Spreading foodie tentacles to sample as much as your stomach allows in Japan’s culinary capital.
Rolling around some explosively hot octopus balls, known as takoyaki, in your mouth hoping they don’t erupt is just one of the surrealist moments you will have in the vibrant, overwhelming food scene that is Osaka.
Osaka is the culinary capital of Japan and, from the moment you arrive, you are in for some of the most amazing food experiences the world has to offer. Unlike sprawling Tokyo, which requires much train and subway travel to get around, the heart of Osaka is situated in the Shinsaibashi area.
Find a hotel near one of the three major stations in this area and you will have the city at your fingertips.
Luckily, we found ourselves staying at the Swissotel Nankai Osaka, located literally in the expansive Nankai Namba station complex. The hotel is so central that for the few days we stayed no public transport was needed as everything requires just a few minutes of walking.
Osaka is best known for its okonomiyaki, the famed Japanese savoury pancake, and our first stop was to Ajinoya — a cash-only, top-rated local establishment which specialises in the hot-off-the-grill dish made with flour, eggs, shredded cabbage, meat/protein and topped with a variety of condiments including wasabi, mustard and mayonnaise.
The mixed okonomiyaki features pork, shrimp and squid and costs 1180 Yen (roughly $14).
In our haste, we ordered one each but, when these giant pancakes arrived, it was clear that one can be shared easily between three.
Next on the list to sample was the aforementioned takoyaki and where better to get the best Osaka has to offer than the Kuromon Market, which stretches over 580m and is about an eight-minute walk from Namba station.
There is some sensory overload happening as you wander through the market, nicknamed Osaka’s kitchen.
From stall to stall, your eyes grow bigger than your stomach as you see varieties of Kobe and Wagyu beef, sea urchin, blowfish, eel and crab claws on offer, either fresh or grilled, from an eye-boggling number of vendors. There is also fresh and dried fruit, juices and specialty Japanese desserts.
And while we had our heart set on takoyaki, it was just so easy to get distracted by the sight of the most amazing sashimi stand, Maguroya Kurogin, complete with the head of the “catch of the day” proudly displayed while the said catch of Oma tuna is being expertly sliced in front of the bustling crowds.
Snagging four little stools at the front of the stall, we paired our 5000 Yen worth of Pacific bluefin tuna (maguro) with 1800 Yen of fresh salmon, straight from the Osaka Central Fish Market, and four draft beers (500 Yen each). Heaven.
With our stomachs warmed up — but before we got too full — takoyaki was the next mission and, looking for a place that was busy with locals to ensure quality, we lined up at Takoyaki Doraku Wanaka Namba in front of the scorching specially moulded grill cooking the ball-shaped snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and with diced octopus. A serve of eight costs 500 Yen, 50 Yen extra for green onion and extra again for cheese.
Thankfully, we were warned that biting into these balls whole would create a volcanic-style eruption in the mouth, and so we waited for them to cool before we apprehensively rolled them around in our mouths as the still hot lava-like substance oozed out to be washed down with our iced Chu-Hi — a Japanese take on the highball made with vodka, soda and your choice of freshly squeezed juice.
For night-time dining, the place to go is Dotonbori, which runs along a canal set to a backdrop of all-encompassing neon signage and towering buildings.
Most establishments will hit you with a small cover charge, generally 200-450 Yen, which will also include a small meal or entree. While the cover charge is a bit of a shock, the general pricing at most appeared to be very reasonable and even cheap by Australian standards with beers and highballs at an average of 500 Yen.
With so much choice, you can’t go past the brilliant location of the low-key Miyagawa Kazuhiro with its indoor and outdoor seating and wide selection of yakitori (grilled chicken), with all parts of the chicken on the menu from breast, liver, neck, gizzard and knee cartilage all at 300 Yen per serve.
On a hot, muggy evening, Miyagawa Kazuhiro offered the perfect alfresco location on the banks of the canal matched with the closest views of the famous running man sign and brilliant service from the busy owner, who stopped by for a quick beer and to point out the neon-fuelled nightclub, Zumi, on the 10th floor of a nearby building as where we should go next. With so much amazing choice of out-of-this-world food and drink on your doorstep, Osaka hotels need to match or improve what you can buy so cheaply and so close. The Swissotel Nankai Osaka does just that, its breakfast is a topnotch selection of not only your normal standard offerings but it includes an Osaka Soul Food section featuring its high-end take on the likes of okonomiyaki.
Its seven restaurants give you the chance to sample the breadth of Japanese cuisine, from the stunning surrounds of the traditional Hana-Goyomi Japanese Restaurant, with its sublime sushi, to the modern, luxury SH’UN Wine & Dine with its tapas-style degustation of deep-fried skewers matched with a selection of raw fruit and vegetables and superb wine list including Californian chardonnays, which are all the rage in Japan.
And if that wasn’t enough — the Swissotel Nankai Osaka delivers the best 24-hour room service this travel writer has ever experienced. Where else at 4am can you order the most delicious, expertly crafted har gao (steamed shrimp dumplings) and a serve of succulent karaage-style fried chicken with perfectly whipped schichimi mayonnaise.
DisclaimerRoss McRae visited Japan as a guest of Travel Associates. They have not seen or reviewed these stories.
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