Did you know that Osaka has more Michelin stars than Paris? And that it is the birthplace of conveyor-belt sushi and ramen? From the high end to the low end, Osaka has a lot to offer in the culinary sense.
Why am I talking about Osaka? After a couple of painful last-minute changes of itinerary, my husband and I decided to start our Asian trip in this southern Japanese city at the heart of the densely-populated Kansai region. It’s not the most obvious first stop for a Japan virgin, but, with the sudden realization that Tokyo and Mount Fuji would have to wait for the next trip, I decided to embrace this alternate destination and all it had to offer. Osaka, I figured, was still better than no Japan at all.
But first, let’s try to set the scene: Osaka is far from being the most picturesque part of Japan, which is partly explained by the density of its population and the need to optimize the use of space. Also, a large part of the city was bombed during World War II and quickly rebuilt after the war to accommodate the population. But the city carries a strong identity and a rich and dynamic culture, shaped by shintoist and buddhist traditions as well as by an amazing capacity to reinvent itself.
We stayed in the flamboyant Dotonbori district, a nightlife hub with its shops, restaurants and Pachinko parlors. It reminded me of Times Square, but bigger, louder and tackier (if that’s even possible). The streets are saturated with neon signs and bring massive waves of young people ready to party, shop and gamble. But sometimes, even in the middle of the bustle, you make a detour onto a quieter street to find tucked away amid the chaos a little shrine, a gem of the past that makes you forget about the ambient confusion and the noise of the city.
In such an overwhelming urban area, the need to escape to calmer places was strong, but unfortunately, parks and open spaces were rare. We managed to find some quiet on the grounds of Osaka Castle and at the oldest Buddhist Temple in Japan, Shitennoji. And we found unexpected respite at Namba Parks, a unique 8-level rooftop park.
‘Kuiadore’: Eat until you drop…
Every meal we had in Osaka was amazing, from the typical Japanese breakfast at our hotel (rice pudding, grilled fish, miso soup, tofu, fermented soy beans…) to the bowl of ramen enjoyed in a small eatery in a train station, or the delicious okonomiyaki we tried at a popular restaurant in Dotonbori.
The Japanese word kuiadore means “to ruin oneself with extravagance in food” and is part of a traditional proverb that says: “Dress (in kimonos) until you drop in Kyoto, eat until you drop in Osaka”. And that was all the permission we needed to stuff ourselves.
Osaka is known for its food, and if there’s one thing you should absolutely try while you are there, it’s the local street food specialty takoyaki, or fried octopus balls. It’s surprisingly good: crispy on the outside with a gooey wheat flour-based batter made with diced octopus, green onions and spices inside. It is served piping hot, covered with ponzu (soy sauce with dashi and vinegar) and dried bonito flakes. The way they make it in a cast-iron griddle with half-spherical molds is fascinating: the takoyaki are furiously flipped with a pick so that the uncooked batter is at the base of the rounded cavity where it is cooked at a very high temperature. There seem to be a couple of places in Seattle where I can find takoyaki, and I can’t wait to try them!
Japan is matcha paradise
For all the cooks out there, if there is one thing I would recommend bringing back from Japan, it’s matcha powder. I love baking with it, but its price here in the States makes it a luxury good that I try to use sparingly and end up not using as often as I would like. The matcha powder I found in Japan is 7 to 10 times cheaper than what I’ve seen in the States. 40g for less than 4 dollars: Where can you find a better price?
As a matcha fan, each time I spotted a green baked good or sweet you can be sure that I tried it: matcha and chocolate cake, matcha mochi filled with red bean paste (my favorite!), matcha pudding, matcha jelly and… matcha Kit Kats and Oreos! To my husband’s consternation, I tried everything, happy to discover new flavor palettes. What I love about Japanese pastries is that they’re not overly sweet and they use ingredients that are largely unfamiliar to my Western palate. Mochi, for example, is made with glutinous rice flour and filled with jelly, paste or ice cream; warabimochi, a jelly dessert, is rolled in soybean flour; and dorayaki, a sort of thick pancake, is filled with red bean paste…
Everything is perfectly designed and beautiful to look at, almost too beautiful to eat. And if you go to a nice bakery, they will pack it with thick, colorful paper, the kind you only use for gifts. That’s when the pleasure of the palate meets the pleasure of the eyes…
I think I’ve never seen food so colourful and strangely shaped, and I’ll certainly have a closer look at Japanese baking recipes in the future.
