Some days, Facebook looks like a cookbook. Posting your dinner to Instagram feels like the modern equivalent of saying grace. I often give my friends a serve over how eagerly they share their food on the social media. I get it, though. Food is more than fuel. It’s culture—especially in Japan.
The entire nation obsesses about food. What shall we eat? Where shall we eat it? What does it mean? Locavores are not necessarily hipsters; long-standing tradition demands that when visiting a far-off city, one consumes its fare. If you haven’t eaten the local specialty, you haven’t really been there.
In fact, Japanese food is more than culture. Food is history, literature, geography, and pornography.
No place more so than in Osaka. Notorious for rough manners and a most un-Japanese impatience, Osaka does nothing in moderation—including eat.
So, on our first night in western Japan on a visit to my husband’s family, we took our appetites out for a spanking on the Dotonbori. Osaka’s nightlife district, it caters to hungers of every kind.
Dotonboristas generally start at Shinsiabashi, where the covered shopping streets give way to this well-known Osaka scene.
Since 1935, the Glico Running Man hawked caramels so perfect, that a single piece could replenish you after running a marathon. With modern sports drinks and energy bars, his pitch is no longer so relevant. But like the Sanyo sign in Piccadilly Circus or the Skipping Girl sign in Melbourne, the icon proves indestructible.
Note, though, how Japanese folk wisdom deals with sweets. They don’t give you a boost of energy, but rather restore it after it’s expended. Feeling tired is noble; a state of grace that tells you you’ve achieved something. The standard way to fare a colleague well as he leaves the office is otsukare samadeshita, or “you must be tired”. The Glico Running Man doesn’t look tired, though. As a mascot—and every Japanese business needs one—the Running Man embodies the spirit of health and energy.
Not so that other icon of Osaka, a mechanical clown named Kuidaore Taro. His first name recalls a Japanese word for which we have no direct translation in English; kuidaore is a weakness of character which comes from overindulgence in food. From 1950 to 2008, the beloved Taro stood outside a namesake restaurant, popular with sumo wrestlers who weakened their characters under his watchful, bespectacled eye. Since the restaurant closed, he now poses for pictures outside a shop in which he mainly sells souvenirs of himself. He must be tired.
Turn left down the banks of the Yodoyogawa, and the buzz picks up. You’ve arrived at peak Dotonbori, where restaurants shout unsubtly of the deliciousness within.
The most unsubtle is this giant crab, whose mechanical claws, legs and eyes flap about like he was just plucked from a tank. That’s Kani Doraku, built in 1960, molded from a then-newfangled material called fibreglass. Many believe the sign to be haunted. Just inside the front door, real crabs wait on death row.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of crab. Crab is just too hard to eat. My husband, on the other hand, will patiently wield that ice-pickish bit of cutlery which extracts every morsel of (supposedly) sweet, succulent meat from the crab's leg.
This strikes me as the gustatory equivalent of performing a backward four-and-a-half somersault—beautiful to watch, but the degree of difficulty is far too high for a recreational diner. For me, even a KFC thigh pushes the boundaries of Not Worth the Trouble. Anything harder to eat than an oyster doesn’t deserve to see the inside of my stomach. Crab needs to be made into a ball, and fried on the end of a claw, Chinese-style.
Speaking of hard-to-eat things fried into a ball, let’s talk takoyaki. Small pieces of octopus tentacle hide in a spherical fritter of rice-flour, garnished with barbeque sauce and flakes of dry tuna, which you eat by stabbing with a stick. This dish can be quite tricky to make, and requires a deft hand to rotate the spheres 180 degrees in mid-fry. These gents are clearly gifted.
Tricky to make, and tricky to eat. Takoyaki present the same problem as biting into a potato in a stew; the tentacle inside is much hotter than the outside, but there's no way of knowing how much hotter until you've bitten into one. You'll clock plenty of people on the Dotonbori sucking air heavily through open mouths.
