Published: October 15th 2009October 11th 2009
The Kuidaore Clown
Famous clown outside of an eight story food emporium, where Bourdain went, but it was closed when we were there.
Now, I have given great deference to Anthon Bourdain in many of my entries. We try to hit places he has been. I became frustrated when we arrived in Osaka because several of the places he went to were closed, or going through renovations, or who knows what. But, I give him credit for one thing. Osaka would not have even been on our Japan itinerary were it not for our absolute favorite No Reservations episode on Osaka. Check out the episode at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmxk2FvZtKo
And, thank goodness for the tasty tidbits on No Reservations because Osaka was our kind of town. If Tokyo is the NYC of Japan with the corporate world, a bit of snobbishness, etc., then Osaka is the Chicago of Japan - the second city - understanding that the corporate world needs to be offset by a healthy dose of good food, good drink, and good cheer. This can be seen in the long time Japanese rivalry of the Tokyo Giants versus the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka, as a Japanese version of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, with the Tigers as the perpetual underdog. For this reason and so much more, we loved Osaka. It was the highlight of
our trip to Japan. And, oh we were gluttons.
When we took the subway from the Osaka train station to our hotel we had no idea where we were headed and how far out the hotel was, but it seemed like a great distance. We wanted to be close to the center of tourist area in Osaka, Dotonbori. On the map, it seemed like our hotel was in the boonies. We did not really check into it much before we arrived. It was the cheaper of two Starwood hotels and that meant it was perfect for us. Luckily, our hotel was only two subway stops from Dotonbori (we later learned it was close enough to walk). After happy hour our first night we took the subway two stops and exited into the image I had in my mind of what Japan should be like - bright lights, crowds, food, drink. I felt like I had come home. From a Wiki-search, I learned that the area first became popular in the round of Osaka urban planning in the early 1600s as an entertainment district. It was bombed during WWII, and emerged as it currently stands with
eateries catering to tourists, theater, karaoke, shopping, and pachinko.
We generally have trouble finding Bourdain spots when we travel. But, it did not appear that his producers worked very hard at this episode. Within the first block of the main drag on Dotonbori we saw the famous clown that is a must see in Osaka; everyone must get their picture taken with the clown. Apparently, both Bourdain and Eric have a fear of clowns and neither stood close enough for a good photo. We saw the giant crab restaurant where you can get crab legs on the street. Lastly, we saw Sammy Ebisu, a large eating plaza. Now, I understand how these travel shows work and rarely do the real life experiences match up. This was one of those situations. The clown stood guard in front of the self-proclaimed largest restaurant in the world, with 8 levels of eating with various Osaka specialties. It opened in the 1950s, Bourdain visited, and it closed shortly after. The clown still stands. Sammy Ebisu was also closed or under renovations, not sure. As for the crab, the scene was totally staged. Bourdain ate beautiful, large king crab legs for a few bucks.
Every time we walked by, they only had short, little stubby nubbins of crab. I was not going to let this deter me. I was determined to gorge myself.
After passing this first block we saw that Dotonbori extended in every direction as far as the eye could see - it was one shopping and eating arcade at each pedestrian intersection. It was all loud, with speaking advertisements, music, the clink of pachinko machines, and vendors selling their wares in the typical sing song Japanese. People were handing out free tissues - I loved it. After spending months buying tissues and hoarding tissues for bathroom trips through Asia, it was so clean in Japan they gave them out on the street (I think they had little ads in them, in Japanese, but it did not stop us from taking them).
As for pachinko, it appeared to be similar to slot machines, with chain smokers pitching camp at machines for who knows how long. The inside sounded and smelled like a casino. But, we could not figure out what was pachinko? They looked like vertical pinball machines that spit out silver tiny marbles, like ball bearings. Generally a ball
is shot into the machine and falls back down, which is a loss. If it hits certain pockets, there can be a jackpot. On a busy day, you would see people sitting with baskets and baskets of the little balls ready to be cashed in. I am not sure if they were cashed in for money or prizes. We would just stand outside of the pachinko parlors and watch the mayhem.
