Nicknamed Tenka no Daidokoro or “the nation’s kitchen”, this term originally referred to Osaka’s Edo Period status as Japan’s centre for rice trade. Nowadays, it refers to the city’s reputation as a gourmand’s paradise. And yes, it lived up to its reputation and yes, eat we did! 🍜
Our first impressions of Osaka were really positive. We were expecting a heavily commercial hub and I guess thought the city might be less impressive than its cultural neighbour, Kyoto. Spotlessly clean, efficient and with a balance between super-modern and elegantly old-world, we were excited to explore further.
We’d arranged to meet up with my old school friend, David Lawson, whom I’d met in Adelaide in 1981. David is the Consul-General, working in the trade commission connecting Australian and Japanese business. His office is ideally located right next to the Osaka Castle and he showed us around during his lunch break.
Osaka Castle is a prominent symbol of the city and one of the more spectacular buildings of Japan. It was built in 1583 by the order of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the most famous unifying warlords of Japanese history. The castle is located within the Osaka Castle Park, and it’s especially popular to visit during cherry blossom season. Once again we were lucky to catch the trees mostly in full bloom. Surrounded by a water moat and the lovely Nishinomaru gardens, the castle grounds were packed with families and tourists enjoying hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and the beautiful sunshine. We even spotted a bridal couple.
There’s a saying that people from Tokyo and Kyoto will spend their money on clothes and shoes, but Osakans will bankrupt themselves on food. Kuidaore is this Osakan concept of eating until you drop (or are broke!) meaning “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” We could completely relate! Our first food adventure was a visit to Kuromon market.
Kuromon market or Kuromon Ichiba is one of the largest markets in western Japan and it consists of around 180 stores. It has over 190 years history and is largely responsible for the name “Osaka’s Kitchen” having emerged. All kinds of fresh food products can be found at this market, especially seafood . It’s the main place for professional chefs to shop for seasonal and quality ingredients for their restaurants. Kuromon Market is apparently always crowded. It’s quite amazing to be part of the hustle and to enjoy the smells of the street food being prepared and to marvel at the delicious displays of fresh fish. It’s probably the best spot to enjoy the authentic street foods of Osaka. It is full of the most incredible stalls, varying from live fish to fancy fruits and some artisan souvenir places.
We learned the complexity of the different cuts of tuna and how the taste varies with the type of sashimi. Butter melting in your mouth!
Also that of the thousand varieties of sea urchin that exist, only a very small percentage can be eaten. A very luxurious dish.-
We enjoyed the tastiest juicy fried chicken thighs (kara-age); Geoff bravely sampled the famed baby octopus lollipops (tako tamago) – a baby octopus with a slightly sweet glaze, stuffed with a quail egg; and my personal favourite of the day was a rich and fragrant wagyu beef soup.
To journey from our lovely hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott, in Shin-Osaka, to other areas, we used the efficient subway. It would emerge from underground to cross the water ways with views of a beautiful bridge.
The Yumemai Bridge ( yumemai ōhashi) is a moveable, floating bridge that connects the man-made islands of Yumeshima and Maishima in Osaka Port. The bridge is supported on two large steel pontoons. Ordinarily, the bridge allows a navigation passage width of 135m. In the event that the main waterway is out of service, the bridge is swung by tugboats to widen the passage width to 200m or more, enabling the passage of larger vessels.
The Osaka Mint Bureau is famous for the more than 300 cherry trees which stand on its premises. Over 100 varieties, mostly later blooming yae-zakura trees (with more than five petals per blossom) can be viewed here. It’s a lovely area right in the center of the city and we enjoyed walking along the pathways and bridges admiring the trees and watching the locals cycle or stroll past. We met an enormous water rat with an impressive set of whiskers 🐀.
Dotonbori is Osaka’s most touristy neighbourhood located in the Minami area
The history of this area goes back to 1612 when a merchant by the name of Yasui Doton invested all of his personal capital in an ambitious local development project to divert and expand the Umezu River into a new waterway that would link the local canal network with the Kizugawa River. Unfortunately, Doton’s project was interrupted by war and he himself was killed during the Siege of Osaka in 1615. Later that same year, Doton’s cousins completed his work and in his memory the new canal was named Dotonbori or “Doton Canal”. The new canal brought with it a flood of trade and from 1626 the area began to flourish as an entertainment district with restaurants and teahouses. For a while a strong theatre culture prospered until most of the theatres were destroyed in WWII. These days Dotonbori is better known as a gastronomic wonderland crowded with restaurants, street side food stalls, and bars.
