Osaka has been a YouTube sensation over the past few years due to its reputation as a street food haven. The city has been overshadowed by Tokyo and Kyoto for the last decade and is now finally coming into its own. On my recent trip to Japan, I made it a point to include this foodie destination on my itinerary and the city did not disappoint. I had limited time since it was only three full days, so my trip was packed with eating and some sight-seeing. This is my foodie adventure in the kitchen of Japan.
Day 1: Dotonbori
I had underestimated how long it would take for me to travel from Bangkok, so by the time I arrived at my hotel, it was already 7pm. Since I only had three full “days” in Osaka, every minute counted. I quickly made my way to Dotonbori, the heart of Osaka’s entertainment district, which reminded me of New York’s Times Square with its bright neon signs and throngs of tourists. I quickly searched for Mizuno, the oldest okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake made with flour batter, shredded cabbage and various toppings. Mizuno is THE destination for okonomiyaki in Dotonbori. It is also easy to spot the restaurant as there is always an hour wait out the door. Don’t make my mistake of waiting while hungry because it is pure torture and the one-hour wait felt like an eternity. My patience paid off as I sat at the end of the eight-seater bar. The host had already taken my order while I was in line for their most popular okonomiyaki made with mountain yam flour, shrimp, scallops, and pork. The experience was similar to teppanyaki in which chefs would cook on a griddle in front of the diner. As soon as I dug into the crunchy pancake smothered in mayonnaise and a barbeque-style sauce, I was in foodie heaven. The only downside to traveling solo was that I couldn’t order more food to try as everything just smelled heavenly.
After Mizuno, I walked around the main gallery toward the famous Glico running man sign, the ubitiqous symbol of the vibrant city. Much like Times Square, lights lit up the night sky and there was sea of people wherever I looked. To take a break from the claustrophobia inducing crowd, I ventured along the walkway situated next to the river. The calm and quiet here were an interesting juxtaposition to the bustling activities one level up.
Feeling like I had worked off enough of the okonomiyaki, I searched for the next popular dish in Osaka, takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack made of wheat flour batter and filled with scallions and octopus. I stopped by the Konamon Museum for their rendition of takoyaki and I was not disappointed. In my excitement to try it, I forgot how hot these suckers were because my mouth was scorched. After I got over my burnt tongue, I feasted on the octopus balls, which were slightly crunchy on the outside and pillow soft inside. By the time I was finished with my snack, it was around 9:30pm and I had just enough time to try one more restaurant…although, my stomach was starting to protest at this point.
For the last meal of the night, I stopped by Kushikatsu Daruma, famous for its deep fried skewers and operated by the same family since 1929. I was able to squeak in before they stopped accepting guests. I quickly got a seat at the bar and ordered a few skewers to try. What is there not to like about fried food with Japanese flair?! My favorite was the mochi skewers, which were crunchy outside and chewy inside. I would dip each skewer into a communal kushikatsu sauce that was on the bar for a burst of flavor and to offset the grease. There is no such thing as double dipping here. Additionally, raw cabbage was served with the meal as a palate cleanser in between each skewer. Pairing fried food and a cold glass of soda was the perfect finish to my first night in Osaka.
Day 2: Eat and Eat Some More
I had planned an aggressive morning itinerary starting with breakfast at Endo Sushi at 5am, which I did not attempt at all due to exhaustion from traveling most of yesterday. When I finally woke up, I realized I did not have much time until I met my friend for our reservation at Naniwa Kappo Kigawa. The thought of food got me out of the comfortable bed and ready for my full day of gluttony. Kappo is the casual cousin of Kyoto’s formal kaiseki, which focuses on traditional Japanese cuisine. Naniwa is a Michelin-starred restaurant that is known as an institution for kappo and has trained some of the best chefs in Osaka. As I approached the restaurant located in a traditional alley called Hozenji Yokocho, it felt like I had stepped back in time. The sliding door opened promptly at 12 and the hostess welcomed us into the shop. Unfortunately, we got the upstairs section, which I did not know about so we did not get the full kappo experience of watching chefs prepared the exquisite food. The courses came out expeditiously and the server was very accommodating and sweet. Every course was a meticulous visual feast followed by a flavor medley in my mouth. My favorite was the main course depicting autumn, which was a work of art. It was so beautifully plated that I did not want to ruin the presentation by eating it, but someone had to do that hard job. (Check back for our in-depth review of the experience.)
After the 11-course lunch, I was ready to do some sightseeing. I got on the shockingly efficient train system as compared to NYC’s antiquated subway and made my way to Osaka Castle. I needed to exercise some of the food off before my next meal so taking in the famous sight was a two-for-one activity. The 16th century castle was rebuilt in 1931 after numerous fires and is now a classic and elegant symbol of the city. The interior of the castle contains an observatory on the top deck and five floors of exhibits on its history. As the line for the elevator to the observatory was out the door, I huffed and puffed it up to the 8th floor the old fashion way. Worst, I did not count on the amount of walking at this destination! The exhibits were interesting, especially a recreation of a samurai battle using tiny figurines. The surrounding parks reminded me of Central Park with nature enclave in the middle of skyscrapers.
