Osaka is the city in Japan I am most connected to. I spent many summers in my youth exploring the bustling areas and smaller neighbourhoods in Osaka. Back then, with a subway card in hand, I’d ride the rails and get off at random stops to explore. I found food treasures from stalls in undercover shopping arcades and then bring them back to my aunt’s place to share. The street eats of Osaka have become more popular over the years, but they have always been my soul food. In the 15+ years that I’ve been traveling back to Japan in my adulthood, Osaka has always been a stop but my agenda is usually filled with visiting family for big meals which leaves little time for the easy eats that I long for.
This trip to Japan was no different and my time in Osaka was a brief 2 nights. I knew even before I got there that it was not enough time. As I arrived at the Osaka station the familiar smells comforted me, but also left with with pangs of regret knowing I wouldn’t satisfy all of my Osaka cravings. in my short time in the city. But, never one to be defeated before I start, I was determined to get a taste of as much as I could while I was in town.
Our first stop straight off the train in Osaka was to meet my mom’s side of the family for a multi-course lunch. I was a bit peeved to “waste” one of my meals in the city on a fancy sit down, but quickly changed my attitude when I realized we were at a tofu restaurant and we’d be eating all things soy.
In my past visits to Japan I’ve sought out tofu experiences as it’s something rarely found outside of Japan. With limited time, I didn’t prioritize it, but was happy to have this surprise added to my itinerary.
When I describe seeking out tofu meals, people often look at me with wonder that a multi-course tofu meal could be so enjoyable. For most, tofu is the flavourless block that comes in the plastic package in the grocery store, But I love soy and tofu in all of its different forms, for its subtle flavours and variety of textures. And I also love it because I never feel blown out after the meal.
Lunch was at Umenohana in Umeda (there are multiple locations) and as we entered our private room filled with my relatives, excitement and chaos broke loose. I love my mom’s side of the family for their ability to make anywhere feel like a raucous party. After we ordered our drinks, the food quickly started to hit the table. Over 10 courses, I had appetizers of sesame tofu, yuba in dashi, tofu & yuba simmered, chawanmushi, raw maguro (tuna) with yuba foam, tofu shumai, renkon manju, tofu dengaku, doria and rice. I surprisingly got through the meal (minus the rice) with pure delight.
I had another family dinner scheduled after my huge family lunch. In between,I found myself wandering through the Depachika of the Hashin dept store when I wandered upon a stand sampling all things yuzu. Seeing as yuzu is my favorite of all the citruses, of course I had to stop to sample.
I made my way up a floor and found a craft beer & gyoza festival going on. While I wasn’t hungry at all and haven’t been drinking a lot of beer lately, I couldn’t resist stopping to have some tastes.
No surprise that I didn’t have an appetite when I showed up for family meal #2 for the day but at least this gathering wasn’t set and I could be more reasonable in my eating. The orders for sushi were flying around the table, but I didn’t think I could eat much more than a few pieces but really wanted to taste as much as I could. I settled on a plate of sashimi as I was being offered tastes of this and that as well.
With such a short time in Osaka, i was happy to see kushikatsu on the menu. Kushikatsu = fried things on sticks = Kansai must so I was happy to have it. While it wasn’t the same as my kushi katsu meal I’d had in Kyoto many years before at Kushi Tanaka, I enjoyed this plate immensely.
With energy to spare at the end of the night I walked to a bar I had marked near my hotel. Hidden on the 2nd floor of a (closed) shopping mall is is Bar Hiramatsu. I was greeted graciously and sat at the dark wooden bar. Many of Japan’s bars still have an old school feel that I equate to stuffy and too formal, which was my first impression here. But I got over the serious service delivery and was able to fumble through in Japanese a few conversations with the bar staff that seemed to loosen them up.
True to my preference on this trip, I ordered from the local seasonal fruit menu where I was served a kumquat and an apple cocktail. Both were well balanced and delicious. I was getting the feeling that my drinks outside of Tokyo far exceeded those I had while I was there. ( Tokyo cocktail post is coming soon)..
