Food Porn/ Travel

Osaka, Japan and the cult of the octopus dumpling.

A view down the lively Dotonbori street.

 
Quick travel tips

Compared to the glittery metropolis of Tokyo or the ancient sublimity of Kyoto, it’s easy to forget the more grounded and working class city of Osaka. But that would be a mistake.

The second largest metropolitan area in Japan at over 19 million, Osaka is bursting with welcoming personality and Osakans are well known for their obsession with food. Their fervor for takoyaki, okonomiyaki, udon, and oshizushi (particularly battera), reaches nearly cult like proportions. And I was fortunate enough to sample some for myself.

The city originates at a large bay spreading northward and eastward from the water. It’s divided into two major areas, Kita (the north), and Minami (the south), which is really more to the center. The heart of the city, the Namba District, is in the Minami area, along the Dotonbori river/canal, and the central neighborhood is Dotonbori, a lively district of shops, bars, and restaurants, with a particular flare. Directly north of Dotonbori is a 600m covered shopping street called Shinsaibashi which seems to go on forever.

I decided to stay just north of Dotonbori and to the west of Shinsaibashi in the less congested but still very charming neighborhood of AmeriKamura a few blocks away, an American themed shopping district with lots of bars and restaurants of its own. Dontonbori can be a tad overwhelming.

And though I spent most of my time here in Namba, to the north Kyobashi near Osaka castle is known for great izakaya and to the south Tobita is the city’s red light district.
   

Takoyaki

A typical takoyaki stand. These things are everywhere!

 

Takoyaki are small pan fried octopus dumplings, golden brown on the outside, soft and blisteringly hot on the inside, and usually topped with a sauce and bonito flakes that move and dance from the heat like they were alive. The madness this town seems to have for these things are beyond mascot level, beyond sports team level, almost to a mythical status. Road side takoyaki stands are everywhere with whimsical octopus figures on the outside. Gift shops are filled top to bottom with every sort of takoyaki paraphernalia. They even have takoyaki songs. And yes every store is filled with these mad and joyous odes to octopus dumplings. I even bought two CDs worth. It’s infectious. I can hear them in my head as I type this.

 

Here they are! A little onion, bonito, mayo. They’re blisteringly hot!

 

There are endless stores of takoyaki merch. It’s cute.

 

Takoyaki hot pants? Why not.

 

I own these! Someone figured out takoyaki and hallelujah have the same number of syllables, so just replace old religious songs with octopus dumplings. Genius.

   

Mixed in with the takoyaki socks and keychains you might see images of Kuidaore Taro, a beloved restaurant clown mascot that sumo wrestlers traditionally posed with. Personally I think he looks like a nightmare clown that would stand at the bottom of dark basement stairs whispering to children to come play with him. Rat-a-tat-tatting on his tinny little drum. But hey, who am I to criticize.
 

Who wouldn’t want creepy clown socks? Yikes.

 

So here he is! In all of his murderous clown glory. Bow to Kuidaore Taro!

   

Dotonbori

Unlike Tokyo, Osaka seems to have a firm center. And that center is Dotonbori. Built as an entertainment district in 1621 it once housed 6 kabuki theaters and 5 bunraku theaters but all of them were destroyed during American carpet bombings. The street is flooded with enormous animated neon signs and multi-story three dimensional figures that serve as signs for restaurants and stores. Giant mechanical crabs, looming puffer fish, and cartoonish chefs and dragons line the streets creating an almost amusement park feel. A site to behold that can easily give Shinjuku a run for its money. And for blocks in all directions, covered shopping areas and small alleys packed with stores stretch out daring you to try to explore them all.
 

 

Takoyaki!

 

 

 

Kushikatsu Daruma. These guys were all over the place. Kushikatsu is fried meat or veggies on a stick. I regret not getting to try this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puffer fish joints were everywhere. This is the poisonous fish if not prepared right.

 

 

 

I love ramen joints with ticket machines outside! I have enough machine pics to do their own post. And I will.

 

   

Hozenji Yokocho

Just to the south and running parallel to Dotonbori is a Hozenji Yokocho, a narrow pedestrian alley with more than 60 bars and restaurants. It’s winding traditional atmosphere is a welcome respite from the madness of Dotonbori. I really loved the creative bars and small shrines and temples hidden there. I found a great Jizo shrine and an old Buddhist temple, Hozen-ji, depicting a Fierce Diety of Fury. Locals ask the temple for good luck in business and love and splash water on the statue, which is so covered in deep green moss that it appears to be made from it.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This cute cop was going around giving bike tickets.

 

Bike ticket.

   

Jihi-jizo

 

Hozen-ji Temple

 

Mizukake Fudo. Appearing as Fury, to scare away the bad spirits and demons. Water is splashed on the statue as an offering.