That first night we wandered, across the river from Dotonbori, to a road that ran parallel to the main tourist area with all of the families walking by. I don’t read Japanese, but I understood what the area was. It was a red light district with hostess bars, places reading 18+ only, and lots of pictures of young women and curious pricing. During a Saturday afternoon stroll we saw a salaryman in a suit walking across the bridge from the red light area with a waifish, hopefully 18 year old girl on his arm. She stuck out because she was wearing next to nothing, under a long white t-shirt. It looked as though he wanted to take her somewhere to eat or to shop but she needed to
cover up her body and they threw on this old t-shirt. It was right out of Pretty Woman, but I doubted it had as happy of an ending. One thing we have noticed everywhere we travel to is the sex trade - sometimes it is in the open and sometimes it is more hidden, but it is always there. Even, around the corner from the happy clown and the cartoon filled Dotonbori entertainment district.
“Fashion” and the Illiterates
We wandered from Dotonburi to an area called Amerika Mura, it was described as the best place in Osaka to see Japanese teenagers trying to be American. And, it was amazing. It was another area that was covered with stores selling illiterate t-shirts, but Osaka took the cake. We noticed all throughout Asia that if you put English words on a t-shirt they will sell, even if there are misspellings or if the words do not make any sense whatsoever. In Japan, I noticed that university and college t-shirts were very popular, even if they were for non-existent institutions of higher education. They would put any city, town, or state on a t-shirt with the words college, university,
or state and it would be a t-shirt. The tops, though, was on one of our last days. I saw a young kid wearing a t-shirt that read “Hackettstown New Jersey Baccalaureate.” Now, I grew up in the town next to Hackettstown, NJ, and from my memory I recall that they barely had a high school let alone an institution of higher learning. We also saw one guy wearing a Rutgers Big East t-shirt with some probable copyright infringement. We tried to explain to him that we went to that university and Eric showed his RU visor, but I don’t think he understood the words that were on his shirt. I was not all that surprised.
I was also amazed by all of the 80s fashion and even more hairspray than in Tokyo. There was a group of young men walking around with hair that would make Bon Jovi proud. I think they were an Osaka hair band, handing out flyers for a gig. One store tried to stop me from taking a picture of some of their clothing outside, as if it was copyrighted or something. They had a varsity jacket with a heart shaped American flag that
The Costanza Rule
No double dipping
read “Listen - H.B. AT ALL Season Feel Good.” Huh? There was one shop with what must have been leftovers from the 80s. Fascinating.
During the first five months of this trip I lost about 25 lbs. It was not difficult to do - I just ate smaller portions and rather than sitting behind a desk all day I walked a lot every single day. After the first 25 pounds, which I assume was just excess baggage, I seem to have plateaud. I have been holding pretty steady since June. All of my pants are practically falling off, and I don’t even need to unbutton them to take them off. In Osaka, I am convinced that in five days I put it all back on. I ate and drank myself silly, in some respect celebrating our last few days of our six months in Asia. I was so bloated when I left I was surprised I fit in my coach seat on the airplane on the way to the Western Hemisphere. I was afraid I needed to ask the flight attendant for a seat belt extension. No joking.
Osaka is known for an eating
phenomenon known as Kuidaore, which roughly translates to eat until you collapse, or eat yourself to ruin. Bourdain discussed the concept in his episode which sealed the deal that we had to experience Osaka. It highlights the focus in Osaka on food and gluttony. We were right at home. We started our binge on fried food on a skewer at a quiet restaurant on the main drag. We wanted more of everything.
There are two foods that demonstrate the typical specialties of Osaka. We saw these items for sale in Kyoto, but forced ourselves to wait until Osaka. The first was one of the first things we ate in Osaka - octopus balls, or takoyaki. These are bits of octopus, cooked into a pancake like batter, and served with a marinade and bonito (thinly shaved fish). We only had the octopus balls once, and they were fine, but not our favorite. The place we chose had to be the most popular place in all of Osaka. You cannot walk five meters in Osaka without tripping over an octopus balls shop. This place was a veritable conveyor belt of octopus ball commerce. One day, the little stand had a line
around the corner. At least we picked the right place.
The other big item to try in Osaka is Okonomiyaki with aao-nori (a parsley), a marinade, mayonnaise, and bonito. It seemed the streets were covered with bonito - they put it on everything. Okonomiyaki is a cross between a pancake and an omelet. It is made of egg, flour, meat, vegetables, and there are dozens of variations with octopus, pork, etc. We hit a chain of stores called Chibo (there is even one in Honolulu). They cook the pancake on a flat top grill in front of you Benihana style. We only ordered one and were glad we did. It was very tasty. They give you a miniature pancake flipper to cut up and serve the food. During our last day in Osaka we returned to Chibo and we splurged and each ordered one. Mine had veggies, pork, and cheese, and I am telling you, I could have eaten one a day for a month and not gotten sick of them. (If you are keeping score, we had fried food on skewers, octopus balls, and pancake on our first night - game on!)
