influence, and economy. It’s the biggest urban economy on the planet, home to countless major businesses, and is also one of the world’s most forward-thinking, futuristic cities. However, it has still preserved many remnants of its past, like old Shinto shrines and the beautiful Imperial Palace.
As such a truly unique city, Tokyo naturally attracts adventurers and travelers of all ages from across the globe. It’s famed for its diverse attractions, friendly and helpful locals, and fast pace of life, with a vibe and aesthetic that no other city on the planet can match. In short, it’s easily one of the best “bucket list” destinations that every traveler should try to see at least once.
Which Is Best For Activities?
As well as having totally different sizes and vibes, Osaka and Tokyo can provide totally different day-to-day activities for travelers to enjoy. In Tokyo, you’ve got a lot of world-famous landmarks to check out and so many districts to discover. Osaka isn’t quite as jam-packed with activities, but still provides plenty of opportunities for fun and sightseeing.
Osaka: The Activities
Japan’s third-biggest city has lots to see and do, and most travelers will want to start off their visit to this city with a wander around the Dotonbori district. Famed for its neon lights and colorful billboards, this shopping and dining zone is one of the liveliest spots in the city, with lots of fun photo opportunities and tasty eateries to check out.
Families and thrill seekers, meanwhile, won’t want to leave Osaka without visiting Universal Studios Japan. This fun theme park has a variety of rides and attractions based on famous Hollywood movies, like Jurassic Park and Jaws, as well as more Japanese-themed entertainment based on legendary anime and manga, like Attack on Titan.
History buffs can also find a lot to love about Osaka. It’s not as Old Worldy as nearby Kyoto, but it has many ancient landmarks to visit. There’s Osaka Castle, for instance, first built back in 1583, as well as plenty of shrines, like Sumiyoshi Taisha. Given Osaka’s cultural heritage, it’s also worth seeing a traditional theatrical performance at a storied venue like Bunraku Theatre.
Osaka also has great green spaces like the Expo Commemorative Park, along with some truly quirky attractions, like the Cup Noodles Museum or the Amerika-mura (American Village) area, filled with funky street art and hip bars. If all that wasn’t enough, Osaka is also home to Japan’s tallest building – the shopping and dining haven of Abeno Harukas.
Tokyo: The Activities
With its vast size, Tokyo has an almost endless list of things to do. You could easily spend a full week or two in this city and only just scratch its surface. So, most visitors will want to move fast and see the main landmarks right away, like the gorgeous Senso-ji temple and towering Tokyo Skytree – the tallest tower on Earth.
The oft-photographed Shibuya Crossing – the world’s busiest intersection – is also worth a visit, and those who want to see the most modern and lively side of Tokyo should tour the Shibuya and Akihabara districts. Both of these areas are popular with younger generations, filled with fashionable shops, trendy bars, neon lights, love hotels, video game arcades, and maid cafés.
If you need a break from all the lights and noise, Tokyo also has lots of calm spaces, nestled between its busy buildings and streets. The 144 acres of Shinjuku Gyoen make up one of the city’s most peaceful and prettiest spots, while Yoyogi Park is a lovely spot for picnics and romantic strolls. There are also lots of historic shrines and decorative temples to visit.
Of course, as the capital of Japan, Tokyo is also a fantastic place to learn all about the country’s culture and history in various museums and galleries. The Yayoi Kusama Museum is an art-lover’s dream, while Nihon Minka-En Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum provides a picturesque step back in time to the Edo era.
Overall, there’s clearly quite a difference in attractions and activities in Tokyo and Osaka. In Tokyo, almost everything is possible. Video game arcades, sumo tournaments, temples, and endlessly diverse districts await. Osaka isn’t quite as vast or varied, but it’s still got more than enough for a week of fun, with plenty of offbeat attractions you won’t soon forget.
Which Is Better For Day Trips?
While Tokyo and Osaka are both terrific places to spend several days or even longer, travelers might like to dedicate a day or two of their travel plan to leaving these cities behind and visiting some other areas of Japan. Fortunately, both Osaka and Tokyo are really well-placed for some terrific day trips and excursions.
If you base yourself in Tokyo, you can benefit from the city’s remarkable transport system, with speedy bullet trains ready to zip you away to a range of destinations. Kamakura, home of relaxing temples and beautiful beaches, is a great place to go. You could also spend a day or more in the splendid port city of Yokohama, dive into nature at Chichibu, or soak your troubles away in the Hakone hot springs.
If you’re in Osaka, there are lots more places to see. The nearby historic city of Kyoto is the most obvious day trip spot, with its classical temples and calming gardens. More temples and shrines await in the former capital of Nara, or you can try Kobe, home of traditional hot spring resorts and the best place to enjoy Japan’s world-renowned Kobe beef.
Overall, both of these cities are perfect for day tripping, with dozens of dreamy destinations barely an hour away from each one. Osaka is a little better for seeing big cities, but Tokyo offers a nice mix of natural and urban environments.
Which Is Better For Shopping?
