Japan, Part 1: Osaka

I am still surprised I haven’t slipped into a food coma. I’m alive and well and I am able to tell the tale of my gastro tour to Japan. My trip there wasn’t so much planned as it was spontaneous especially in terms of eating. People go to Japan for several reasons, to hike mountains or ski in the north, to immerse themselves in culture and tradition, to visit temples, shrines and other historical monuments, even to white water raft through…but some people, well I think I have the right to say, many people, go there, well for the food.

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Now, this blog post is not a food guide to Japan and the particular cities I went to, nor should be this a reference for your next trip there, this is merely a description of my experiences and what I was able to do there during what seemed to be a very short week.

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I find myself, 17 years later (ok that sounds old), in that same country, this time though, with a hungry mind and stomach. I did not have a month to travel the whole country but only about a week, so I hit 3 main cities that have fascinated me since I began a career in the food industry: Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. Bound by the same boundaries but so different from each other in many ways that will be described in this post, I could not wait to get there.

To me, Japan always sets itself apart from the world, blending the traditions that lie in its history, culture and food and fusing it with the modern era so smoothly. I can understand why people who travel there for the first time, are “wowed” by what they see, hear, smell and eat.

During my trip, I felt challenged (not in an aggressive sense) but more in terms of the way of thinking – the Japanese probably took a good look at the West and said “We’ll take your technology, but we are keeping our culture”. Japan has never been extensively colonized, retains an ancient religion while continuously pushing boundaries of technology. People are crammed in crowded cities (more than Hong Kong) but never lose their patience. Their respect for the elderly and tradition also transcends to their work, and most importantly food. With this said, it is a country of contrasts, you may find skyscrapers in one block and within the same block wooden shacks down the road. On a normal subway ride, you might see a Harajuku girl chewing on her gum loudly while sitting and speaking to a very reserved older business-man who (most probably) will be sleeping in the subway later on…that’s another thing that tends to happen on subways…the sleeping.

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The last time I found myself in the “land of the rising sun”, I was eight years old. I remember being mesmerized by the lights and sounds of the Shinjuku crossing in Tokyo and all I wanted to do was sit in front of a conveyor belt sushi restaurant and watch food go by. For some reason, I found it amusing, taking those plastic covers off the indivually colored plates and being able to put the plastic top back on the conveyor belt before the next sushi arrived. Fun….hmm. The only other thing I remember was being in the basement of one of many department stores, following my mother around as she kept buying snacks to bring back to the hotel but also back on the plane to Hong Kong. It is equally a big deal there in Japan especially after 5pm where people are on their way home: department stores basement levels are jammed pack with fresh foods of the day (and a massive amount of people) – my new favorite past time just watching people snatch the last yellowtail sashimi. I think I went to one everyday: these include Takashimaya, Isetan, Mitsukoshi department stores. If you go around closing time as well, everything is on a discounted price, as they do not keep the merchandise and ‘need’ to get rid of them or else they go to waste. Best time to go 6.30ish.

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These department stores provide all the foods you want, it’s like a super-supermarket which also offer very good raw fish and seafood, dried goods including fish, fresh meats and cooked foods

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I thought I forgot to mention one crucial aspect to this department store food galore…you can try everything…for freeeeeeeeee 🙂

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Temples, castles and gardens are found within the city centre but their beauty is limited by the modern surroundings. In the middle of a modern skyscraper or train station, you might encounter a wooden door that slides open to a traditional chamber where the host features a traditional tea ceremony. These extreme juxtapositions rarely keep you bored during your visit. The variety of restaurants does not just stop there.

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According to the Michelin Guide, Japanese cities also boasts as many Michelin stars as Europe does. Tokyo, for example, is the most “delicious” city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them. Japanese cuisine is renowned throughout the world but it is more than just sushi, sashimi and yakitori. With an emphasis on fresh and seasonal ingredients, customers almost control a restaurant’s success based on the quality of its products.

White rice is staple food in Japan which is usually served steam. Its Japanese name gohan (ご飯) also means “meal”. In second place, comes soybeans that can be found in many forms including the popular miso (味噌) soup, tōfu (豆腐) bean curd and soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). In terms of protein, seafood is heavily featured in its cuisine but are not limited to creatures of the sea, as you might encounter an abundance of seaweed, and vegetables. Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but also many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (漬物 tsukemono).

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Traveling in Japan, one will discover the distinct local specialties that make every city unique from the other. Separated by regions, one will find a number of dishes based on what is locally available, crops and fish included. 