During our first night, Eric
noticed a place that had tons of people eating at the diner style counter. We immediately became addicted to the kushi-mono, which are pieces of food (meat, vegetables, etc.) on a skewer and deep fried, served with dipping sauce. We frequented a popular place that we referred to as the Angry Chef place, because there was a small statue of a Japanese chef outside with an angry face. We tried fried cheese, picked garlic, pickled ginger, beef, pork tenderloin, mushrooms, and eggplant - each one tastier than the last.
The Costanza rule is in effect at all kushikatsu restaurants. You receive your silver drip tray of freshly fried foods, and there is one sauce to dip them in. And, it is a communal sauce. The menu reads, in English for ignorant tourists, “Osaka’s eating culture includes the rule that when eating kushikatsu (fried food on skewers), you can only dip each piece of food in the sauce once. Before eating each item, dip it thoroughly so that you get enough sauce, then bring it to your plate and enjoy it. If you didn’t get enough sauce the first time, don’t dip the item again - instead use a piece
I honestly don't think these are costumes.
of cabbage to scoop some sauce and put it on your plate.” Brilliant! Why they give you cabbage instead of a spoon, I am just not sure. But, we were hooked.
Although we saw whale meat for sale at the local market and some fugu restaurants, the infamous Japanese pufferfish that is poisonous if not carved the right way, we stuck to the more familiar foods. Our tour through Osaka was a constant rotation of kushi-mono, pancakes, gyoza dumplings, yakitori, and ramen. And, we found a favorite Japanese establishment that we loved - conveyor belt sushi. I read that we should watch out for the conveyor belt sushi places because the freshness is iffy and the quality is not as high as an ala carte restaurant, but the price is right. We walked past one restaurant that always had a crowd, and often a line, so we checked it out. All plates of sushi were a flat rate of 130 Yen, about $1.50. We fell in love with some fantastic shrimp, tuna rolls, scallops, tuna sashimi, and some other items. There were plenty of scary looking fishes loaded with slimy items, fishy eggs, and more. We kept it more
or less safe. I loved the freedom and the excitement. As I ate my sushi I always had one eye on the belt waiting to see what goodies were on their way. You eat each item on your plate, pull the next plate down from the belt and stack it on the last one. Many customers would have 10-15 plates stacked up high in front of them. Eric and I finished off 10-15 between the two of us, which was sufficient. We tried not to fill up at any one place because we needed to keep moving and keep eating. We loved “130 Yen Sushi” as we called the place and because we are creatures of habit, we went back numerous times for yummy tuna and shrimp. I never thought I would fall in love with conveyor belt sushi.
In our perpetual search for a true Japanese izakaya, or pub, we came across a style of bar that may be unique to Osaka. It is a standing bar, not all that wide. There is just enough space to order a drink, lean against the back wall, and only about a dozen or so people
That's Eric's lower half in the front, and their mascot - the egg with fishnets.
can squeeze in. We found one near Dotonburi in Osaka, and enjoyed one of the coldest beers we have had in quite some time. We returned there several times and it became our favorite bar in Osaka. It was called Okatama, and their mascot was a round egg with heels, lipstick, and fishnets. It was our third trip to Okatama where we met, we think, the owner of the bar, a transsexual named Maria.
We squeezed our way into the tiny bar that evening and a gentleman started talking to me. We immediately became friends with Kazu, who works for Chibo, the Okonomiyaki chain restaurant. Kazu does some sort of fight training, and I started calling him superman. He was a little guy, but at 0% body fat. I felt his arms and legs and he had no fat, just muscle. I don’t even think I felt skin under his clothes, just rock solid muscles. I have never felt anything like it. It was sort of scary. And, we realized he and I had matching wedding bands. For this trip, I am wearing a thin silver band with a tiny little diamond spec that Eric got for me years
ago from Tiffany’s. Kazu, strangely, had the exact same Tiffany’s band on and he was so excited that we matched.