Probably one of the most popular places in Osaka is the Ebisu Bridge, previously called Shinsaibashi Bridge, which is not far from Dotonbori. The bridge crosses the Dotonbori Canal. Surrounded by big bright billboards and neon advertisements, this amazing part of Osaka is something to experience particularly at night! We were interested to see a huge crowd gathering to the left of the canal (mainly men) to watch some young girls perform on the opposite bank. Lots of excitement, waving of light sabres and cheering!
Famous shop displays (such as the Glico Running Man and the moving gigantic crab) and flashy neon lights at night attract millions of visitors. It’s also the best area to dine out as numerous restaurants are located in Dotonbori area. Shopping, food, entertainment! We were overwhelmed by this vibrant and energetic neighbourhood. At night, the pace is even more crazy, as you’re sucked in and shuffled among the endless crowd. The shops here seem to sell every KitKat flavour imaginable including sakura and matcha.
The shopping centres in Osaka are plentiful and the areas dedicated to food are just awe-inspiring. We spent a great deal of time just wondering through the food hall, marvelling at the variety of cuisines and the level of craft. The patisseries and bakeries made Europe look silly and the Italian food was straight out of authentic Italy. And the Japanese delicacies were mouth-watering. We were dazzled by the choice and the quality on offer. A delightful discovery was in the Osaka station complex – Lucia 1100 or Lucua. The basement level has a huge area called Kitchen Market and the entire floor is tastefully merchandised with the most amazing variety of food…freshly prepared in front of you, some pre-packaged, plenty of raw ingredients, delicious snacks, and takeaway Bento box items, etc. We wandered around taking pictures and marvelling at the range. We may have taken away a pastry or two to have with our afternoon tea.
Another local food speciality on Geoff’s bucket-list was a dish known as okonomiyaki. This is a savoury type of pancake that is made from cabbage and batter and filled with all manner of delicious titbits. Geoff researched one of the best offerings in the impressive Grand Front Osaka centre and we queued for quite a while to get seats in the restaurant. Well it was delicious! The pancake is prepared for you, but it is served onto your hot griddle plate and it continues to caramelise and sizzle away as you add delicious condiments and sauces. A definite food highlight!
The name of the dish is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “how you like” or “what you like”, and yaki meaning “cooked” (usually fried). Okonomiyaki is mainly associated with this area of Japan, but is widely available throughout the country. Toppings and batters tend to vary according to region. Ours included pork, squid, onion, cheese and shrimp and was heavenly!
We found ourselves drawn back to Osaka castle on a rainy Sunday morning. We were really pleased that we returned. The castle grounds were just as busy as usual, but it was wonderful to experience the soft rain amongst the gently falling pink petals. It was so peaceful and relaxing and we walked some distance around the moat and through the gardens.
Shinsekai is Osaka’s old downtown district where a nostalgic atmosphere remains, and it’s an amazing place to feel the real gritty vibe of the city. The streets are filled with colourful and retro shop displays which made Shinsekai an amazing spot for photography, particularly in the rain. The symbol of Shinsekai, Tsutenkaku Tower overlooks this area. The tower was built in 1912 with a view to resembling the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Even though it was a rainy Sunday evening, the streets were fairly busy and the restaurants packed.
Geoff had being dying for us to try Kushi Katsu (deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables). This area seemed to have many restaurants specialising in this local treat and we chose a restaurant and enjoyed the tasty crumbed portions and a pint of the local beer.
Known in Osaka as “The God of Things as They Ought to Be”, Billiken is a famous God in the area of Shinsekai. Billiken is known for his mischievous smile and his pointy elf-like ears and more than a passing resemblance to Buddha. Interesting to discover is that Billiken is not Japanese at all and hails from the USA!
Our last night in Osaka was most stimulating and the rain gave the streets an added sparkle.
We felt that we still had so much to do in this beautiful city. We had thought we’d end up using it as a base for day-trips, but Osaka kept us engaged and enthralled for 4 days.