All the fun of the fare

Osaka is a real foodie find, from fine din­ing to street spe­cials

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - BRIAN JOHN­STON

Busi­ness-cen­tric Osaka might only seem worth a stopover en­route from Kan­sai air­port to the her­itage trea­sures of Ky­oto and Nara. But for me, Osaka is a re­peat plea­sure. This hy­per­ac­tive city is Ja­pan at its neon-flash­ing, free­wheel­ing best.

Best of all, Osaka’s food scene is fan­tas­tic. You can get hot dogs from a vend­ing ma­chine and rar­efied fish sliv­ers from top-rated chefs. Its food out­lets are mind-bog­glingly com­pet­i­tive in price and qual­ity, with eater­ies crammed into ev­ery city block, of­fice tower and rail­way base­ment. The food hall of fancy Takashimaya depart­ment store, be­low Namba sta­tion, is alone a marvel. It has an en­tire floor of fresh pro­duce, from straw­ber­ries ar­ranged like gem­stones to mar­bled Kobe beef. Another floor is de­voted to pre­pared foods, with choices to make your head swim - a thou­sand bento boxes, plump dumplings, French pas­tries, cher­ries em­bed­ded in jel­lied sweets. You haven’t done Osaka un­til you de­vour a hotel­room pic­nic from such qual­ity pick­ings.

I’m stay­ing at Swis­so­tel Nankai Osaka, right above Namba sta­tion and a walk to Do­ton­bori, the epi­cen­tre of Osaka’s nightlife and ca­sual din­ing scene. Pachinko par­lours howl, gi­ant neon signs ex­plode, Barbie looka­likes and Goths strut. Replica food gleams in res­tau­rant win­dows, gi­ant plas­tic crabs and pout­ing blow­fish loom like Godzil­las. It’s an evening car­ni­val com­plete with car­toon­ish char­ac­ters and food on sticks.

Chief among the lat­ter are fried oc­to­pus balls (takoy­aki) hot as molten lava. Slightly more so­phis­ti­cated are omelette-like pan­cakes (okonomiyaki) filled with shrimp, pick­les or cheese, then squirted with may­on­naise and bar­be­cue sauce, eaten in din­ers so small that I rub thighs with the per­son be­side me, and wipe oil from the grid­dle off my spec­ta­cles.

These are ev­ery­day, work­ing-class snacks with­out pre­ten­sion. The city is also mad for udon; the wheat noo­dles are served in a golden broth flavoured with kelp, light soy sauce and bonito (shaved, dried tuna). Va­ri­ety comes from ex­tras such as shi­itake mush­rooms, fried tofu or eel. When I want to linger longer, I head to the ubiq­ui­tous grilled chicken (yak­i­tori) bars. They’re part

SPARKLING SUC­CESS

Cafe by Aman, open for lunch and din­ner, has launched at the glam Aman Tokyo, the cap­i­tal’s most talked-about new ho­tel. The space is on the ground floor of Otemachi Tower and of­fers in­door and out­door seat­ing plus next-to-na­ture views through a 3600 square-me­tre ex­panse of green­ery at the sky­scraper’s base; the fo­cus is on Mediter­ranean fare as well as the ex­pected Ja­panese cui­sine, in­clud­ing sig­na­ture af­ter­noon tea pre­sented in tra­di­tional bento boxes. Cafe by Aman is the only res­tau­rant in Tokyo serv­ing vat-poured Ma­sumi sea­sonal and sparkling sake wines. More: aman­re­sorts.com. pub, part fast-food joint, but in the Ja­panese way that makes me feel spe­cial. A yak­i­tori-ya has a dozen seats, and food is cooked to or­der over char­coal. Of­fice work­ers un­wind over beer, sake and skew­ers of chicken, smoky with flavour.

Kazunori Tanaka, an ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant from the Swis­so­tel, has rec­om­mended Su­mibi Yaka­tori Enya. It’s on his Fri­day af­ter­noon guided walk from the ho­tel into the back al­leys of Do­ton­bori, which is com­pli­men­tary for ho­tel guests. “The yak­i­tori here has a very spe­cial sauce, re­ally good but, of course, a se­cret recipe,’’ he says. I re­turn later for as­para­gus wrapped in ba­con, mar­i­nated chicken and Asahi beer. The young chefs have no English, but a sense of hu­mour and Google Trans­late car­ries us along in a so­cia­ble glow.

Next door is Ki­taro Sushi, where two sushi cost JPY250 ($2.60), pre­pared in front of me with fish just out of the ocean. Chef Yuya, I dis­cover, stud­ied English in Van­cou­ver and can slice radish pa­per-thin with a knife as large as a samu­rai sword. I should go around the cor­ner, he says when I’m sushi sated, to Miyoshiya for udon noo­dles, be­cause they’ll warm my heart.

