I sat in the passenger seat of a station wagon with my friend Brian, an American who is living and raising a family in Osaka — his cute toddler was snoozing in the back — as he explained local rivalries. We were driving down Midosuji Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in central Osaka. Conflicts between the Kansai region, where Osaka sits, and the Kanto region, which Tokyo calls home, can get intense, he said. People stand on opposite sides of the escalator in the two cities, make fun of how the other speaks, and instant ramen companies flavor their udon broths differently depending on the region, putting a small “E” or “W” on the packaging to denote “East” (Kanto/Tokyo) or “West” (Kansai/Osaka) Brian grew up in Texas: “You know how Texas sort of thinks it’s its own country and plays by its own rules?” he asked. “That’s Osaka.”
One thing both Tokyo and Osaka have in common: They’re both famously expensive cities. I had already spent time in Tokyo on a modest budget (more on that next week) and decided to see if Osaka and its individualism would prove as accessible.
Particularly when it came to food. Osaka has a fantastic high-end dining scene, from places that serve pricey Kobe beef (Kobe is just 40-minutes away by car) to the menu at Fujiya 1935, a Spanish restaurant with three Michelin stars and a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Where it really shines, though, is in its casual comfort food and street food — inexpensive bites that got me excited to explore the city. I’d also heard Osaka was the ideal place to try pufferfish — the sea creature with lethally poisonous organs.
But before potentially deadly fish, there were lodgings to arrange. Even that had toxic potential: I managed to inadvertently book a room at a “short-stay” hotel — which is a nice way of saying a “love hotel.”
The concept of a love hotel is as old as time itself, obviously, but the actual name “love hotel” originated, according to some, in the 1960s with an old Osakan concrete building called Hotel Love. The modern Japanese love hotel caters to those seeking discretion in their affairs, payable typically in hours-long increments. It also allows for tourists and regular guests too, however, something I didn’t realize when I booked the $89-per-night room on Hotels.com.
I should have been tipped off when I walked into the completely empty lobby. A woman eventually peeked out from behind a sliding panel on the near wall and greeted me. The check-in process at an overseas hotel usually takes at least five or 10 minutes; photocopies of passports are made, credit card deposits are taken. This took about 10 seconds: The woman wordlessly showed me a piece of paper with a bunch of names on it. I noticed my name, and pointed to it. She gave me a room key and slid the panel shut. That was it. I didn’t even have to show ID.
The room, though, was decent enough. The bathroom had a slight mildew smell, but the room was the most spacious I had during the 10 days I spent in Japan. The queen bed was also the largest. There was a large control panel on the headboard that allowed me to control the air-conditioning, stereo and every light in the room, all without getting out of the bed. And there was a karaoke machine. And a very large bathtub. Did I mention the name of the hotel? It’s called Public Jam.
It was all just bizarre enough to encourage me to get out and about. Fortunately, I was close to Dotonbori, the main night life and restaurant area in Osaka. Focused around an east-west canal in Namba district in the center of town, Dotonbori is a tightly woven lattice of streets filled with various restaurants, bars, shops and gigantic signage. With space at a premium, vendors had to compete for eyeballs, which led to the creation of the Glico man, for instance, or the giant mechanical crab atop Kani Doraku, a seafood restaurant chain.
I walked along the canal one evening, dodging tourist and locals alike, past hosts and hostesses of different nightclubs trying to entice clients through their doors. I knew I wanted to try kushikatsu, skewers of deep-fried meat and veggies accompanied by a sweet, tangy sauce, and takoyaki, battered balls that are typically filled with small pieces of octopus and covered in various toppings. I knew I had run into my first destination when I almost tripped over a giant, extremely ornery-looking fiberglass man holding what looked like two corn dogs on sticks. I was at Daruma, a chain famous for its kushikatsu.
The place was packed, but I took advantage of being a solo traveler, wedging myself in between two people at the counter and placing my order: 1,400 yen (about $13) for a nine-piece combo of assorted meats and vegetables covered in a panko-based batter — panko is a crunchy, light breadcrumb — and deep fried. A chopsticks holder and a large communal container of dipping sauce lay on the counter before me. On the sauce container was a warning: Please only dip once! (Brian had warned me earlier: “They’ll get really mad if you double-dip.”)
My food arrived quickly, and I scarfed down my servings of beef, asparagus, shrimp, rice cake and fish sausage (among other things), pulled hot out of the fryer just seconds earlier, still dripping with fat. Did I always know what kind of skewer I was eating? No, and it didn’t particularly matter. The primary texture was a fine, airy crunch, and the main flavor was the thick, communal sauce that tasted of Worcestershire.