I also noticed the woman working the bar that night, who was pretty, and pretty tall, with a very deep voice. I noticed her in pictures during our other visits to Okatama. Kazu pointed out right away to me that Maria used to be a “he”. I told him that I thought that might be the case and why. He also pointed out that she/he (he had a very hard time referring to her as a “her”) had very big hands. I loved Maria. She ran a tight ship, was a great bartender, and laughed with her guests about her “situation” being pretty open about it. She also spoke a little English, acted as a translator for us, and also spoke some Spanish. One night we were there a guy came in to order a drink, saw Maria, kind of freaked out and said something to me that I assume was, “is she a man or a woman?” He had a look on his face and walked out. To each their own. I am not sure exactly how much
At Okatama bar, squeezed in with the crowds.
of Maria was switched. She had virtually no adam’s apple, breasts, long hair, a beautiful face, and tons of pictures of her in evening gowns and low cut tops. She’s happy, and that’s enough for me. That, and she fed me booze.
In addition to becoming addicted to sake in Japan (Eric started referring to it as my “sake problem”) I also started drinking Shochu again at Okatama. One night we were there it was only 200 yen for a pint glass (a little over $2). It was a steal, particularly because shochu was described in the Lonely Planet guide as recommended “for those looking for a quick and cheap escape route from the sorrows of the world”. It is about 30% alcohol and pretty much everyone at the bar that night was drinking it. Including one young woman who was so drunk that I think the only way she was standing was that the bar was so packed she was shoulder to shoulder with her companions. She kept waving at us and came to speak with us even though she spoke very little English. Her face was bright red. Maria was trying to get her to leave me
Kazu and Eric
At Little Long Beach
alone since she was falling all over herself. I just thought it was funny.
Our new friend, Kazu, the first night we met him, asked us to come to another bar with him. Usually we are wary of invites like this, but he seemed like a nice guy. He said he had a friend who owned a bar that was from the US. He called this guy, Chad, on his cell phone, and gave the phone to me. After a few minutes of chatting with Chad, we were on our way to Little Long Beach, a tiny little outdoor bar not too far away. Turns out that Chad is three years older than me and is from Long Beach, California. Also, strangely enough, Chad and I were born at the same hospital. Small world. Chad also explained some problems he was having with young Japanese mafia (Yakuza) showing up drunk at his restaurant, with their bodyguards. Another universal phenomenon, there is always some sort of shake down or “unofficial tax” for business owners - from Vietnam to Osaka to Chicago.
151 A Chicken
Our second night in Osaka, Japan was hit by a tropical storm,
or a super typhoon, and it was pouring. We certainly did not have it as bad as Eric’s cousin who just left the Philippines after spending his holiday completely rained out by typhoons that caused massive flooding and damage. Nevertheless, after a few happy hour drinks we convinced ourselves to leave the hotel, but we had no interest in traveling very far. It was recommended that we try the yakitori around the corner from the hotel. That is how we found a place that we are unsure of the Japanese name (we were told it translated to something like “one meeting, one chance”), but appeared to be called 151A. Their logo read 151A with a large chicken on it. They specialized in, of course, chicken. The atmosphere of the restaurant was incredible, very modern and rustic at the same time, with great lighting and nonstop jazz playing in the background. We sidled up to the bar and were handed an English menu. We ordered a small carafe of sake, and some charcoal grilled skewers of chicken and cheese, shitake mushrooms, asparagus, and more. We tried the yakitori sampler which we think included chicken intestines, which were not too bad. I
was experiencing one of my twice a year sinus infections and had started taking antibiotics before our long flight back to the Western hemisphere, but was constantly seeking spicy food. The wasabi at the conveyor belt sushi helped, but I was still looking for something high octane. 151A had some tobacco, which helped, and I tried to explain to the guys that I was stuffed up and that I loved spicy food, a fact that at least one of them found fairly disgusting. Japan is not a big fan of spicy food. This was not Thailand that was for sure.
