Tokyo and Osaka – I always consider myself a “Tokyo person”. Yet, the food in these two places has some differences. Everything that could be found (or be seen) is in Tokyo, and the reason that I visited Osaka was because of its proximity to Kyoto, as the entire Kansai area is mainly served by the Kansai International airport.
I have been to Osaka a couple of times, but weirdly I had yet to develop a strong feeling toward this city. Maybe Osaka was overshadowed by the historic Kyoto, or my “bias” toward Tokyo was too strong; while in fact, Osaka offers some awesome attractions and great shopping areas. Until recently I landed at the Kansai airport, yet again, I finally had a newfound excitement when I got lost under the neon lights in Umeda, and this time when I left, I knew that I will be back, if not sooner.
The Kansai region lies in the southern-central region of Japan’s main island Honshu. In general, the region includes seven to ten prefectures, and the urban region of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto (a.k.a. Keihanshin Region) is the second most populated area in Japan, with numerous traditional and historic sites, countless shopping malls, world-class entertainment, and theme park, and much more to offer. Of course, many of my great memories in the area, not quite surprisingly, are linked with food. The nice thing about traveling in Japan is, each place has its own specialty, its niche that a visitor couldn’t find in other places in the country that make traveling in Japan is not a one-time thing; and as important as the Keihanshin Region, the area offers a lot of wonderful cuisines that make it a giant spot on the traveling food atlas.
Umeda: Immerse yourself in the underground maze
If you want to put your sense of direction to the test, try the underground of Umeda. The Umeda underground mall is a maze connecting not only department stores but also several metro and train stations in one of the busiest areas in the city. Lines of shops, restaurants, and supermarkets (which almost look the same to me), are on both sides of the tunnel, which make it even more confusing (and distracting) for me to go back to the ground; not to mention the troops of army-like business people that flooded me every two minutes as they were rushing for, or just got out of a train.
With the help of Google Map, which was actually separated by layers as I zoomed in, I was trying to locate Key coffee in a supermarket at 7:50 pm, as I was helping a friend to purchase drip on coffee and coffee beans, but in vain. Luckily, I found a nice old man who took me to the shop at the exact 7:59 pm, and I could finally relax from my panic mode.
You might think I exaggerated but there’s a reason for it in the books. First, Umeda is still undergoing a lot of construction projects and the entire area is expanding and ever-changing.
East and West Umeda, metro stations, and new malls like Grand Front Osaka, were also connected to the underground mall with tunnels and even a local would get lost in a heartbeat.
Secondly, recently I read a book about Osaka that Umeda was not the first choice of building the JR station – it was a backup location with lots of protests against having the station built at Dojima, the original location. In the end, the train station was built on Umeda diagonally to the city’s grid street plan, due to the direction of the rails. As a result, the buildings were in a different direction that makes the road plan and tunnel design more complicated. Anyway, once I took a deep breath and calm down from the “trauma”, the shopping and dining experience was fabulous. In fact, I could spend days in the area shopping and eat. Looking at the signage of Grand Front Osaka, I almost entered another panic – how could it be so big?
Tempura: 芦屋天がゆ Ashiya Tengayu
With a recommendation from a friend, I found the best place for Tempura in LUCUA, a department store connected with JR Osaka’s North Gate. My friend was right! The food there was excellent and I have never tasted anything like it at a very reasonable price. The highlight was a Codfish Tempura that was so fresh and juicy.
芦屋天がゆ(Ashiya Tengayu) location: 10/F, ルクア大阪 LUCUA
Dotombori & Shinsaibashi: Shopping and eating day and night
While many shops and department stores in Japan close at 7 or 8 pm, Shinsaibashi never sleeps. At night, Dotombori-Dori is ablaze with neon lights and the symbolic Glico Running Man billboard would be lit until midnight.
Shop like Don Quixote is where you want to be. Don Quixote or the locals like to call it “Donki”, as charming as its name, is a discount chain store that carries a vast array of goodies from groceries, snacks, cosmetics, electronics, and clothing. These stores work late (some even 24-hours), and a lot of interesting products could be found in good value.
Don Quixote locations: http://www.donki.com/en/
After an evening (or even a day) of a shopping spree in Shinsaibashi and Dotombori, I couldn’t feel my legs anymore and my stomach was growling in protest. Luckily, the area also offers a selection of local comfort food.
A warm and savory Japanese pancake always perks up my appetite, it’s called okonomiyaki. okonomiyaki is Japanese cuisine mainly associated with the Kansai region and Hiroshima. “okonomi”, in Japanese, means “however you like it”; the restaurants, therefore, offer the liberty for diners to select the toppings which include bacon, octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, Konjac, mocha, noodles, and more. Explore the alleys in Dotombori-Bashi where you could find a lot of local joints that serve authentic and cheap okonomiyaki. Watch they are grilled in front of your eye until perfection. If you don’t know what to do, the servers would be happy to assist.
Takoyaki, more commonly known as octopus balls, is a Japanese snack that could be seen anywhere in the world these days. In fact, this snack gained popularity from an Osaka street vendor, Tomekichi Endo, who was credited as the inventor of this amazing food. So it would only make sense that the world’s Takoyaki could be found in Osaka. True, there are lots of Takoyaki stores on the side of the road, especially in Dotombori-Bashi. Which one to go to? Well, just follow the crowd, look for the queues, and they will take you there. The following map showcased some must-try places in Osaka!
