When I told people I was going to Osaka for a week everyone said “oh, you are visiting Kyoto right?” because Osaka isn’t too high on most people’s lists. However, every Japanese person immediately smiled in full knowledge that this industrial and ex-commercial centre of Japan has amazing food. This is because Osaka is in the Kansai region – the geographic food capital of Japan – and holds 18 million hungry souls and enough restaurants to feed them all.
So what this meant is a dedicated eating plan of two good restaurants a day – one for lunch and one for dinner – with a bit of wandering in between. In five days, or ten meals, there was not one miss. Not one meal that I regretted. Two of the restaurants left me semi-dazed and in painful recognition that I wouldn’t be able to have a single meal that good for a long while.
However, first, what is there beside the food? Well there is the Blade Runner-esque mess of Dotonbori.
You will end up there a lot as a lot of the best restaurants and dodgiest bars are located in its tentacled alleys.
Nishishinsaibashi – Streamer Espresso and Gira Gira
To the West of Dotonbori is the hipster enclave of Nishishinsaibashi where you can find what seemed to be the only good cup of espresso at Streamer Espresso and one of the world’s best bike shops: Gira Gira.
It sells classic NJS frames and is one of few places where you can custom order a Nagasawa keirin frame.
Osaka Castle and the Aquarium
Osaka Castle is the final must see. Whilst the central castle is a recreation and a museum, the surrounding stone walls, moat and nature enclave and simply beautiful.
There is also the aquarium which is mean to be one of the world’s biggest. It isn’t really one of the world’s best unfortunately.
Endo Sushi and the Fish Market
Of course you can’t always separate sights and food in Japan and so it was with the fish market. This is no Tsukiji (the Tokyo fish market) as it simply can’t match that scale. What it has instead is a far more open attitude where they actually invite you in to look around and give you demonstrations of how to dissect a fish.
Just outside the fish market is Endo Sushi which has stood the test of a 100 years and serves fish market fresh fish at working man prices from the crack of dawn. It comes in plates of four – like a mini sushi set menu – and is the best breakfast I’ve had in Japan.
Then I have to discuss Nagahori as this was the standout meal of the trip. It is a simple nihonshu or sake izakaya but what it is doing is outstanding. A long, elegant bar which is made from an ex-sake tank stands between you and chef Shigeo Nakamura. Due to my limited Japanese my choice of menus and sake was easy: omakase (お任せ).
It astounded me. Unfortunately I didn’t really focus on the ingredients as I was too busy being greedy and drunk and also talking with an excessively generous neighbour who volunteered to translate every dish and guide me through the meal. A neighbour who travels to Osaka once a week just to eat at Nagahori. And he was right. Beautiful and astounding.
The second meal which was a revelation was Kigawa in the back alleys of Dotonbori. Whilst this was a kappo or counter restaurant it was a touch more formal, a touch more focused and with a real eye to the broths and soups served with or flavouring the food.
When I look back at my pictures I am nervous as I didn’t take notes and trying to pick out certain varieties of fish from a foreign land and which have gone through the pain of dual translation is always doomed to failure. However, the combination of exacting fish standards with the chef who obsessively checked his stocks throughout the meal resulted in something special.
Mizuno was the opposite to the subtle and elegant meals at Nagahori and Kigawa as it featured the tasty mess of okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). Here there is no pretension. It is taking premium ingredients and throwing it together in a batter and grilling it in front of you.
Mizuno, again in Dotonbori, is a very good choice for this. I chose a simple pork and leek okonomiyaki and the pork was worthy of an English bacon sandwich.
Sakurae Toyonaka (2*)
Sakurae Toyonaka was our “big” meal. A clever and extended kaiseki meal with modern molecular influences.
One thing I should point out is that if you are intending to go it is only in Osaka by a ‘stretch’. This was unexpected as I booked without doing the proper research and which resulted in a taxi ride of substantive financial pain.
It is, if you make it out there, really very good. The chef was fanatical and took out what seemed to be the five grandfather books of Japanese cuisine and identified each ingredient, dish by dish, for each of the multitude of courses. Being the “big” meal it was elabourate and pretty and heavily Autumnally influenced. In the end I preferred the immediacy of Nagahori to this but it was one of those elaborate ritual, experiences that is always worth it.
Funakoshisaketen Wataru (1*)
This was probably the most fun and chaotic meal of the lot. Down one of the backest back streets of Dotonbori is a thin long bar. I stumbled in their half-cut after trying omakase cocktails at the bar opposite and found the owner/ chef relaxing with two obvious regulars.
It went from there. Sake and round after round with lots of toasting. Chaos but joyous.
Whilst there were other meals, these were the ones which I would recommend and revisit. Especially Nagahori and Kigawa and all of the streetfood you can grab to keep you warm. I would also go back to Osaka anytime as the combination of friendly engaging locals and a lack of anything substantive to do is probably my favourite kind of city.
I’ll eventually add the addresses but if you need them in the meantime you can find them all at my Everplaces account here.