Because we sat at the bar we were able to watch them cook different foods and we were able to order some different dishes that we could not find ourselves on the menu. We tried a heavenly chicken pizza - fresh soft dough, a little chicken, some fantastic cheese (which is just something we have not eaten a lot of in Asia) and we were given some super spicy hot sauce, pulled out just for us. We were hooked. We also had some of the tastiest, tenderest gyoza thus far. That plus a few more carafes of sake and
Living on a Prayer
We're half way there . . .
we were in love. We promised to return, and we did, every night until we left, either for pre-dinner before heading to Dotonbori or for a late night-cap before returning to the hotel. When they did not have a seat at the bar available, we would sit at a table and then they would let us know when seats were free at the bar. We enjoyed getting to know the guys there and thought it was funny that the special hot sauce would be brought out for us without even asking.
There were some items on the menu, though, that we did not want to go anywhere near. One dish we saw being prepared included chicken sushi - essentially a plate of raw chicken, not even seared. Another dish included diced raw chicken mixed with a white, cold thick liquid, looking a little like porridge, and then finished off with a raw egg. Not my cup of tea. Thoughts of salmonella swarmed in my head. But, in the land of fresh ingredients and the cleanest cooking and dining habits on earth, I am sure the rate of salmonella is really low. Still, I was not jumping on that bandwagon.
I don’t even like cutting raw chicken, let alone putting it my mouth.
Must-do in Japan
We had a list of things that we wanted to do while in Japan, and frankly, we did not do very well with accomplishing the tasks. Number one on the list was that Eric wanted to see a Japanese baseball game, and in particular, the Hanshin Tigers in Osaka. From my internet research it looked like the Japanese baseball season was the same as the US and that we would be arriving in Japan at the end of the regular season. Assuming post-season tickets were as hard to come by in Japan as they are in the US, particularly because most regular season games are sold out, we did not even try. But, Eric was not going to give up and continued checking the schedule, finding out that while we were in Osaka the Tigers were playing up in Tokyo. So, we tried to find a baseball bar to watch one of the three games. We were interested in the concept after our infamous Osaka No Reservations episode, which explained that baseball fan clubs are pretty serious and watch all
the games together in bars with chants and songs for each of the players. It was certainly something to see, but we just could not find it. We were told of one place that had a table charge plus expensive drinks and food, but we just could not commit. We tried to just find a bar with the game on, but could not find anything. During two of the games, we were at our favorite Okatama but they never had the game on. So, we failed at this task. We also failed at going to a Japanese Onsen (traditional bath). I planned on trying it in Kyoto but we just were not there long enough. The last of our must-do list would not go undone, so on our next to last day in Japan we hit a karaoke bar and checked it out.
What we were unable to find was a traditional karaoke bar with a stage, volunteer singers, and a large audience to make fun of them, or in Japan’s case, to listen intently. I think they are pretty serious about their karaoke. We did some research about pricing and in the afternoon, when it was still a
Sake and Karaoke
I think this just says it all.
little cheaper, we hit Big Echo Karaoke, one of the large chains. We ordered one hour of time plus a small bottle of sake, to make it easier to sing, and headed to our private room. That is the way most of the large karaoke houses are organized - you have a small room, your own TV and microphone, and privacy - which makes it much easier to get over your nerves. In our case it was just Eric and I. We were trying to make the most of our time so I picked the first song I could think of - Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” A Bon Jovi video played on the screen and I tried to rock out best I could. I felt, though, like I was singing to myself because Eric was more focused on looking through the book for the next song. He chose wisely, doing a wonderful rendition of “Folsom Prison.” I was worried that he would totally hate it, but after that first song, he was hooked. We noticed there was no Johnny Cash video in the background and instead there were bad actors dancing around with weird backgrounds. Eric sang “Chicago”
Japanese Bullet Trains
Heading from Osaka to Tokyo to the airport and then Argentina.
with the background being shot in NYC, complete with the Statute of Liberty. He kept yelling “stop showing New York.” After we sang Domo Arragato Mr. Roboto, Madonna’s Santa Baby and Holiday, Pour Some Sugar on Me, Rock Lobster and more Eric could not wait to return.
On our last night in Osaka, after many carafes of sake at 151A, we stumbled next door to the Karaoke Room, which is the other large chain in the area. At the end of the first hour, Eric wanted more, so we stayed for two hours before running out of songs we were interested in singing. This time we sang the ever famous throughout Asia - “Hotel California”. I sang a wonderful rendition of Heart’s “These Dreams.” We had a blast, and it was a great way to end our trip to Osaka, to Japan, and to Asia. After over six months in Asia, we were saying sayonara and heading down to Ole South America way. Hola Argentina!