Ramen: 一蘭 Ichiran
With such a variety and competition, Ichiran Ramen managed to make the cut and stand out from the crowd. Ichiran Ramen specialized in Tonkotsu Ramen, and it originated in Fukuoka (well, Kyushu, the paradise of Ramen). Customers are served in an individual booth, and the food was put out behind the curtain. In other words, you do not see the server (or your friend) which is quite an “innovative” dining experience. Ichiran Ramen Dotombori opens 24-hour but sometimes a queue could be seen outside the restaurant day and night.
一蘭 Ichiran locations: https://en.ichiran.com/shop/
Crab: かに道楽 Kani Doraku
Across the busy Ebisu bridge in the hub of Dotombori-Bashi, there’s a giant mechanical red crab that visitors could hardly miss. Welcome to Kani Doraku (original). Kani Doraku has become a restaurant chain that could be found all over the country, but everything began here in Dotombori. The restaurant specializes in crabs, and they have crab dishes in a hot pot, barbeque, grilled, or even raw. If you are too full to have a full meal, or you forgot to make a reservation, try to buy a take-out charcoal grilled crab legs at the booth at the entrance of the restaurant as a midnight snack. I still remember the sweet juicy tastes of how the crab legs were.
かに道楽 Kani Doraku locations: http://douraku.co.jp.e.at.hp.transer.com/
Nipponbashi: So, here is where the locals are
Most tourists come visit Osaka and hang out in commercial districts like Shinsaibashi and Umeda, Nippobasihi is where the locals going. It is a shopping district centered along Sakaisuji Avenue. Nipponbashi is known for its many shops which specialize in furniture, tools, and “otaku” interests such as electronics, anime, manga, and collectibles.
Sashimi: Kuromon Food Market
I love Sashimi – Delicious, rich in omega 3, and oh, so juicy. Nice sashimi could be thousands of yen in the city center. But not there, Kuromon market, a spacious food market with vendors selling street food, fresh produce, seafood, and so much more. As we were wandering in between the covered streets I finally realized this is where the locals come to search for fresh ingredients for making dinner. This is where I could find giant leeks, asparagus, spring onions, and all sorts of Japanese vegetables selling at a valuable price. Even if you are too tired to cook, you could simply pick out your favorite seafood and ingredients and bring them to a nearby restaurant and have them prepare the perfect meal for you!
Shinsekai & Tennoji: passing through the time machine
Shinsekai literally means “new world”, which is nothing new but old. Shinsekai is an old neighborhood created in 1912 as a theme park that closed down in 12 years of operation. Since then, it had become the poorest and most dangerous district in Osaka until its redevelopment. Today, Shinsekai is an area with a colorful history and unique identity. Old shops and traditional things can be found here, like the chess house, traditional toy stores, and old-fashioned Pachinko shops, and of course, the mascot, Billiken. Although Billiken was created by an American art teacher in Missouri, it was left behind and enshrined in Shinsekai when it was brought to Luna Park as a symbol of Americana. Legend has it that it brought good luck to those scratches on the sole of Billiken.
Fugu: づぼらや Zuboraya
Am I going to do this? I asked myself again as I was waiting for the food in Zuboraya, an expert for Fugu-ryori. Fugu is pufferfish and it is a special cuisine in Japan. Since the tetrodotoxin in the pufferfish is lethal, some might think you would consider trying this cuisine if you have a death wish. So, was I risking it? Hmmm, Fugu dish is prepared and served by experienced and qualified chefs here in Zuboraya, and only chefs who had rigorous training for three or more years were allowed to prepare Fugu dishes for customers. So I have confidence in them, and I ended up safe and sound. Was it worth trying? Hmmm, everything is worth trying if you have never tried it, and honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference between chicken and pufferfish if I was in a blind test.
づぼらや Zuboraya locations: http://www.zuboraya.co.jp/
Cafe: サンミ Sangmi
If you want to eat healthy and happy, there are lots of nice cafes in Osaka and Sangmi is one of those places. Abeno is a local neighborhood with lots of traditional alleys and design boutiques; and the new skyscraper, Abeno Harukas, is named the tallest building in Japan; The top floor of the building is an observatory that offers an unobstructed view of the entire Kansai Region. After exploring the area, enjoy a healthy lunch in Sangmi, which serves tasty organic dishes and their food is gaining popularity among the locals.
サンミ Sangmi locations: http://sangmi.jp/abeno.html
Souffle pancake: 幸せのパンケーキ Shiawase no Pancake
Souffle pancakes have become so popular in Japan right now somehow I fell into one of those “I have to have it” conundrums. I love, love, love waffles but I am not quite a sweet tooth for cakes and desserts. I also don’t want to push my sugar level which I tried desperately to avoid. After my first bite, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t come at all.
Japanese are really the experts of bakeries. The fluffy pancakes are so rich yet light, tasty yet not too sweet, satisfying yet not overwhelming… I sat there bite after bite I finished the entire dish and simply could stop myself, and I felt like I had just eaten three clouds….
幸せのパンケーキ Shiawase no Pancake locations: http://magia.tokyo/shop
It’s like eating three clouds… on a sunny day, so good 🙂