Osakans love their sauces — especially their brown sauces. Takoyaki sauce is not unlike the kushikatsu sauce, but it struck me as being slightly lighter and maybe a little fruitier. I ate a lot of takoyaki during my stay in Osaka, but my favorite was probably from Takoyaki Ebisu, outside of the Dotonbori area near the Nippombashi train station. I paid 450 yen for 12 pieces. (Within Dotonbori, expect to pay a premium — I bought takoyaki there that cost 500 yen for eight pieces). The golf ball-sized spheres were fresh and scalding hot. The wheat-based batter was goopy and filling, and the dozen balls came topped with shaved bonito flakes, pickled ginger and the sweet, sticky brown sauce.
It’s worth noting that these dishes are available all over the city. Shinsekai, in particular, is known for being the birthplace of kushikatsu. Shinsekai, in the southern part of Osaka, is a neighborhood known for being slightly seedy; I found it perfectly pleasant and safe, though it does gives the impression of a part of town that time and economic progress forgot. An enormous, aging 100-meter-high structure modeled after the Eiffel Tower called Tsutenkaku serves as the focal point of the area. Some modest shops and restaurants line the streets — foot traffic, usually so heavy in major Japanese cities’ shopping areas, is light in Shinsekai. I passed a woman running a carnival-style air rifle game in a shopping arcade: The prizes for winning were Pringles and Ritz crackers.
I couldn’t leave Shinsekai without trying kushikatsu, so I went to Kushikatsu Zanzan where, according to Brian, they served scorpion skewers. Sadly, they were sold out. I had a five-skewer vegetable sampler, though, and paid around 650 yen. The best cheap eat I found, though, was a tiny shop near Tennoji Park where I picked up two beautiful pieces of onigiri (rice balls wrapped in nori) with pickled ginger and a bowl of soup for only 100 yen.
I may have missed the scorpion, but I still had pufferfish ahead of me. Zuboraya is a chain known for serving the poisonous fugu, as it’s called in Japanese. Now why wouldn’t you want to eat this little guy? Because the tetrodotoxin found within can be highly poisonous, as these five men found out last year when they asked to eat the pufferfish liver (Tip: Don’t ever, ever do that).
Many consume the fish without incident, however, when it’s properly prepared. I ordered a pufferfish sashimi lunch at Zuboraya, said some mental prayers and ate the thin, pallid slices off of the plate in front of me.
What did it taste like? Not a whole lot. The dainty slices had a correspondingly light flavor, and the texture was slightly chewy. After the initial piece, I started dipping them in the accompanying shoyu to give them some — any — kind of flavor. And, to my relief, I didn’t become ill or die afterward. But for 950 yen, I suppose it was worth the very slight thrill of knowing I was living on the edge of the culinary knife.
The best eating experience I had, as frequently happens, came purely accidentally. At another lunch, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a place called Shin-Umeda Shokudogai. I saw a queue of people waiting outside a door with a small yellow sign that read “Kiji” in Hiragana characters (it means “green pheasant,” the national bird of Japan, according to my Internet research). I often found that a good foreign country mealtime strategy is: find a place with a long line of locals.
So I joined, having quite literally no idea what to expect. At 11:30 a.m. the door opened and a small group of us were whisked inside, up a narrow winding staircase, into a cramped restaurant with a few tables and a modest, open kitchen. There were some stools set up directly on the large, flat top grill that dominated the room. We sat as the chef slowly began working, ladling a chunky mixture onto the grill, like a thick pancake: okonomiyaki. The quintessential Osakan dish, it derives its name from “okonomi,” meaning “what you like.” In this case, you can take that to mean “anything and everything.” After ladling the battered mixture of flour, dashi, egg and cabbage onto the hot grill, the chef dressed the pancakes with pork belly, seafood, onions, shiso leaf and other assorted vegetables.
When your pancake is done, it isn’t served to you on a plate. The chef merely slides it over and you eat off the grill. The woman next to me was eating something else; I pointed and asked what it was, as it looked fantastic. “Modanyaki,” she said. It was a huge portion of yakisoba — fried wheat noodles mixed with bits of pork, cabbage and other vegetables — that had been whisked with an egg mixture and poured onto the grill, like a giant omelet. She saw me staring at her food, and I embarrassedly looked away. While her English was limited and my Japanese nonexistent, she apparently could read minds: She cut off a small portion of her dish and slid it over to me. I did the same with my okonomiyaki.
My dish (680 yen) was heavier, heartier, deeply filling. Her dish, though, I liked even better: crunchy cabbage and crispy fried noodles, joined together with the fluffy egg mixture. We ate mostly in silence, as did the rest of the patrons; my new friend and I didn’t speak, but it wasn’t necessary. We both felt how lucky we were to be there at that moment, enjoying the finest lunch the city had to offer.