I have a few annual traditions here in Japan. Climbing Hanamiyama, or Cherry Blossom Viewing Mountain, every spring in sakura season. Photographing the lotus blooms in the summer. Cooking steaming pots of nabe on chilly nights in the winter.
But my favorite tradition is my annual pilgrimage to the Osaka Ramen Expo (Japanese site) held every weekend in December.
Bampakukoen Ramen Expo
Starting in 2013, festival organizers have brought the Ramen Expo to life each December in Bampakukoen (aka the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park). I’m not sure how the first couple of years went, but I attended the 2016, 2017, and 2018 iterations and it got better and better every year!
Now held four times in December (each weekend + an extended time around the Christmas holidays), the expo offers visitors a chance to try ramen from world-famous shops all over the country. Each weekend has a different set of 10 vendors, so you could theoretically try 40 different bowls of ramen… I noticed on this year’s guide that they’re offering prizes if you collect enough stamps from vendors. Pokemon, ramen style – gotta try ’em all!
I love getting the chance to try ramen from parts of Japan that I probably won’t be able to visit. I can check off different bowls on my ramen poster, too.
This year was a little different for me, since between the 2017 and 2018 one I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and I no longer eat gluten. But I was determined to enjoy my last chance at the ramen expo, so I just (sadly) tossed the noodles and ate the rest. I also chose ramen that didn’t use much in the way of soy sauce. I wasn’t feeling super hot afterwards but I still think it was worth it.
Every year, I’ve brought people to the expo who haven’t been there before. It’s a lot of fun getting to show my friends around the park and trying tons of different ramen with them.
I always make the ramen expo a full-day event. I show up mid-morning, get a bowl of ramen, explore the park a bit, get another bowl of ramen, ride the Ferris wheel and walk around the park more, get another bowl of ramen, walk around the marketplace, get some fries or karaage, get another bowl of ramen, then leave.
I do not mess around when it comes to a steaming bowl of noodles on a December day.
How It Works
Once you arrive at Bampakukoen (by transit, take the Osaka Monorail to Bampaku-kinen-kōen Station), you need to enter the park gates. It costs 250yen for an adult. From there, you have access to the park grounds, including the ramen expo venue.
Inside the ramen expo (you can enter the venue for free!), you buy tickets for however many bowls of ramen you want. This year the tickets were significantly cheaper than past years – it used to be 800yen a bowl, but is now 650yen a bowl, with discounts for purchasing multiple tickets. I got 4 tickets for 2400 yen. Once you have your tickets, you line up at whichever stall strikes your fancy. Most of them offer additional toppings for an extra cost.
There’s plenty of indoor and outdoor seating to slurp your noodles. Inside the tented area you’ll also find the beer vendor! Outside, there’s a small stage by the eating area and you might see anything from comedian duos to pop princesses performing there.
Expo ’70 Commemorative Park
One of the best parts of this delicious festival, besides the obvious, is the location. Bampakukoen is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE. The 1970 World Expo was held here so the site is enormous – over 260 hectares. During the World Expo, the park was covered in presentation sites and country pavilions. After the Expo, everything was dismantled. But if you walk around the park and look carefully, you’ll notice plaques on the ground where the pavilions once stood with a photo of the original building. (If you find the Canada one, let me know. I’ve looked for it every year and never found it!)
Now, they have Lalaport EXPOCITY, which is Japan’s largest complex, sprawled out next to the park. There’s a movie theater, shopping center with over 300 stores, and the tallest Ferris wheel in Japan. The Redhorse Osaka Wheel towers over the park at 123m tall, and you can really feel it when you’re at the top looking down through the glass-bottomed carriage. If you like Ferris wheels, I highly recommend this one!
The park itself also has museums, koi ponds, art installations, and a cafe.
One of my favorite parts of the park is the treetop boardwalk. It takes around 20-30 minutes to get to the top lookout point, where you’re rewarded with a 360 degree bird’s eye view of Osaka.
My other favorite part of the park is this monstrosity that greets you as soon as you enter the gate:
This guy, who I call the White Chicken, is the Tower of the Sun and legitimately looks like someone on acid decided to make the biggest sculpture ever. (The park was made in the late ’60s, so I am that far off?)
During winter in the park, they do projection mapping on the Tower of the Sun after dark. This also looks like someone on acid decided to make the trippiest shit ever and project it onto a crazy sculpture. I really don’t know what’s going on with this thing, but it’s weird and I’m into it.
Enough about the park though, right? You came here for the good stuff!
The 2016 + 2017 Ramen Expos
These are a few of the bowls from the 2016 and 2017 festivals:
In 2018, I really wanted to try ramen from the northern part of Japan, since in previous years, I pretty much covered the south and central regions.
The 2018 Ramen Expo
I made it to 4 stalls this year!
Bowl #1: From Hokkaido
Bowl #2: From Oita
Bowl #3: From Hokkaido
Bowl #4: From Osaka (but featuring special Nagoya chicken broth)
They were all just as delicious as they look, but I’d have to say #1 and #2 were winners of the day.
This year, the ramen expo introduced gyoza tickets along with the ramen ticket system. They were 500yen per ticket and the gyoza vendors lined one side of the festival grounds. I couldn’t eat any of the gyoza this year, but my friends tried a few kinds. This one, covered in cheese, was the taste winner:
We couldn’t leave without trying Japan’s famous festival food, the “long potato”. It’s mashed potatoes formed into super long fries and deep-fried. They come with all sorts of toppings, but my friends opted for this chocolate sauce + sprinkles version:
If you like sweet and salty, this is good!
There were lots of other snack vendors there, including karaage (fried chicken), baked sweet potatoes, crepes, cakes, drinks, and more. I had a hard time finding something I could eat until I stumbled upon a strawberry daifuku stall. It’s mochi (pounded rice cake) with sweet bean paste and a strawberry inside! I love these things, and this stall had all kinds of flavors. I may have gone back more than once!
This year, the organizers were clever and put the handmade market stalls inside the venue (they were outside last year), so we wandered around and did a little shopping between bowls of ramen.
I have to say, the “eco-stations” (trash/recycling spots) this year were bigger and better than ever. Festivals like this generate a lot of waste due to people trying so many different foods and everything coming in disposable containers. But there were places to recycle just about everything.
I was a bit sad as we left the park in the dark, looking at all the Christmas lights everywhere. It was a tough feeling knowing that this was my last ramen expo for the foreseeable future. I love this festival and get so jazzed about it every December! I’m looking forward to visiting again someday and seeing even more improvements, and checking more off my poster.
Until we meet again, Ramen Expo!
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