As you can clearly tell from my posts, I'm a HUGE foodie, so part of our strategy for including Osaka in our Japan Itinerary was solely for the food. Most foodies include Osaka in any list of best food cities in the world so we had to check it out.
I didn't want just a regular tour. We wanted to find someone who could help us navigate the back alleys and take us to places we would never find on our own. Our guide Yuki was perfect. He owns his own tour company and takes only a handful of clients. He didn't even want me to name his company in my blog because, as he said, "If my tours get too popular or big I won't be able to keep going to these tiny spots."
We exchanged emails in advance so he knew our food allergies and any special requests and he set up the plan for us. He said with kids our tour would be slightly different than if it were just adults but he said he still had great spots - just no sake bars (which might have been fun).
What is so great about a good guide is more than just insight on one topic, Yuki talked a lot about characteristics of people from Osaka and how different they are compared with people from Tokyo. Everything from the way people talk (Osaka fast and direct and all the time) to the way people in Osaka are always after a deal (the merchant class settled in Osaka, while warrior, farmer and craftsman classes settled in other parts of Japan). We loved his insight into Osaka and Japanese food culture.
Stop One: Takoyaki or Octopus Balls
These round balls are carefully crafted little small pancakes with a simple wheat flour-based batter and a small piece of Octopus inside cooked in a molded pan. The Chef will make a small turn to each ball with chopsticks in order to cook it all the way through. SO YUMMY! He is named on the Michelin Guide but I would never have been able to find his stand without Yuki.
Stop 2 - A traditional Izakaya
While all Americans think of Izakaya as a fancy Japanese restaurant, the Japanese word “izakaya” is actually a combination of “i” which means to stay and “sakaya” which means a liquor or sake shop. So they are basically just liquor stores that allowed customers to drink on the premises and added some food for sale to take advantage of the customers hanging around.
Above: A picture of our Izakaya. It is the blue awning connected to the Liquor store on the right
We were out on a Friday night so Yuki said that men typically stop for a beer before heading home. The place was so packed with locals that we became a bit of a show when we came in. Yuki had to explain where we were from and they all got excited to see us try the different items.
Yuki thought this spot had the best dashi in the city. There was a hot pot on the bar with dashi that included fish cake, daikon radish and deep fried tofu. It was delicious.
The other food that Yuki thought was prepared well here was the Japanese Puffer Fish. He explained to us that you do in fact need a license to prepare it and a few people do die every year eating it, but he said no one really has a problem. It is an expensive option though and candidly he said he preferred the taste of other fish. He showed us how when you make sashimi with puffer fish, you serve it on a colorful plate to demonstrate how thinly sliced the fish is.
The actual puffer fish was cut into small strips, about two inches long. It was similar in texture to squid. A little more delicate.
Stop 3: Doteyaki and Kushikatsu
Our third stop was great. Americans would freak out because everyone can still smoke in Japan and often these small places would be filled with people smoking. According to our guide, in true Osaka fashion, the "deal" they were offering here was your first beer for $1 (100 Yen). Doteyaki is beef tendon stewed in miso and mirin and Kushikatsu is deep fried meat on a stick.
Our Kushikatsu was probably the most straight-forward snack we had. You dipped the deep fried meat in this brown sauce that was a bit like Worcestershire sauce. They also had raw cabbage as a bit of fresh food with all the deep fried items. We had eel, puffer fish, pork, and beef.
On the way to our next stop we took a detour through a supermarket just to check it out. The most interesting thing for me was to see the information you could get about their high-end Japanese beef. On each package there was a code that Yuki typed into an app on his phone. Immediately we could read all sorts of things about the cow including where it was raised, what diet / lifestyle it lived, and the date it was processed. Sort of remarkable.
Stop 4: Okonomiyaki
Our last stop was for Okonomiyaki or savory pancakes. The name comes from the word okonomi which means "what you like", and yaki meaning "grill". This restaurant was awesome too. Everything was in Japanese so we never could have managed this on our own.
You select which ingredients you would like in your pancake and then they prepare it on the grill in front of you. We opted for squid.
We ended with a walk through the busiest district in Osaka filled with tourists. We felt so lucky that we had spent the night with the locals thanks to Yuki. Awesome experience.