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Iris van den Broek
Iris van den Broek

The kitchen of Japan

A taste of OSAKA

The once inconspicuous city of Osaka has blossomed into an important here-to-stay hotspot. Against a backdrop of neon octopus, green dragons and a replica of the Eiffel Tower, iFly reporter Iris van den Broek explores the third-largest city in Japan.

Discover Osaka
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Text and photography

Iris van den Broek
#eyeristravels

I stand at a gigantic intersection in Osaka and all six pedestrian crossings (one at each corner and two diagonally) get a green light at the same time. A sea of people, cyclists and scooters moves like a bobbing wave across the road. It is early evening and I am on my way to Dotonbori, the heart of the city and the perfect place to get a feel for Osaka. My first impression is overwhelming; bright colours, flashing advertising and neon signs all vie for my attention. Dotonbori lies along a small canal and was built by a local entrepreneur.  Today, the district has become the biggest entertainment district in Osaka. Everything is on offer, but the main draw is food, food and more food. I am surrounded by food. 

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“If Osaka is Japan’s kitchen, then Dotonbori is the stove where all the magic happens.”

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The kitchen of Japan

In Japan, Osaka is known as tenka no daidokoro (the nation’s kitchen). The city earned this nickname back in the Edo era, when it was the trade centre for rice. The name has stuck and today, Osaka still remains Japan’s culinary centre.

If Osaka is Japan’s kitchen, then Dotonbori is the stove where all the magic happens. I have never seen so many food options in one place. But there is more: the bright neon signs and enormous dragons, crabs and octopus that decorate the façades are a fascinating sight. 

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I had heard the Japanese expression kuiadore before, but here it finally makes sense to me. Kuiadore means ‘to eat yourself broke’ and is often used to describe the food obsession of the Osaka residents. The joke is that people in Tokyo may spend too much money on shoes, locals in Kyoto splurge on clothes, but in Osaka you will go broke with the food.

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TENKA NO DAIDOKORO, the nation's kitchen

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I came to Osaka with a food mission and decide to conclude my visit in kuiadore style with a barbeque. Osaka is the birthplace of yakiniku, a Japanese grill style. In a small eatery in a side street, I order a platter of Kobe beef, one of the best steaks in the world. The suppliers of this beef are found in Kobe, just 30 minutes from Osaka. The restaurant owner speaks no English, but with gestures, some pointing and lots of friendly smiles we communicate. The idea is that you prepare the meat on your personal table grill. A fun activity and my steak is amazing! It simply melts in my mouth. 

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It’s all in the yaki

The real street food speciality of Osaka is takoyaki: little balls filled with tako (octopus). I join a huge queue next to a giant octopus and admire the guys behind the grill. Using a meat skewer, they create small balls at breakneck speed. Click, click, click, and a few hundred balls are ready. Seconds later they hand me a serving of six balls garnished with sauce and spring onions. Absolutely delicious! The portions are small, perfect for sampling a variety of dishes, such as okonomiyaki, another great example of Osaka’s soul food. The dish is a cross between a pancake and an omelette, stuffed with vegetables, meat and yams. Yammy! 

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American Asia

The next morning I walk from my hotel to one of the hippest parts of Osaka: Amerikamura, a neighbourhood that seems made in the USA. American flags decorate the walls, American brands fill the shops and a large Statue of Liberty towers over the shopping centre. In the 1970s, the abandoned buildings in this part of town were converted into shops that sold imported goods from the United States. The neighbourhood quickly became known as Amerikamura, or Amemura as the locals refer to this all American part of town.

The neighbourhood is also where youngsters go to be seen: this is the place for cutting-edge teen fashion. I settle on a bench in Triangle Park, the epicentre of Amemura, to admire the continuous parade of styles: pink hair, petticoats, punk, boys in army fatigues with bleached spikes, and girls in ‘French maid’ dresses with a Japanese twist.

