When we started planning our trip to Japan I thought we would use Osaka as a base from which to explore other nearby attractions such as Himeji Castle or Nara. But as I started reading more about Osaka I realised that it may be quite a cool destination (with plenty to keep us busy) in its own right. Mostly I got excited when I read that Osaka was a foodie haven where you come for “Kuidaore” that is to eat till you drop – our kind of place!
We arrived in Osaka late afternoon and after checking into our hotel ventured to Osaka Castle. The castle has been rebuilt a number of times, but although a restoration, it was worth a visit and we enjoyed wandering around the castle grounds (but didn’t actually go in as we’d recently done Matsumoto Castle. Lila and Rob did go in though and reported back that it was worth a quick look and that there were good views from the top).
Post the castle, we headed to the Dotonbori area for dinner. The area is a popular tourist destination and is famous for its large billboards which are illuminated in the evening. We joined the crowds and enjoyed a post dinner stroll, finding awesome little sweet cheese tarts in a random mall on the way. We are still thinking about these yummy tarts but sadly couldn’t find them again for the rest of our trip (we did find others later in Japan and eagerly tried but none lived up to expectations).
For dinner we wanted to try the Osaka-style okonomiyaki. The okonomiyaki is described as a Japanese style pancake or omelette and consists of flour, eggs, a LOT of shredded cabbage plus usually either meat or seafood (or both) and topped with green onion, a brown sauce (resembling Worcestershire sauce), mayonnaise and bonito flakes. We found the Ajinoya Okonomiyaki restaurant on a foodie blog and arrived around 5.30ish pm to find that there was already a queue. We have experienced the British art of queuing but it is nothing compared to the queuing culture in Japan. Queues for restaurants are very common and in true Japanese style they are very orderly and efficient – you place your order whilst still in the queue. [Tip: to avoid the long queues get to restaurants right before opening time, which for lunch is usually 11am or 11.30am and for dinner is usually 5pm or 5.30pm. Whenever we followed this approach we got in to the restaurants we wanted. Of course you can always try to book but this can be difficult for foreigners.]
At Ajinoya, we sat at a small table of four with a hot plate in the middle. The ingredients for our individual okonomiyakis arrived in separate bowls and our waiter furiously mixed them together before pouring/spooning the mixture onto the hot plate. The okonomiyakis were then left to cook for a few minutes before he returned and topped them up with green onion, brown sauce and mayonnaise. We loved the whole experience and the okonomiyakis were very tasty! [We tried the Hiroshima version of the okonomiyaki when in Hiroshima and will compare and give our verdict in a later post.]
On our second day in Osaka we awoke early and left our hotel before 7am to line up for tickets for a sumo wrestling tournament. The sumo tournaments only take place six times per year (in various cities throughout Japan) and only go for 15 days. We realised that we will be in Osaka during a tournament about a month before our trip but advance tickets were already sold out – they sell out super quickly! However, a certain number of tickets are made available each morning on the days of the tournament. We decided to try our luck for these but sadly didn’t get to the queue early enough. Arriving at 7.31am we were the first people to be turned away. Having ventured out early and pre-coffee this left us pretty grumpy for a few minutes, although spotting a few wrestlers on our way back to the train did cheer us up a little. We contemplated returning the next morning but didn’t. In hindsight maybe we should have, who knows when we will be in Japan again during a sumo tournament?!
As we were already up, we decided to make the most of the morning and do a short day trip. With some quick googling we worked out that Nara was the quickest and most convenient destination from our location. About an hour away (by JR trains), Nara is known for its many temples and shrines and also the many wild deers roaming the area.
I must admit that I didn’t love Nara. It felt very touristy and to me lacked the charm and character of some of the other places that we had visited. Seeing the deers just made me sad. They didn’t look to be in great health and many were surrounded by tourists feeding them cheap crackers (sold by local vendors) or worse teasing them with the crackers (we even saw some idiots riding them and taking selfies – restraint was needed for us not to make a scene). No wonder the deers are getting a reputation for being aggressive! We did have a nice walk around through the park and went to the Todai-ji temple, which houses a huge statute of Buddha. The temple was beautiful. All in all it was a nice morning but not a destination I would return to or necessarily recommend to others.
We rushed back to Osaka for lunch and had great sushi at Tokisushi. Osaka is serious about its sushi and sashimi and has one of the biggest fish markets in Japan. Having been to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo on a previous visit, the Osaka fish market wasn’t on our hit list (although we did consider going to the famous Sushi Endo restaurant which is located near the market but ran out of time). Post lunch our sushi lunch, we visited the nearby Kuromon Ichiba Market. This is predominately a food market but there are also clothes and gadgets for sale. We focused on the food. I loved looking at all the fresh produce and we splurged on some pale pink strawberries which were absolutely delicious.
As much as we love Japanese food, we found that we needed to mix it up with other cuisine from time to time, especially having a few weeks in Japan. For dinner we wanted something casual and found a craft beer place a short walk from our hotel, called Garage 39 (as the name suggests, the building is a converted garage). The place had an extensive menu of Japanese craft beers and some yummy naughty snacks such as popcorn shrimp and fries (although you could also order some more substantial meals such as steak and duck). We love craft beer and try to find some good crafties everywhere we go. This was definitely one of our favourite craft beer places in Japan. We loved the beers we tried and I think even converted Lila (who is not a beer drinker) to craft beer! After a few too many crafties we stumbled the short way home. We stayed at the Daiwa Roynet Hotel Osaka Kitahama, which was nice and modern but the location was not particularly central or exciting. Finding an awesome craft beer place nearby and the Brooklyn Roasting Company coffee shop (which had great coffee) the next morning was a great bonus.
We spent our final day in Osaka checking out the Nakazakicho neighbourhood, whilst Lila and Rob explored the area along the river closer to our hotel. The Nakazakicho neighbourhood has traditional buildings which survived the World War II air raids and which now house little shops, cafes and restaurants. I read that the neighbourhood was pretty much abandoned after World War II but a few years ago the artists moved in, rejuvenating the area. Nakazakicho had a very different feel to central Osaka and we liked strolling the little streets and finding the shops and cafes hidden in little nooks. The only downside, it was a little too quiet with a lot of the shops and restaurants being closed – maybe it was because we were there late morning on a week day?! But we did like the area and time permitting would have liked to go back in the evening.
For our last evening we headed for takoyaki and dinner near the Dotonbori area. Takoyaki are a great ball-shaped snack made from flour and usually filled with diced octopus. They can be hard to eat as they seem to retain their heat – I’ve burnt my mouth every time I’ve eaten them! Although takoyaki had originated in Osaka we all agreed that the takoyaki that we randomly had in Tokyo from a street vendor in Omotesando were tastier.
I liked Osaka a lot. Reflecting back I can’t exactly put my finger on why. It was definitely not as cool or trendy as Tokyo but maybe it was the rough edges that made it appealing. Or perhaps it was because we were just so happy and excited to be in Japan. I definitely felt that our three nights in Osaka just wasn’t enough – there was still so much eating that we could have done and needed to do!
Next: we head to Hiroshima.