After two hours, I made my way over to Shinsekai, the retro area of Osaka near the downtown “Minami” area. In the middle of Shinsekei is the Tsutenkaku Tower, a reminder of the neglected area that is now starting to be hip again. It is known to be “seedy” due to a high population of homeless people and prostitution…however, it is very safe by western standards. I did not know what to expect when I arrived, but this had to be one of my favorite areas of the city due to its authenticity. There were not as many tourists here and it was legitimately a time capsule of the 1970’s as soon as I exited the subway. My friend and I started to get hungry and, luckily, we discovered a hidden gem of a neighborhood sushi joint: Sahei Sushi. The tiny hole-in-the-wall only contained a sushi counter and an English picture menu. The chefs, the server and locals in the restaurant did not speak English at all…it’s exactly what I was looking for. The sushi was cheap, fresh and delicious. It was a perfect appetizer to our dinner an hour later.
Osaka is next to Kobe so is also known for amazing beef, hence we had to try it. For dinner, I made a reservation at Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M – Houzenji Hanare in Dotonbori for the famous matsuzakagyu beef, one of the top three types of beef in Japan. Yakininiku M is an “affordable” way to sample the different cuts and is so popular that reservations must be made at least a two weeks in advance. As the beef cooked on the table grill, the sizzling sound was hypnotic as the fat just melted and caramelized. It was every beef lover’s dream. As we ate our way through the various cuts, I could not help but to “ooh” and “ahh” over every piece. It was that good!
By the end of dinner, I could have been rolled out the door and called it a night. However, we were still missing the elusive Rikuro’s jiggly cheesecake. Japanese cheesecake is a cross between a soufflé and American cheesecake. I was lucky to arrive when a new batch came out of the oven so I got to see the stamping ceremony with the bell and the efficiently fast packaging of the cakes. As I bit into the warm and fluffy slice, I was on cloud nine. My stomach at this point could not expand anymore indicating the end of my day two eating fest.
Day 3: Train Station Goodies
On the third day, I bid my friend goodbye and headed to Namba station for my trek up the mountain to Koyasan. It was the perfect opportunity to try convenience store food. I found a shop and was able to stock up on various onigris and snacks for the three-hour train and bus trip. I was overjoyed when I found the Nankai Soba booth right by the train platform. That is what I call Japanese convenience. Luckily they had some pictures with numbers so I could order and pay at the vending machine. It was not the best soba noodle soup ever; however, it was good enough to give me a healthy start for my long trip to Mount Koya. (Click here for in-depth blog on our Mount Koya adventure.)
Day 4: Another Gastronomic Feast
After arriving back at my hotel that afternoon from my quick trip to Koysan, I quickly made my way to Ramen Yashichi, ranked 39 out of the top 50 ramen shops in Japan by Tablelog. I speed walked to the shop as it was getting ready to close for the day. The heart pounding dash was worth it by the time I sat at the bar and slurped up this delicious chicken based ramen. I can definitely say it was the best ramen I had in Japan thus far. Yaichi’s ramen had the right level of saltiness, thickness and fattiness. The chefs and servers did not speak English, but were very helpful as they helped me navigate an all Japanese vending machine.
After a late lunch, I headed to Doguyasuji Arcade where the restaurant supply stores are located. As I hunted down each store in the alley for perfect chopsticks and holders as gifts, I wished I had brought a bigger suitcase to bring everything back with me. My favorite store was Osaka Shikki in the arcade. They had the most gorgeous and unique cutlery and chopsticks guaranteed to give you sticker shock. I ended up buying most of my gifts there and it was worth the high price.
As the stores all closed early, I made my way to Sushiyoshi, a Michelin-star restaurant, known for its innovative omakase. Chef Nakanoue Hiroki is both a creative genius and approachable at the same time. The highlight of my dinner was when Chef Hiroki went outside of his restaurant to roast bonito fish with a bucket of straw while his diners roasted marshmallows. I was even more surprised when he asked for my phone and took a selfie with me. This is a representative of the culinary alchemy and luckily the food is as good as the mad hatter’s creations. (Click here for the in-depth review.) The whole dining experience took 4 hours and I was sad to leave at the end of the night having made a new friend in Japan.
Day 5: Last Meal
On my return from Koyasan, I had booked a room at the Marriott Miyako Hotel, located in Abeno Harukas, the highest skyscraper in Osaka. The view of the city from the bedroom is magnificent as I was situated 54th floors above the city. Guests at the hotel are given a free pass to the observatory on the 60th floor. I took the opportunity to check out the view, which was nice but nothing different from the Marriott. However, the highlight was the architecture of the place with glass walls and the sun streaming through them. After the quick visit, I had enough time to eat lunch at Kaiten Sushi at the Kintetsu department store a few floors below. By the time I arrived around 11 o’clock, there was already a 30-minute wait. The restaurant offered affordable lunch sets and picture menus to assist foreigners. The sushi lunch was a tasty way to end my memorable feasting adventures in Osaka.
*Tip: Most restaurants do not have online reservation capabilities and reservations must be made over the phone a few weeks in advance for the top restaurants. If you are staying at a hotel, the concierge should be able to make the reservations for you. If you are lucky like me, my Japanese friend made all my reservations. Additionally, certain restaurants will not allow reservations for foreigners like Sushi Saeki .