Part 2 of my tight-arse Japan food adventure took place in Osaka and Kyoto… but mainly Osaka. I fell in love with Osaka. And our love story was made sweeter by the fact that it was completely unexpected. Osaka is the third largest city in Japan, but unlike Tokyo which is full of its own charms and attractions, it is mainly used as a hub to nearby cities like Kyoto, Nara and Kobe.
Kyoto is usually the people’s favourite, but Osaka won my heart through my stomach. I didn’t realise this until I arrived (because I planned my itinerary around sightseeing, not eating) but Osaka is the food capital of Japan. You don’t need a guide book to tell you this – it’s obvious as soon as you enter the Dotonbori district and are greeted by the giant crab.
And the giant gyoza.
And all the other giant food-themed billboards that line the main strip of downtown Dotonbori.
I visited Osaka and Kyoto during cherry blossom season, hiking Mount Yoshino and its 30,000 blossom trees, strolling the fairy-tale like Philosopher’s Path, and walking through thousands of bright-red gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. But to me, the highlight of the whole trip was Dotonbori, which is probably one of the most vibrant food districts in the world. It is literally buzzing with the sizzle of teppans, the blasting music of pachinko parlors and skill-tester arcades, the hungry footsteps of curious tourists and the enthusiasm of spruikers trying to get you into their restaurant.
I could have spent days there… but I had sadly only planned one night in Osaka so I needed a strategy as to how I was going to make the most of it.
I asked my travel companion, my little brother, what he wanted to eat for dinner. He wanted sushi but I was like… “No! We’re in Osaka! We need to eat Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki and other local specialites” To which he replied “Yeah, we can eat those too. Let’s just eat a little bit of everything.”
Genius idea. Filled me with sisterly pride.
So we found a random sushi train first and limited ourselves to three dishes.
Tuna roll (350 Yen)
Seared salmon (200 Yen)
Classic salmon with salmon roe (350 Yen)
Not the most adventurous of choices, but we were starving and just wanted to eat something delicious and reliable. Which it was – you can tell how high quality the fish was just by looking at the photos. So it’s true that the sushi at any random sushi train in Japan is better than even the most high-end restaurants anywhere else in the world. Sushi is indeed an art, and the Japanese are the original masters.
It was really really hard to stop at three, but I needed to stay focused. This was only the appetiser.
Next, Osaka’s signature dishes…
Osaka is famous for these little squid balls and they are EVERYWHERE. I did do some research to try to find the best takoyaki in Osaka, but as I mentioned in my previous post, the little restaurants were impossible to find. So we just picked a popular-looking cart with a long line.
Takoyaki can be a bit doughy at times, but in Osaka they make it with huge chunks of cooked octopus leg resulting in a much tastier meat to batter ratio.
Our much anticipated street snack – hot off the grill! Covered in sauce and huge moving fish flakes (hence the blurry photo). I think this was around 500 Yen. Very tasty, but not that different from the takoyaki I’ve had in Korea, or even in street markets in Sydney. Maybe we chose the wrong cart… I was tempted to buy another six balls from a different vendor but we didn’t have the stomach space to spare.
And now it was time for Takoyaki’s older cousin, Okonomiyaki. We walked into a restaurant called Creo Ru, which is more famous for its takoyaki, but I figured it’s Okonomiyaki couldn’t be too bad.
Each table had it’s own teppan… I hear that at some restaurants, they actually make the okonomiyaki at your table but here the dishes were all prepared in the kitchen. I guess the teppan helps keeps things warm?
Thought some Suntory beer would help wash down my Japanese pancake.
Okonomiyaki literally translates to “what you like, grilled”, so I think the approach is “put all your favourite ingredients in a batter, mix it, and fry it”. I don’t even know what was included in our pancake – there were a few different options on the menu and I think we chose the one that was equivalent to ordering a pizza with “the works”.
My guess is chicken, pork, seafood and a variety of vegetables? Definitely not the simple and sophisticated Japanese style of food we’re used to, but this sort-of pancake, sort-of omelette, sort-of deep-dish pizza has its own, humble appeal. This was around 1,000 Yen, but I’m sure you can get it cheaper from street vendors or smaller restaurants.