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I admit, the streets are a little grittier than I have seen elsewhere in Japan, but that lends a unique charm to the neighbourhood. Shinsekai means ‘new world’. This district was developed in 1912: the southern part is modelled after the New York grid plan, whereas the northern section follows a more Parisian street layout.  The neighbourhood is also home to the Luna Park amusement park, complete with an Eiffel Tower-like structure: the Tsutenkaku Tower. The park closed in 1923 and Shinsekai went into decline. Now the neighbourhood has made a comeback and is on my must-visit list. 

Osaka’s amusement park: Shinsekai

Another remarkable Osaka neighbourhood is Shinsekai. People had warned me about Shinsekai, as this is supposed to be one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Japan. Well, dangerous by Japanese standards. For the first time on my visit I encounter a homeless person. When he greets me in perfect English and asks: ‘How are you?’, I can’t help but smile. Very dangerous, indeed!

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Shinsekai means ‘new world’

Shooting for a pink elephant

I walk from the metro through a covered alley to the centre of Shinsekai and feel as if I’ve landed at a fun fair. To my left, a group of Japanese men gather at a shooting gallery trying to win a pink elephant. To my right, I note a large hall with dozens of tables where players are engaged in a board game I have never seen before. I watch in fascination how the players are completely engrossed in it. Then I hear loud cheering behind me: the men have won their prize and triumphantly display their pink elephant. They spot me and wave: would I like an elephant? Nobody speaks English but with some gestures we have a great time and a few minutes later I walk away clutching my pink prize. Arigato!

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I also want to get to the top of Shinsekai’s main attraction: the Tsutenkaku Tower. Visible from anywhere in the neighbourhood, it offers a beautiful view of Osaka. The inside of the tower exudes an air of nostalgia, and various scale models depict the golden days of Shinsekai.

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Food on a stick

Shinsekai still oozes the glamour of its former amusement park days. On the streets speakers blast cheerful cartoon-like tunes and the brightly coloured buildings hurt my eyes. Shinsekai is another great place to sample traditional Japanese cuisine. Here you will find several fugu restaurants that serve the famous poisonous puffer fish that can only be safely eaten when prepared by a specially trained chef. But the real local delicacy in Shinsekai is kushikatsu: skewers of deep-fried meat, fish and vegetables. The skewers are served with a large jug of dipping sauce, but be careful: the jug goes from table to table, so absolutely no double dipping!

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“Many Japanese visitors come here in January for hatsumode: the first shrine visit of the year”

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Serenity at Sumiyoshi Taisha

Osaka is more than a vortex of bright colours and busy streets. You will find many shrines scattered around the city where you can experience the authentic Japan. A short train ride takes me to one of the most beautiful shrines of Osaka, just south of Shinsekai: Sumiyoshi Taisha. This shrine dates back to approximately 400 AD . Although the site attracts visitors year-round, many Japanese come here in January for hatsumode: the first shrine visit of the year. 

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During my visit I come across a celebration of some sort. Dozens of families walk across the shrine complex. The women are wearing beautiful kimonos, the men are in a suit and the children are dressed in traditional outfits. They all pause to have their picture taken at the famous Taikobashi, a steep 4.5-metre-high red bridge. A walk across Taikobashi is supposed to cleanse the soul of all sins before entering the shrine. I make several unsuccessful attempts to learn more about the celebration, but the friendly people don’t speak a word of English. Fortunately, this doesn’t take away from the beauty of the moment. The ambiance is peacefully serene and I enjoy the inspiring surroundings. This too is Osaka. 

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Back in town

Returning to the city centre, I take a train that arrives at the enormous Namba Station. I am back in the hectic bustle of the city. Evening falls and my Osaka adventure is coming to an end. The city is often overshadowed by Tokyo and nearby Kyoto, but anyone who visits Japan and skips Osaka will be missing out on a delightfully whimsical destination.

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KLM

iFly Magazine

April 2017

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