I woke up the next morning with anxiety knowing I only had a day to tackle as much from my list so I went down to the gym at the hotel for a bit of a stress bust with a view.
My #1 Osaka must eat is okonomiyaki and if I have just one okonomiyaki it has to be from Fugetsu. While I make okonomiyaki at home, mine doesn’t compare in fluffiness and texture to Fugetsu. I always hope to gain insight on how to improve mine when I eat there and watch captivated as they mix up the ingredients. But on each visit, I’m resigned to think that the cabbage is just tastier in Japan and I’ll never figure out how they can use so little flour and still have the okonomiyaki set properly. There are various Fugetsu’s around Osaka (&Japan), but I’m happy that I can find it conveniently at Yodobashi Camera in Umeda nearby to where I stay and feel like I’m eating the same delicious aka buta okonomiyaki that I had when I was a kid.
Ramen lives king in Japan followed a distant 2nd by soba, but my love has always been udon. Udon is what my mom has always served when I am cold, need a snack, and/or to show me her love. My infatuation with udon is so great that I even went on an udon tour in Sanuki with my brother a few years ago.
In Osaka, if I want to have udon, I go to Mi Miu, which I’ve been doing ever since I was young. Thankfully, they have a Mi Miu in the Hanshin Dept store and that the offshoots are just as good as the original location.
My dinner finished early so I had the whole evening to further explore the cocktail scene in Osaka. Thankfully I was staying near Kita Shinchi, the bar/entertainment district which had a few cocktail bars I wanted to check out.
I started at Bar K, which was dark and moody with an empty long wooden bar. As I settled in, I was intrigued by their record player and tube amp playing classic jazz. I asked for their specialty, which turned out to be a gimlet which was good, but not great. I enjoyed my time, but my visit was short.
I moved on to Bar Juniper where I was met with a bar full of tourists. Yes I know I’m a foreigner, but I feel like I get a * as I look the part and can speak and understand the customs/manners. True to their name (and Japan’s favourite mixing spirit), upon my request of something refreshing and fruity, I was served a yuzu gin cocktail with a great hand carved piece of ice.
My next stop was Beso Isla, a bar I found in a Punch article on drinking in Osaka. It seemed up my alley although I was afraid that it would be packed with tourists, seeing as where I got my recommendation from. I was happily surprised that the bar was tiny and there was only a group of girls from the US at the bar. Bartender Shoki Sato was a wonderful host and I enjoyed playing “translator” between him and his English-only speaking guests. The actual space at Beso Isla was interesting, almost like a convention centre meeting room feel, but I enjoyed that there was no pretentiousness, only a genuine warmth of hospitality. I made my usual refreshing and fruity request and Sato-san mixed me up a(nother) yuzu gin cocktail, which was the perfect sipper.
I was ready to be done for the night, but Sato-san encouraged me to make a stop at Bar Beso, where he originally started. I hate to disappoint so…
I was greeted warmly at Bar Beso (I think Sato-san called ahead not only to let them know I was coming but also my drink preferences as well). As I sat up at the bar. I was ready for my final nightcap and was craving a spirit forward sipper which I was delivered even before I could ask.
I woke up my last morning and knew I only had time for one quick taste before I left Osaka. Luckily I knew exactly what I wanted. You have to know Osaka to know that 551 Horai is a must for butaman. 551 Horai’s red box containing shiny steamed pork buns are engrained in my memory as a treat snack which always came with my mom telling stories of her memories of butaman from when she was young. I eat Chinese steamed buns at home, but nothing compares to Horai’s. There’s always a line-up (of locals) at every Horai location which I’m more than happy to wait in, because I know that first bite, slathered in yellow mustard will be divine.
2 days of eating in Osaka is definitely not enough, but I’m happy I was able to delight in some of my favourites. The rest will be saved for my return.