This is the way to eat in Osaka, hop­ping about as you would in the ta­pas bars of Spain. The Do­ton­bori area doesn’t stop un­til 5am. Hardly any­thing is in the guide­books and, if it were, you’d never be able to find it any­way, though the Swis­so­tel has pro­vided me with a hand-drawn map of its Fri­day walk lo­ca­tions. Menus are in­de­ci­pher­able, so you’d bet­ter hope other din­ers have just or­dered some­thing you fancy.

This cheap, ca­sual food scene is one side to Osaka, city of trav­el­ling sales­men (it’s nearly al­ways men). But as one of Ja­pan’s eco­nomic pow­er­houses, Osaka has plenty of up­scale din­ing too. Its in­ti­mate, al­most cramped kappo-style restau­rants pro­vide elab­o­rate meals pre­pared on the spot and served from be­hind a counter by the chef, who chats and in­ter­acts with pa­trons. I might get a light soup with deep-fried sea bream, sesame tofu and white melon; then sashimi with wasabi just freshly grated; fol­lowed by grilled river fish (ayu) with bit­ter greens. Ev­ery­thing is as pretty as cherry blos­som; Ja­panese plat­ing skills leave MasterChef for dead.

I try not to miss out on a kaiseki meal, an ex­pen­sive but mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence in which small, del­i­cate dishes that em­pha­sise nat­u­ral flavours and sea­son­al­ity are served one af­ter the other. This form of haute cui­sine emerged 500 years ago as an ac­com­pa­ni­ment to tea cer­e­monies. Ev­ery­thing about it cre­ates at­mos­phere, in­clud­ing the ar­range­ment of the food, its aroma, its sym­bol­ism and the of­ten cus­tom-made bowls in which cour­ses are served. And so I slip through a gate­way un­der a cherry tree, where a ki­mon­o­clad host­ess ush­ers me into a pri­vate din­ing room dec­o­rated with a low ta­ble, cal­lig­ra­phy scroll and rus­tic pot from which leans a twig of pur­ple blos­soms. My host­ess Nao floats across the tatami mats. It is so quiet that the poured sake wine gur­gles like a moun­tain stream.

Kashi­waya res­tau­rant, tucked mod­estly into sub­ur­ban Osaka, has one of the best kaiseki ex­pe­ri­ences in the city. It’s a mem­ber of the pres­ti­gious Re­lais & Chateaux group, and serves top-notch cui­sine. It doesn’t have an à la carte menu; choose the num­ber of cour­ses (up to 12) when book­ing. There’s a western-style din­ing room if you find tatami seat­ing un­com­fort­able and owner Hideaki Mat­suo – who gave up the­o­ret­i­cal physics for the kitchen – is a Miche­lin three-star chef. Dur­ing my mid-May visit, he’s inspired by the many shades of green on the hill­sides, and his menu is themed on the sea­sonal change from spring to sum­mer.

My first course of sum­mer hamo fish is dec­o­rated with a sword-shaped shobu leaf. “The sword sym­bol­i­cally cuts from one sea­son to another. And shobu is also the word for samu­rai sword fight­ing, and a sym­bol of our fes­ti­val for boys in early May,’’ ex­plains host­ess Nao in good English.

The meal is a pa­rade of del­i­cate flavours: prawn with sea-urchin roe in a sweet egg sauce; tofu with egg­plant and sea cu­cum­ber; fish with grated radish, black pep­per and cit­rus vine­gar; noo­dles with Chi­nese yam in a clam soup. There’s a rather un­tra­di­tional crab-meat souffle. The fi­nal sweets are inspired by Mat­suo’s vis­its to France, where he liked see­ing din­ers chat­ting over pe­tits-fours at the close of a meal. The in­gre­di­ents, though, are very Ja­panese - sea­weed, pea and mug­wort, ac­com­pa­nied by the frothy, whisked green tea used in tea cer­e­monies.

Nao kneels grace­fully on the tatami as I de­part. The ser­vice has been out­stand­ingly at­ten­tive and charm­ing. There’s a med­i­ta­tive qual­ity to kaiseki meals, a far cry from the rau­cous con­vivi­al­ity of Osaka’s yak­i­tori and noo­dle bars. Yet the de­par­ture is al­ways the same. “Hon­oured to have you here,’’ say the staff when, re­ally, the plea­sures have been all mine. • swis­so­tel.com • re­lais­chateaux.com/kashi­waya

Brian John­ston was a guest of Swis­sô­tel Nankai Osaka and Re­lais & Chateaux.

Serv­ing takoy­aki in Do­ton­bori dis­trict, Osaka, left; el­e­gant pre­sen­ta­tion at Kashi­waya; be­low left

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