Osaka was home to the best food I delighted myself with on my adventure. I took an evening trip to the city during my stay at Kyoto. Being a bit of a spontaneous expedition, I stuck closely to the guide book—b-lining for Dotonbori—the city’s acclaimed playground.
The best way I can describe it, is like finding an inner-city boardwalk lit up like the main block of Vegas. There were times I couldn’t tell if I were inside or out—walking under the giant busts of sea-critters that hung from flashy restaurants and under blinding webs of strung lights strung across the from building to building. And what better to add to this sensory overload than the savory smells of fried seafood in the air.
It was easy to find a tako-yaki fryer. They were small shops, where you step-up to a counter much like at a fried Oreo stand at the shore.
A girl behind the counter asked me how many I would like. I opted for three, figuring I would give the regional delight a fair chance of impressing me. She served them in a thin rice wafer wrapped in foil, like a crude Japanese version of Falafel.
I retreated to a nearby bench in the center of the walk, so as not to offend their little fry shake in the unlikely event that regurgitation measures needed to be taken. Despite the main ingredient being octopus, I was anticipating taking to the taste.
Tako-yaki even looked like a fried Oreo, rolled in batter and cooked to a deep golden brown. I decide the first bite should be taken al naturale picking up a fried octopus ball between my two fingers. I cocked my head back, opened the hatch and dropped ‘er in.
Now, I wish I could describe how sensational and delicious that first bite was, but the truth is, I couldn’t draw an opinion if I wanted to. The fried ball burst into an explosion of molten batter, searing every known and newly discovered surface of my mouth.
I spit the tako-yaki back into its little green wafer taco, getting a chance to at least see what was inside. It was mostly battery magma with green slivers of scallions. At the fireballs core however, was a solid chunk of Octopus tentacle (little suction cups and all).
After giving my mouth time to stop pulsating, I gave it another shot. At this point, it was lukewarm, but my mouth only registered the substance as brimstone. Still, I got a semblance of flavor. The more I forced my way through the pain, the more I enjoyed its savory taste.
After, I decided to go to an okonomiyaki shop for dinner –following the book to the most highly recommended location. It was a cool spot, right along one of the canals that cut through Dotonbori. A few times during dinner a fleet of rowboats would pass by the windows to the beat of the coxswain’s drum.
I sat down at the bar of the restaurant. There were small tables for more of a dining atmosphere, but okonomiyaki was prepared hibachi style—all the ingredients grilled right in front of me on a hot slab that spanned nearly the length of the restaurant.
Okonomiyaki is a hearty pancake or in my case, fritter, having ordered the one with the most seafood. They made the pancake gigantic and drizzled a weave of tangy and sweet sauces over it before shoveling the meal onto a plate and placing it in front of me.
I cut it up to cool the center. As I suspected—crispy on the outside; molten in the middle. I took my first bite. It was sweet and savory, tasting unlike any seafood dish I had ever tried. To be honest, it was the best meal of my whole Japan experience—making the side-trip to Osaka worth it in its own right.
I couldn’t finish the plate, the circumference of the pancake being equivalent to a Frisbee. I burped and made my best attempt at saying, “what a feast,” in Japanese. My glorified pancake flipper smiled brightly, bowed and said, “Ohhh, Tank-you.”
I left Osaka with a full stomach, burnt tongue, and not clue of where my transfer stop was.
Wagashi is a Japanese “treat.” They are sold in the closest thing that Japan has to a candy shop. And although Wagashi comes in many varieties, the list of ingredients is quite short. Allan and I, quickly developed a joke while sampling the bunch I picked up from Kyoto.
“How would you like your red bean paste?”
You could get your red bean paste in a rice-pastry puff, in gelatinous cubes, in doughy balls, on a stick, and the list goes on. They were good though—semi-sweet and heavy—one or two would suffice the most ravenous sweet tooth.
I actually frequented an Udon shop in Kyoto called Yamamoto Menzou for cheap, delicious dinners. Convenience was far from my top reasons to eat at this local dive. Part of the trick is making the Udon noodle right.
Unlike microwavable soups you can buy at Trader Joes, these shops boiled their noodles, then pan fried them in one of their sauces. It made the Udon the perfect consistency, unlike the boogery noodles I get back home. It was the perfect food—generous helpings—and fun to slurp with the locals.
This traditional Japanese meal is meant to be a social affair. Luckily, I had made some friends who invited me out to partake in such a feast during my last stay in Tokyo.
Shabu-Shabu was a meal I had to cook in a large kettle of boiling broth that sat in the middle of the table. Being served a platter of raw beef, fish, and veggie, everyone took turns placing a few food items in. After I fished out the cooked pieces, I had an assortment of dipping sauces in front of me to choose from.
We also ordered chicken, which was unlike anything I suspected. They came out with a split bamboo shoot packed with, like, a chicken puree. Dropping grape-sized clumps in the broth, turned up delicious chicken balls bobbing at the surface.
Not all things in Japan were great. In fact, my experience with this Japanese “delicacy” was so bad, I feel compelled to write about it to encourage future travelers to veer far from it.
Natto, or fermented soy beans were nasty. They had a stingy sourness that reminded me of mothballs and a texture that could have only been gooberfied in the 9th circle of hell.
The beans were held together by some white stringy paste, that’s elasticity seemed supernatural. One bite and I had spider-silk-like strings floating from my mouth or stretching back to the bowl. I could feel the sticky bites roll and stick along the walls of my throat. Nothing about eating this food was fun.
The only way I could conceive making this dish remotely enjoyable would be to mix in a fatal dose of Cyanide to kill myself for fast acting relief of the bile I would have just placed in my mouth.