As two of the biggest cities in Japan, Osaka and Tokyo also rank as two of the nation’s premier shopping destinations. Visitors can easily spend entire days roaming the malls and stores of these cities, and there are so many fascinating things to buy, from video game mystery bags for the “otaku” crowd to stylish fashion and classical handmade crafts.
In Tokyo, the shopping scene is one of the best and biggest in the world. Like the city itself, the number of stores, markets, and malls just seems to go on and on. There are entire department stores dedicated to the likes of games and manga, along with gigantic shopping districts, like Shibuya, with more fashion boutiques than most other cities in the world.
Those seeking high-end fashion and accessories can take a tour of Ginza. For kitchen and home goods, hit up the Kappabashi area. If traditional souvenirs are what you’re looking for, try the markets and stalls of Asakusa. Or, for electronics and gadgets galore, take a tour of the gamer haven of Akihabara.
Can Osaka really compete with all that? Not quite, but it’s still not a bad place to shop. Dotonbori, in particular is a super place to shop, with multiple massive department stores and a whole underground labyrinth of shops. The Amerika-mura area is also filled with fashion chains and imported goods from across the globe.
Overall, Tokyo is definitely the best place to shop, with by far the deepest and broadest shopping culture and so many stores to see. With that said, Osaka isn’t bad for fashion and gifts, and it tends to be a little cheaper, too.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
Part of the joy of Japan’s big cities is that they never seem to sleep. Even late at night, when the sun has set, the streets still hum with activity. That’s particularly true in Tokyo, which has the most active nightlife scene in the entire country, with a whole bunch of districts filled to the brim with bars, clubs, and evening entertainment venues.
If you’re looking for thrills, Shibuya is the place to be in the evenings. It has a wild atmosphere to match its crazy neon lights and signs, with live music, multi-floor dance clubs, sports bars, and mature lounges to sip traditional sake or whiskey. Asakusa is another good nightlife area, boasting more old-fashioned bars with cheap prices.
Osaka may not have the same size or scope as Tokyo, but it’s still got a vibrant, dynamic nightlife scene. The Dotonbori area is where you’ll find the most exciting evening experiences, with lots of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants staying open late. Shinsaibashi is also fun to roam around in the evenings, with secret sake bars and underground clubs to dance the night away.
Overall, Tokyo definitely has the bigger and better nightlife scene, but Osaka also has more than enough to please people who like staying out late.
Which Is Better For Food?
One of the best things about visiting Japan is its food. This is the home of sushi, ramen, udon, miso, okonomiyaki, and more. And, unsurprisingly, Osaka and Tokyo easily rank as two of the best cities for foodies to see, with so many tasty flavors and delicious delights just waiting to be enjoyed.
Just like its nightlife scenes and shopping scenes, the culinary scene in Tokyo is vast. There are so many restaurants in this city, offering almost every kind of cuisine on the planet. Some of the best sushi in the world is served in this city, and Tokyo is also well-known for its quirky themed restaurants, serving up dishes inspired by manga, games, and other parts of pop culture. Tokyo also has the most Michelin starred restaurants of any city.
Not to be outdone, Osaka also has a phenomenal food scene. In fact, this city is nicknamed “The Nation’s Kitchen,” as many of Japan’s most beloved dishes originated here, like okonimiyaki pancakes and takoyaki fried octopus. It’s a super city for those who like snacks and street food, and it’s great for sampling the most traditional Japanese treats.
Overall, you’re guaranteed to eat well, no matter which city you choose. Osaka is ideal for cheaper food and more traditional fare, along with the best takoyaki in Japan. Tokyo is better for those looking for a more varied selection of meals, as well as those who enjoy high-grade gourmet dining.
Which Is Best For Families?
Japan is an amazing place to go as a family. Kids of all ages can fall in love with the culture here, with so many attractions to appeal to all tastes and sensibilities. But which city is best for grown-ups and children alike between Osaka and Tokyo?
Well, Tokyo has plenty of kid-friendly attractions, from its video game-themed cafés to its massive arcades and malls. It’s also got its own Disneyland resort where kids can meet Mickey Mouse and other characters, along with vast parks, pretty shrines, scenic hiking trails, a monkey park, animal cafés, and even a ninja restaurant. In other words, it’s a paradise for kids!
Osaka is also a terrific place to go with children. Kids will naturally have a lot of fun at Universal Studios, where they can dive into the worlds of Harry Potter or Jurassic Park, while younger travelers can have a blast at Osaka’s Legoland Discovery Center. The city also has a huge zoo, a massive aquarium, and a museum dedicated entirely to children, called Kids Plaza.
Overall, it’s difficult to pick a winner in this category, as both cities are so family-friendly. If you want a more diverse experience, Tokyo is probably the best, but for traditional family activities, Osaka is a perfectly fine destination.
Which Is Best For Couples?
Couples of all ages can also have a magical experience visiting either Osaka or Tokyo. From soaking in the hot springs to saying a prayer at a Shinto shrine, there are lots of romantic moments to enjoy.
