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