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If food plays an important part in your travels, then this Japan Food Trips series is for you. My mission is to take you on a culinary journey with me throughout the country, trying out some of the local specialties each prefecture has to offer, while checking out some famous sightseeing spots.
For this very first article, we dive into the culinary world of Osaka, often cited as the food capital of Japan. As we mentioned in our Top 5 Things to Do in Osaka video, food plays a big part in visiting the city, historically known as "kuidaoremachi" or "eat until you drop town" in Japanese.
Starting the Day at Osaka Castle
I started the day very early in Osaka and headed to one of the city's most popular attractions: Osaka Castle. With the castle keep opening only a few hours later, the castle grounds were very quiet and relaxing to stroll through.
It was then that it started: the growling in my stomach. I was hungry, and it was time for breakfast. Located near the castle is Jo-Terrace, an area where you can find many cafes and shops. Because of how early it was, all the shops were closed, however it seems like a very good option if you are feeling hungry while visiting Osaka Castle.
I had asked a local the day before what were some of Osaka's famous sweet foods and the answer came up pretty quickly: cheesecake. It turned out the most popular Osaka cheesecake maker had a shop near my next destination, Tennoji station.
Fluffy Breakfast in Tennoji
Following a 13 minute train ride from the castle to Tennoji, I headed to the small Rikuro Ojisan No Cheesecake (or Uncle Rikuro's Cheesecake) shop located in front of the JR ticket gates inside Tennoji Station.
There, the cheesecake is famous for being Yakitate (or freshly baked), very fluffy and cheap, with one big cake costing less than 700 yen. Arriving at the shop, I was shocked to discover there were no more left, but with the ring of a bell, a full batch of 6 freshly baked cheesecakes came right out of the oven looking delicious and hot. While lining up with other customers to get my cake, I was amused to see the staff use a hot brand to print the shop's logo on the bouncy cakes.
I headed to a bench in the nearby Tennoji Park to eat and was not disappointed with the delicious cake. It was very filling and had a very fluffy texture to it. At the bottom were dried raisins, which added a nice sweet and tangy flavor.
Since the cheesecake is meant to serve 4-5 people and can be kept for 3 days, I decided to keep the rest for later and headed on to the second sightseeing spot of the day: Abeno Harukas.
Astonishing Views at Abeno Harukas
Standing at 300 meters high, the tallest building in Japan, Abeno Harukas, has the largest department store and offers some of the best panoramic views of Osaka. After a very fast elevator ride up to the top, I arrived at Harukas 300 and was genuinely surprised by how breathtaking the 360 degree view was.
Kushikatsu Lunch in Namba
When it comes to popular Osaka specialties, kushikatsu can definitely be counted as one. Kushikatsu consists of various fried foods on sticks. They can be combined with different sauces, and usually the chef will keep on serving you until you say "stop". This sounded like the perfect lunch to me.
I made my way to Kushinobo, a popular kushikatsu restaurant in the Namba district, which opened in 1950, to try out a multitude of fried delicacies.
The atmosphere in the shop felt like frozen in time, with lots of objects very reminiscent of an ancient era. I sat down at the counter, facing a giant tengu mask, which seemed to judge my conception of a healthy diet.
The chef then proceeded to serve me kushikatsu on a plate in front of me one at a time, and all of them were absolutely delicious, crispy and fresh. The skewers ranged from vegetables such as asparagus, to seafood with oysters, shrimps, and meat with some Kobe Beef. Some were meant to be dipped in sauces, others sprinkled with lime, while some were meant to be eaten as is. Not knowing what will be coming next makes kushikatsu a very exciting meal to enjoy. After a few dozens of skewers, I realized I still had to save some space for later, since my day of food travelling was not over yet, so I informed the chef that I was done. I left feeling very satisfied and with a stomach full of delicious fried goodness.
100 Year Old Curry in Namba
As I was making my way towards my next destination, Kuromon Market, a shop caught my eye. Jiyuken Curry, a very popular curry shop, has been serving the same curry recipe ever since it opened in 1910. I decided to give it a try.
The inside was small, fully packed with locals, and a mouth-watering smell of curry was embalming the air. The very busy waitresses showed me my seat, and without looking at the menu I asked for their Meibutsu Curry (or "famous curry"). Before I had the time to drink my glass of water, the plate was already in front of me and it looked like no other curry I had tried before.
