O-sa-KA! O(h) we’d like to return. A realization we came to while there. Japan’s culinary capital, the country’s rebel, Osaka is an exclamation of colour, a city calling out, “Stay longer! Come Back!”
Osaka was the finale on our three-week trip to Japan. For two nights we slept at the T’Point Hotel, a place we’d happily return to, now called The Hotel Grandee. Each room is decorated in a specific style, a result of collaborating with local artists; in ours (212) the wall mural behind our bed lit up. More spacious than the average Japanese hotel, it’s quiet, low key and well-priced. And in a great location—two train stations within a five-minute walk and near Osaka’s most famous street, Dōtonbori.
Osaka is so fond of its food that locals have come up with the expression kuidaore (to eat oneself bankrupt). It may take a few days to deplete your savings on Dōtonbori, renowned for its street food and carnival atmosphere rather than Michelin-starred restaurants.
We loved the Osakan speciality: Okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with shredded cabbage, flour, eggs, pork belly and maybe a handful of shrimp, grilled on an iron plate (sometimes at your table) and topped with a variety of condiments like okonomiyaki sauce, Kewpie mayonnaise, and dried bonito flakes. Okonomi (as you like it) Yaki (grill). You get the drift, add whatever you like: leftover barbecued pork, calamari, scallops, green onions, pickled red ginger, shiso leaves…I began making it at home and for her birthday the year after we returned, we gave Lynn the Japanese fixings for Okonomiyaki. When (if) we return I’d like to give kuidaore a try by eating at restaurants like Kigawa, Sushiyoshi, Honkogetsu…
Another Dōtonbori fast-food specialty is Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) for which Creo-Ru is renowned. And Kushi-katsu (deep fried skewers), sushi and soft ice cream.
The iconic Glico man flashing neon near the Ebisubashi Bridge is the Minami district’s landmark, along with the imposing crab sign of Kani Doraku. Neither an athlete nor a sports ad, Glico man is the symbol of the Glico company that produces the Japanese candy called Pocky. The sign is also known as the 300 metre runner, the distance you need to run to wear off the calories in a Glico caramel bar.
Akin to Vancouver’s Granville Island, Osaka’s Kuromon Ichiba Market is a roof-sheltered melange of mostly seafood, as it has been for centuries. Yes, we did eat deep-fried shrimp at 10 in the morning!
In adjacent streets, vendors of food-related merchandise have set up shop. Who doesn’t need a maple-leaf shaped cookie cutter or the world’s tiniest two-centimetre spatula?
Tenjimbashisuji is one of the longest shopping streets in Japan, appealing more to pre-jubilados with its girly fashions, chain stores and dizzying cacophony of pop music and colour. Tachibana-dori (Orange Street), with its one-of-a-kind shops, we found much more appealing.
At Takashimaya, one of Japan’s exquisite department stores—reason enough to return to Osaka and only ten minutes from The Hotel Grandee—we ogled for a few hours over sweets delightfully packaged, clothing by Japanese designers, porcelain bowls the price of a Toyota.
My favourite shop was Himie, located in Michikusa, a beautifully restored old building housing a dozen or so small shops: Moto Coffee, Lisette, Yumiko Iihoshi Porcelain, Folk Old Book Store, The Linen Bird…
We need to return to see the area’s architectural exclamations. Osaka is where Tadao Ando pencilled sketches for his first building before becoming one of the world’s leading architects. However, his Perfectural Sayamaike Museum, a memorial to the engineers who brought irrigation to the region, a temple of cascading water, concrete and light, is an hour’s train ride out of Osaka. And one of his signature works, the Church of the Light, is 25 kilometres away in the small town of Ibaraki, and only open to the public by reservation on Wednesdays. There wasn’t even time to see the Tower of the Sun sculpture. But we did admire the National Museum of Art, which Osakans call the submarine.
To truly discover a city, one must be a flaneur, difficult for a hyper-organized list-driven traveller like me. Apologies again to my fellow travellers for wasting time in seeking out Winged Wheel, a stationery store.
One of our delights came from flaneuring around the corner from the hotel. Well not exactly; we were bar-seeking. You won’t find the Vanguard Bar in any guidebooks but we loved it. Our best happy accident was lunch at a small sushi shop (a dozen counter seats) somewhere between our hotel and Takashimaya. I dream, still, of their sushi, the temperature of the rice warm as the chef’s hand, its seasoning perfect, the texture of the fish firm and shiny, the the product of a master.
Osaka’s origins go back to the 5th century when the area was the entry port into Japan from Korea, China and other Asian countries. It became the economic and political heart of Japan, and with the rise of Buddhism, such a thriving international metropolis that in 645, Emperor Kotoku moved the capital to Osaka. When the Tokugawa clan seized control of the country, the capital moved to Edo, present-day Tokyo. After a fire nearly razed the city to the ground, Osaka quickly rose from the ashes to once again become an economic metropolis. The city was called the tenka no daitokoro (kitchen of the nation), shipping rice and other foodstuff all across Japan. Its economic and entrepreneurial advantages caused Osaka to eschew traditional practices, develop its own unique culture and adopt a more free-spirited attitude.
O-sa-KA! Our kind of place!
“Church of the Light,” ArchDaily.
Himie, the jewelry store.
Macatulad, J.D. “The First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Osaka, Japan.” Will Fly for Food. February 25, 2021.
Osaka Wallpaper City Guide: New York: Phaidon, 2014.