Osaka is a really scenic, romantic city. Couples might like to ride the famed Redhorse Osaka Wheel – the biggest Ferris wheel in Japan – or climb the Umeda Sky Building to enjoy breathtaking views of the city. The Tombori Riverwalk is another lovely romantic area, and there are several onsen, or hot springs, to relax and recuperate after a big day of adventure.
In Tokyo, too, you can find soothing spas to enjoy with your partner and lots of cozy hotels to rest at the end of each day. The Japanese capital also has world-class restaurants for fine dining, some terrific observation decks to take in the views of the city from above, museums, dinner cruises, gardens, and parks.
Overall, Tokyo probably has a little more to offer for most couples, with a wider range of activities and attractions, but Osaka is still worth a visit and can appeal to couples who are looking for somewhere a little calmer and less chaotic.
Which Is Best For Backpackers?
Japan can also be a terrific destination for backpackers and solo adventurers. Tokyo is the first port of call for many travelers, with its diverse wards and districts prime for exploration. No matter whether you’re into history, food, culture, entertainment, or something else entirely, you’ll find lots to love here, although the city of the city can feel a little overwhelming at times.
With its more compact size and cheaper prices, Osaka may feel a little more welcoming and more manageable for the average backpacker, especially those who are visiting Japan for the first time. It’s also in a great area for adventurers who are planning to do day trips and explore places like Kyoto or the Kansai region.
Overall, both cities are equally good for backpacking. Osaka has the big benefit of being cheaper, but Tokyo is more of an iconic city, with a longer list of must-see landmarks and activities.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Immerse in the elegant serenity of Miyako City Osaka Hommachi, offering discerning travelers an enclave of luxury amidst Osaka’s energetic pulse. Guests are invited to indulge in an exquisite culinary journey in a restaurant serving a mélange of Chinese, International, and European cuisines. Encased by city’s bustling spirit, the hotel radiates tranquility and sophisticated charm, providing a plush retreat with accessible urban conveniences. Unwind in delicate luxury, as the hotel becomes your gateway to the vibrant allure of Osaka.
Luxury: Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel, ensconced in the towering Abeno Harukas, bathes guests in unparalleled luxury, offering breathtaking 360-degree city vistas from its panoramic viewpoint on the 58th floor. Dive into opulence with meticulous rooms, a rejuvenating fitness center, and indulgent dining experiences, high above Osaka’s pulsating energy. It’s a celestial retreat within the urban dynamism, ensuring an unrivaled, exquisite stay.
Budget: Tokyo Bay Shiomi Prince Hotel weaves an elegant oasis amidst the bustling city, presenting guests with a luxurious escape in its beautifully appointed rooms and delightful buffet breakfast experiences. Dive into relaxation at the sauna or maintain your fitness regimen at the center while savoring Tokyo’s sparkling skyline and vibrant life beyond.
Luxury: Nestled within a mesmerizing Japanese garden, Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo unfolds a sanctuary of tranquility and luxury, juxtaposing historic serenity with urban sophistication. The hotel features enchanting hot spring baths, rejuvenating spa treatments, and exquisite dining, overlooking the lush Chinzanso Gardens. Every space whispers the elegance and timeless charm of Tokyo, ensuring a stay that is both restful and invigorating amidst the city’s vibrant rhythm.
Which Is Cheaper?
Japan isn’t exactly the cheapest vacation destination around. So, if you’re planning a visit to this part of the world and hesitating between Osaka and Tokyo, you might also like to know how much money you’ll have to spend on things like hotels, food, and activities.
Well, when it comes to costs, Osaka is significantly cheaper than Tokyo to visit. In fact, you may be able to visit Osaka for about half the price you’d spend on a trip to Tokyo. This is thanks to Osaka’s notably cheap accommodation rates and affordable street food snacks. With lower prices across the board, you may even be able to stay in more luxury and comfort in Osaka.
In Tokyo, meanwhile, you can spend quite a lot on quite a small, simple room. Accommodation tends to be very clean and convenient in the capital, but prices are often high, and the elevated price tags also extend to food and attractions. In other words, you’ll need to budget carefully when planning out your Tokyo itinerary.
Osaka vs Tokyo: Which Is Better?
Overall, if you have the time and money, it’s ideal to see both Osaka and Tokyo. They’re both so exciting and engaging, full of life and personality. Osaka is a quirky cultural and culinary hub, with awesome street food and special traditional activities, while Tokyo almost feels like a city from another world with its endless streets filled with lights, signs, stores, and surprises.
Of the two, Tokyo is the better pick for most travelers. It’s one of the world’s greatest cities, with arguably the greatest culinary scene on the globe, a never-ending series of stores and malls for shopping fans, and so much diversity in its attractions and activities. Whether you’re into high-tech culture, art, history, nightlife, or something else, Tokyo is sure to wow you.
With that said, Osaka is still worth considering and has a couple of unique advantages over Tokyo. It’s smaller and quieter, which may appeal to those who feel that Tokyo is a little too much. It’s also got a friendly and laid-back vibe, while still packing in plenty of exciting attractions, super shopping, and sublime street food.