Sushi expedition at the fish market
Without a doubt the culinary highlight of our stay, Endo Sushi is a small restaurant located in the city fish market where the sushi is made with the day’s freshest produce and sold at an affordable price. Each 5-piece maze (set) cost about 1,000 yen (less than $10). The cuts were generous, and the quantity of rice was on the small side (which I personally prefer, since it’s all about the fish). A nice surprise is that you don’t dip your nigiri into the soy sauce but rather apply it with a brush. This makes it easier to get the soy on the fish instead of the rice.
Endo is a bit off the beaten path, but with the aid of Google Maps and this helpful blog post (thank you, dear fellow blogger!), you won’t have any trouble finding it. The place is small, and I’ve read that its gets rather busy around lunch time. The good thing is that it opens at 5 a.m., in keeping with its fish-market location. Since we were still struggling with jetlag (Seattle being 16 hours behind), we had no trouble visiting for breakfast. Yes, sushi makes great breakfast food. Another must on the menu: the clam miso soup, which was rich and wonderfully tasty.
The staff were nice and made an extra effort to commmunicate with us. The sushi master, who must be in his seventies, seemed to come right out of one of those Japanese anime cartoons from the 1980’s, with his rounded white-framed glasses and his traditional wooden platform shoes. He stayed planted on his chair the whole time, checking severely the movements of his staff (and nodding off occasionally…), reminding us a bit of the subject of the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“. When he offered us a smile at the end of our meal, amused by our obvious satisfaction, I felt like I’d been inducted into a secret society of sushi connoisseurs.
Unique drinking experience at Bar Core
This might be the smallest bar in Osaka and among the smallest in the world: There are no seats, and only seven or eight people can comfortably stand, including the bartender. And if you don’t drink whisky, you won’t be drinking here.
It takes a bit of courage to enter, and I would recommend avoiding it if you have claustrophobic tendencies. The space is so small and narrow that private conversations are almost impossible, or at least impolite. Try to imagine us, with our 10 words of Japanese, sidling up to the bar on a Sunday night: Keep in mind that once you step through the door, it’s already too late to change your mind. When we entered, conversation ceased and 3 pairs of eyes glanced warily in our direction; stepping back would have been more awkward than staying. On the other hand, knowing that this place has been featured in The New York Times’ “36 hours” series, we figured the bartender must be used to greeting unwitting foreign tourists who, like us, stumble in and try to quickly assess whether to stay or flee. We stayed.
Following the NYT recomendation, my husband ordered a glass of Hibiki, an intense, award-winnning 17-year-old blend. I decided to go for something else and tried to explain it to the bartender, in a combination of English and signs. One of the two clients came to my rescue and pointed at what he was drinking: A 12-year-old single malt that happened to be very smooth. I mumbled a thank you in Japanese and tried to disappear into my drink. Fortunately, the other client had studied a little bit of English in high school and engaged in conversation with us. And, one thing leading to another, and with the alcohol helping, we ended singing some songs, in French, by Michel Polnareff, famous in France and in Japan too, apparently. This client happened to have all his songs in her iPod.
Shop at Takashimaya
If you want to buy just about anything — from traditional hand-held fans and origami paper to expansive clothing and jewelry — Takashimaya is your temple! We found ourselves inexplicably drawn to this sprawling department store, more than necessary…
My favorite part? The basement food court, which reminded me of the one at Harrods. A perfect place to take a culinary tour of all the Japanese specialties: yakitori, tempura, sushi, ramen, mochi… Buy a few items for your lunch and go eat them at the top of Namba Parks, as we did, for some relative peace and quiet in the middle of the urban craze.
Traveling in Japan can sometimes be intimidating, but don’t forget that when it comes to food, it’s actually pretty easy. Lots of places have window displays with plastic food: Just point at what you want to order and you’ll be served. Easy!
Next stop: Hong Kong. Stay tuned!