 

 

 

Graveyard in the middle of the city (a few blocks south).

 

Graveyard in the middle of the city (a few blocks south).

   

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is an experience. It’s basically shredded cabbage mixed with eggs and fried into a big pancake and topped with an endless variety of toppings. The food is traditionally cooked on your table, either at a bar with a long continuous griddle, or on a table that’s basically all a big flat griddle. You’re given a sharp short kind of spatula called a kote that you use to cut the thing up into a grid of bite sized pieces. It’s deceptively filling and really really good. Katjia got the traditional kind with otafuku/okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker and sweeter), aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger (beni shoga). I go for the slightly more fancy seafood variety. And a glass of sake that gets overflowed in a little box so that you first finish the glass then the box.
 

You can watch the bonito flakes move in the heat. It looks like it’s alive!

 

Kote

 

 

 

 

Here are some of the options for okonomiyaki. There was a whole book of options.

   

Along with the okonamiyaki there were countless places to try. Ramen joints everywhere, meat-on-a-stick, even this interesting “cheeseburger” joint that was more like Salisbury steak. Funny story. In the next pic, the thing on the table there that looks like a rock. Turns out no one will come to your table until you press the white spot on that rock. After about 30-40 minutes watching everyone around me order and get their food, I was fuming. But realized that that thing was a button. Doh! I guess this is a common thing there.
 

I think this button was a bit too subtle.

 

My burger with cheese.

 

 

Ramen! It’s polite to finish the whole bowl. I got the small. I’m a noodle light weight.

 

Meat-on-a-stick! Lots of these places around. One of each please!

 

Alcohol vending machine. Love these things. Who has freedom?

 

Pepsi Strong Extra Zero! I can’t figure out what this is supposed to be but I had to have one!

   

Dontobori at night

At night Dontobori is transformed by the enormous animated billboards. The canal running through the center is a reflecting pool of bright lights and endless strings of lanterns. Boat tours putter by and the crowds mingle late into the night. While I was there one screen played an endless repeat of a commercial that seemed pretty racist to me featuring some cartoonish but live action African tribesmen. Along the water the Glico running man sign races on.
 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Other parts of the city

Beyond Dotonbori the city spreads out in every direction. I walked for miles and everywhere I went had amazing surprises; host and hostess bars, interesting portals into underground clubs, quirky food spots, and the same dense vertical layering of businesses that I found a little intimidating in Tokyo. Here are just a few pics I snapped while walking around.
 

A takoyaki shop a block before my apartment in Amerikamura

 

The takoyaki master at work. Notice the half-spherical iron molds the takoyaki are cooked in.

 

Another takoyaki stand.

 

 

Family Mart. One of the big three convenience stores that are everywhere.

 

That’s fresh fish. Tanks full of puffers and eel are very common.

 

I discovered these guys behind a sign in front of a host bar (kind of like a male companion club for women).

 

Mysterious stairs to somewhere.

 

Osaka north of Dotonbori. Notice the Lawsons, the second of the big three convenience stores.

 

Public sink in Amerikamura. I love these little social touches around the city. Clean with soap. It’s impressive how thoughtful and people focused the city is.

 

Side street off of Shinsaibashi north of Dotonburi.

 

Amerikamura district.

 

McDonald’s delivery scooters.

 

Typical Amerikamura street.

 

Typical street south of Dotonbori.

   

More convenience store pics. I love what you can find there.
 

Wide array of face masks.

 

Tenga is a popular male masturbation toy. You can get these anywhere. It’s like buying shampoo.

 

People often use these Gatsby wipes instead of deodorant. It’s like rubbing icy/hot all over you body with a wetwipe. I didn’t like it but Katjia still uses them.

   

An apartment building in Amerikamura

On the way to my apartment I encountered this building. Dark, covered in pipes and wire and cooling units, billowing steam and awash in strange lights. Breathing. This animae of a structure tucked into a dark corner of Amerikamura. The “Ganja Acid” sign got my attention but as I cautiously explored the dark graffitied hallways I realized that this was once a residential apartment building. But now all of the units had been taken over by tiny bars, restaurants, and urban craft and clothing stores. This anarchy pirate ship of a place. Four stories high and few more under the ground. It felt like walking around in a cyberpunk book. Some of the tiny units had taken over the units above, busted holes in the floor, and installed scaffolding stairs through claustrophobic spaces. Most of the bars ran until 5am and only opened past 10pm.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

The Osaka airport

A quick train takes us to the Osaka airport out on a man made island. We grab some amazing seared beef before we head back to Tokyo and fly home. I notice on the flight the menu offered takoyaki so I order one last round to celebrate an awesome adventure in Osaka.
 

 

 

Sad robot.

 

Airplane takoyaki. And that’s a glass of good scotch. It’s free. American air travel sucks.

 

My flight food options.

   

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