For now, this post is strictly about Osaka. Part 2 (Kyoto) and Part 3 (Tokyo) will come shortly after. 

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Ok….so I wanted to clearly explain Japanese cuisine bin general before describing my experience in Osaka there but…enough with the explanation and on with more important writing!

Osaka…Known as “the country’s kitchen”, it is ubiquitous is food. It is deemed such an excellent place to eat, that it is exemplified by the Osakan maxim “kuidaore” which means “eat yourself into ruin”.

The wides selection of restaurants lie in its main entertainment areas, specifically in Hōzenji-yokochō (法善寺横町) or Soemon-cho (宗右衛門町 and in Dōtonbori (道頓堀), the latter being the best place to try out “kuidaore”.

I landed, checked into the hotel and within 20 minutes, found myself on the basement floors of Osaka station.

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One of the must-trys as I described earlier were though curtain-hidden restaurants, which seem from the outside, a bit sketch, but you enter and it is jammed-pack with business-men eating a “snack”, a short dinner and just having good food.

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I can’t tell you how I found this place, as I lost myself and found myself going around in circles of the basement building, but this small joint was a great way to start my food experience in Japan.

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A U-shaped counter circled the kitchen where one man simply boiled different ingredients: egg, meat, fish, tofu, you name it in this spectacular umami broth. Some highlights, before the actual dinner….everything came with a ladle of soup on top and a side of super-spicy mustard.

Here, they specialise in oden (おでん) – a variety of skewered fishcakes, daikon radish, tofu, and other ingredients simmered in fish soup for days. Primarily a winter dish, often sold in convenience stores and on the street in makeshift blue-tarp yatai tents.

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Slow-cooked radish…very soft

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Mushroom

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Egg

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Cabbage-filled meat

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Tofu and fresh spring onions

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Side drink? Always, in Japan. Tea. The most popular beverage by far is tea (お茶 o-cha), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer.

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It was extremely cold in Osaka during those few days, so I lucky enough to enjoy 2 other “hot pot” stews apart from the Oden – something very popular particularly in the cold winter months.

Sukiyaki (すき焼き) – a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. Well known in the West, but not that common in Japan.

Here, I tried it at  SuehiroMain shop永楽町スエヒロ本店  (Address: 大阪府大阪市北区曽根崎新地1-11-11)

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Sitting and eating tatami style

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Mix the raw egg with the cooked wagyu beef….Swished through the hot water to instantly cook them, then dipped in flavoured sauce

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My sample plate:

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The damage with sake and umeshu

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A side note on Sake…

Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process is completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake (酒) can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (日本酒) is used to refer to what Westerners call “sake”.

The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (日本酒度), a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this “sake level” measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.

Sake is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma. Honjōzō (本醸造) is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (純米), meaning pure rice, is an additional term that specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.

Umeshu (梅酒), inaccurately called “plum wine”, is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).

Shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) – another hotpot but of clear water or very light broth; very thin slices of meat (traditionally beef, but seafood, pork, and other variations exist) are briefly. Here at Kani Doraku, a big restaurant specializing in everything crab 🙂 (Address:

大阪府大阪市中央区道頓堀1-6-18)

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Before the shabu shabu, some dishes included raw crab, steamed egg with crab, crab tempura…well you name it!

Raw snow crab…delicious!

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Steamed egg with snow crab

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Grilled crab claws


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Ingredients for the shabu shabu

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The finale: rice for crab congee
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Street food as well is a definite must-try here and included (but are not limited to):

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Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat or seafood of your choice, slathered with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger. They are best eaten in hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

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Takoyaki (たこ焼き), bits of octopus inside fried dumplings on a skewer and served with sweet mayonnaise, best purchased from street vendors (my favorite by the way).

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I was also able to fit in, one particular restaurant specializing in grilled unagi (eel).

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Presented bento box-style, the eel is grilled, lathered with sauce and eaten with rice (below)

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A great Osakan-style specialty

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Another favourite (which I will have again) is eel wrapped with egg (which to me seemed difficult to make). The egg was fluffy and seasoned perfectly and the eel, well was magical.

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If that wasn’t enough food already, the trip through Osaka was marked by two more  ‘upscale ‘restaurants. Fujiya 1935 (3 Michelin star) and Noguchi Taro (1 Michelin star) recommended by a very good friend.