The other notable thing I ate in Osaka was from a little restaurant down the road from our Air BnB apartment.
Handmade tamago bukkake udon (around 400 Yen). I had this for breakfast both mornings I was in Osaka – fresh noodles, chopped scallion, raw egg, tempura flakes and a tablespoon of rich soy sauce (with a korokke on the side). So simple and perfect and delicious – totally worth the salmonella risk. I’m used to my udon being served in soup or stir-fried but I now know that udon is at its best when simply covered in a gooey, salty, egg-soy sauce. I know this won’t be the same with store-bought noodles, but I’m going to try to replicate it at home.
Now moving on to Kyoto… which has much to see and do if you’re looking for nature, culture and history but very little to offer in terms of food. Everything is so touristy, which means it’s expensive and of low to average quality. If I had hundreds to spend on a Kyoto ryori course meal, I’m sure it would have been amazing, but our budget didn’t allow for that.
What you will find amongst the temples and palaces are tea-houses, some even offering a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Though these seemed like tourist traps, I couldn’t leave Kyoto without trying some Japanese matcha, so on our last day, we found a lovely modern-style cafe called Ten, on the road leading down from Kiyomizu temple.
Ten is also a gift shop that sells hand-made and hand-painted paper goods, well worth a visit if you can find it amongst the frantic crowds and souvenir shops of the area.
We ordered a roasted tea set – which included a pot of Hojicha and three traditional sweets. The green tea jelly was my favourite. The Hojicha was lovely too – made from roasting tea leaves and stems over high heat, resulting in a tea that is low in caffeine and has a really gentle flavour with none of the bitterness of a typical green tea.
I chose a less traditional green tea latte, which came with a cute little fabric cup holder and a matcha whisk. Larger versions of these whisks are used in the traditional method of brewing matcha as it creates a layer of froth. I’m not sure exactly why matcha needs to be frothy, but I guess all beverages are more fun with a little bit of froth on top.
We really wanted to eat sushi one more time before we left Japan, so we managed to find a place downtown with pretty decent reviews on TripAdvisor called Musashi.
I didn’t take any pictures of the sushi because it wasn’t worth photographing… this was one of those every plate for 130 Yen sushi trains and the quality of the sushi reflected the price. Also, it was a bit like a sushi roulette because the chefs were really rough and inconsistent with the amount of wasabi they included in each nigiri. Kind of contradicts my above theory about sushi trains in Japan… but this didn’t stop us from eating around 20 plates between us. Only 130 Yen per plate! We went to town.
For our final meal in Japan, we wanted to try some ramen. Lucky for us, on the tenth floor of Kyoto Station we found Kyoto Ramen Koji – a food court of eight ramen restaurants that each specialises in a particular regional style. Because we had a train to catch, this time we had to chooose the place with the shortest line.
It’s a pretty cool concept if you’re a ramen lover but don’t have the time or the money to travel around Japan to try all the different types. The food court is styled like a traditional Japanese street, with wooden store fronts decorated with red lanterns and noren curtains.
The restaurant we chose turned out to be Hakata Ikkousha, a franchise that seems to be very popular in Singapore and Indonesia. Prices are decent too with most ramen under 1,000 Yen.
We both had the “Special” which was a very thin noodle with mild broth, in a bowl completely lined with thinly sliced pork. It looks almost sickeningly heavy, but the thin noodles were so light and easy to eat.
And finally, some karage chicken. One the closest things I’ve experienced to PERFECT fried chicken. Batter was crispy and full of flavor, and the meat was so tender and juicy. This, of all things. was what my brother liked most out of all the food we ate in Japan.
If were to do Kansai again, I would stay in Osaka as a base and do day trips to the surrounding areas just so I could eat something new in Dotonbori every single night. Actually – that’s what you should do. I’ve already seen the sights – I’ll just stay in Osaka and eat all day and night. Only a short plane ride away – I hope to be back soon!