Raw egg might seem like a dangerous thing to eat, however in Japan they are very common, safe and delicious. The dish was extremely savory, the chunks of meat and the gooeyness of the egg creating a delicious addition to the spicy flavors of the rice. I devoured the meal in less than 5 minutes, and as I took the bill to go pay at the cashier desk, I realized in shock that a bottle of sauce meant as a topping to the curry was there all the time next to me. The sauce which looked like Worcestershire sauce is apparently made in house, and just like the curry, its recipe hasn't changed since 1910. What a shame that I didn't get to try it! Fortunately, this gave me a reason to come again.
Hunting for Dessert in Kuromon Market
Markets in Japan are an amazing thing to experience. Between the beautiful produce on the stalls, the street foods, and vendors shouting to attract customers, there are a dizzying number of things to see, smell, taste. Kuromon Market, located not far from Namba Parks, also known as "the kitchen of Osaka" is a very popular market with a nice variety of shops and stalls. The street food looked amazing, some of the shops were grilling oysters or scallops on the spot for people to enjoy, others were grilling hot takoyaki or preparing fresh tuna sashimi.
Since I was pretty full from the kushikatsu and curry, I settled for something sweet, and decided to try a stick of midarashidango, grilled mochi (or rice cakes) dipped in a sweet soy sauce. The subtle flavor of the rice cake in contrast with the sweetness of the sauce made for the perfect dessert.
After this it was time for a digestive rest, so I walked to the Namba Parks shopping center to enjoy a quick break. Made to resemble a natural canyon, Namba Parks is a great place to walk around, and with more than 160 shops, it is an ideal spot for shopping or to have a coffee break. I went to the top floor terrasse to sit down for a few minutes before heading to another of Osaka's landmarks: Shinsekai.
Hot Takoyaki in Shinsekai
With the Tsutenkaku Tower overlooking the district, the flashy and highly decorated shop signs, the multitude of food samples exposed on the stalls, walking through Shinsekai feels like being in a food-themed amusement park.
Shinsekai is famous for kushikatsu, but since I had already eaten a dozen of them for lunch, I decided to try out some takoyaki. Takoyaki was created in Osaka in 1935 and has since become one of its most popular dishes. These ball-shaped snacks are filled with a piece of diced octopus and are topped with a sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise and shavings of dried bonito. I lined up to what seemed like a popular shop and bought a plate of eight freshly cooked takoyaki.
Freshly made means they are absolutely piping hot. The inside was very creamy and close to what felt like lava temperature, and the piece of octopus was extremely soft and tasty. Takoyaki is a great street food dish to enjoy any time of the year, and I would definitely recommend to try it during a trip to Osaka.
Okonomiyaki Dinner in Dotonbori
As the sun was slowly setting down, it was time to reach my final destination for the day, Osaka's most popular tourist spot, Dotonbori. With its hundreds of restaurants and their flashing neon signs, steaming street food stalls, giant mechanized signs and screens, the whole street feels like taken right out of a movie like Blade Runner. I approached via the Dotonbori canal, taking the opportunity to snap a picture of the famous running Glico man screen, before making my way to the last restaurant of my journey, a three stories high shop named Takohachi, which serves Takoyaki on its first floor for passersby, and serves Okonomiyaki on its second and third floor.
Although it was originally a dish from Tokyo (one of the first and oldest Okonomiyaki restaurant still in activity opened in 1938 in Tokyo), Okonomiyaki restaurant chains opening in Osaka in the 70s helped popularize the dish and make it one of the city's specialties. Okonomiyaki is basically a batter mixed with various ingredients cooked on a griddle, and topped with a thick sauce, mayonnaise, shavings of dried bonito and aonori (dried seaweed). In Japanese, Okonomiyaki can be translated to "to your liking", so after sitting down at the counter, I decided to do that, order an okonomiyaki "just to my liking". I ordered the shop's double pork and egg okonomiyaki, apparently one of their most popular dishes.
The okonomiyaki did not disappoint. It was thick, filled with delicious ingredients and topped with a perfectly cooked egg. I watched the dried shaves of bonito dance in the heat, devoured the meal before calling it a day and head back to my hotel, with half a cheesecake in my bag and a full stomach. Gochisosama deshita*!
*Usually said after a meal is finished, meaning "thank you for the feast".
By Charles Sabas, japan-guide.com