Fujiya 1935 (2-4-14, Yariyamachi Chuo-ku, Osaka 540-0027 or 大阪府大阪市中央区鎗屋町2-4-14)

What was originally called Fujiwara restaurant dates back to 1935, with its current owned and head chef, Tetsuya Fujiwara, being the fourth generation of the family to be chef here.  He and his wife trained in Europe, mostly Spain, before returning here. I was able to speak to him and since he did not speak English very well, Spanish was the next best thing. He has commissioned artists to make special plates for each dish, giving a sense of Japanese tradition even though he is cooking modern food.   Mr Fujiwara trained at Osteria Francescana in Italy, and then L’Esguard in Spain, before taking over the reins in the kitchen in 2003.

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Fujiya 1935 is on a busy shopping street in Osaka.  You enter through a discreet entrance to a waiting area, and then head to the dining room upstairs past the kitchen.   The room is quite sparsely decorated, with white walls, wooden floor and a few ornamental small tree trunks along one wall. Tables are generously spaced and laid with white linen. The cuisine is modern Spanish.  But to be honest, it just seemed western. I expected more out of the restaurant, especially if it was a 3-star michelin restaurant and was quite disappointed. The food was well-cooked and ingredients were fresh but I did not appreciated some of the dishes, as I felt they tried to ‘fill you up fast’ – this included a pasta dish (random), several breads and potatoes. Also, the style of cuisine, I might understand it to be modern and different for Osaka and Japan but presentation-wise reminded by normal but very good bistro food I have had in Paris recently.

Assortment of starters:

Bread of olive, Pistacchio Marshmallow, Yellow Paper, Raw timber hen of the woods, Bread of Black soybeans

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Sauted cod milt, Potato consomme

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Brown Mushroom Pasta

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Venison from Hokkaido, red sauce (beetroot and raspberry)

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Merengue and strawberry

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Snowman

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I was a bit saddened about how the meal turned out in the end, but my last meal in Osaka proved to make all my preoccupations move aside. Noguchi Taro (1 Michelin star), hands down was the best meal in Osaka and one of the tops in Japan. problem is though, I don’t know where it is, so if you go and you MUST go, ask your hotel concierge for directions.

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Tucked in a small building on the 1st floor, you wouldn’t even realize there’s a michelin star restaurant set up there. Almost got lost trying to find it. You pull aside the sliding door and you find the chef Taro Noguchi standing there behind what seems to be a sushi bar but is not. Only about 10 people fit in the restaurant and you watch the chef in front of you during the whole meal, preparing each dish by each dish, with meticulous attention. It wasn’t a quiet dinner though and he was very responsive to all my questions about his work, life, restaurant business in Osaka and Japan in general. Really nice guy.

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The food is fresh, the chef heads to the Osaka market every day and what is available is on the menu. Sometimes though, it’s not, and he will change a whole dish to wrap around the ‘new’ and ‘temporary’ ingredients. It’s all about freshness and bringing out the best and boldest flavors of that product, something I very much respect and follow in terms of philosophy.

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The main feature, the grill

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Some highlights:

Raw baby sea eel, sea urchin and nori (seaweed) – so strong and bold but blended well.

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Roasted Gingko nuts

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Baby corn

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What I thought was meat…but…

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Tuna cheek (he first asked what I thought it was, and I said beef or pork) but no…tuna cheek, literally set on quick fire on the grill and sliced and marinated to perfection. Wow

Quickly how the fire burned, with rice hay:

Quick shot of the grilling

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Final plating

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Home made fish cake – made in front of you, a la minute

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Unagi (eel) BBQ style with parmesan cheese

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A great surprise!

He works by himself but he has an assistant in the back prepping some things. Clients sit next to each other, and at the middle of this counter is a grill, where the big action happens. A magical meal, one I will never forget.

Hands down one of my best meals in Japan and life in general!

Lucky enough for me, with all this eating was a lot of walking. Trains and walking underground was a major means of transportation and not all restaurants were close to main stations. I must admit, a lot of shopping (of food and clothes) was done as well. Thank god we were able to walk it off, rather than roll down the hill….

Happy traveler, Happy eater!

Stay tuned for Part 2: Kyoto!

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Comments
One Response to “Japan, Part 1: Osaka”
  1. Thanks for such a mouthwatering post! Going to Osaka and Kyoto next year and I can’t wait to eat all the lovely Japanese food. Do you mind if I ask you how much you spent for Noguchi Taro? Just a ballpark figure is okay. Thanks again!

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