Kani Doraku started a trend. Giant, mutant food bursts through the front wall of almost every restaurant. Here’s a rather striking scallop, which might perch equally comfortably atop a Shell station.
Those quaint models which sit outside restaurants in Japan—so that no diner will get a nasty surprise when a dish arrives—look puny in comparison. You'll find almost none along the Dotombori. Fittingly, one of the few places which needed to explain the perplexing nature of its dishes was the American Diner.
Do they expect to sell actual food with this stuff? Let me speak as a professional adman. In the course of my career, I spent more intelligence than I care to admit learning the secrets of appetite appeal.
Food is tricky. It needs to be photographed (or Photoshopped) with care. You've got to get close, so you can see the texture. It should be cut into a bite size, and angled to suggest that the bite is on its way to your mouth. Appetising food must steam, splash or crumble.
None of that happens in images of Dotombori food, nor in its unchewable acrylic models. One wonders if the culture of lifeless, too-perfect plastic fakery has given the Japanese foodie low standards of edible allure. This Korean BBQ can make even steak look blah. Let me repeat: steak.
A prominent chain of ramen restaurants gave up on the giant ingredient schtick. Since an enormous noodle would look as appetising as a radiator hose, Kinryu Ramen opted for a dragon—in deference, one assumes, to the Chinese origin of the dish.
In Japan, ramen serves as the ultimate drinking food. Water to rehydrate you, oil to line your stomach, and carbs to soak up the next beer. Kinryu has perfected the art of drunk-wrangling; they serve their customers on the street, where the lads can happily puke, smoke, and text their impatient, stood-up girlfriends.
The Dotombori feels fast, loud and chaotic. Precisely the sort of place you don't want to eat a dish that requires the chef's utmost concentration, lest it kill you. That's the deadly puffer-fish of the genus Takifugu, or river pig—better known simply as fugu.
On the Dotonbori, fast-fugu joints abound. This McFugu restaurant is called Zuboraya, identified by its beloved fishy mascot Ronald McRespiratoryparalysis.
Thrillseekers maintain fugu is best enjoyed as sashimi—thinly sliced raw pieces served with wasabi and soy—in such quantities that your lips feel dead, but your lungs still work. Brave foodblogger Chinito found that his visit to Zuboraya left him with a working tongue, but shaky legs which recovered in time for dessert. Personally, I prefer getting shaky legs via beer—the safe alternative.
This Osaka institution has been numbing customers since 1920, so I guess their attrition rate remains acceptable. In the local Osaka dialect, zuboraya means loose, casual, or sloppy. Never had a hankering to try the deadly delicacy, but if I did, I assure you it would be in a restaurant that looked nervous, uptight, and expensive.
Sensing that I was a little overwhelmed by the food-circus, my husband led us into the most ancient part of the Dotombori. The ruckus gave way to peaceful, metre-wide streets.
The bars and restaurants, though busy, were smaller and more exclusive. Such small restaurants in Japan often cater to a select, regular clientele; one really needs to be introduced by a standing patron to earn a full welcome There's a word in Japanese for a first-time restaurant visitor: Ichigen. The word smells of gauche.
Religious artefacts began to appear. It suggested we were approaching a shrine.
As one might expect at a shrine, maneki neko (beckoning cats) promised good luck. In this neighbourhood, the cats had a bad case of kuidaore.
The maze of alleys opened to a small square, with an open pavilion at its centre. This modest building is the Hosenji Shrine, which the Japan National Tourist Organisation describes as "newer", dating back to 1637. (They should write New York apartment ads)
Hosenji houses the god Fudomyoo, a fierce scrapper who can kick the ass of evil spirits with a few not-quite-kosher MMA moves. If you need heavy duty good luck, you must splash him with water. The many Dotombori waitstaff, chefs, barkeeps and tipsy revellers do this often; it's given him a coat of moss that recalls Oscar the Grouch. As kids, didn't we all have days where we prayed for an intercession from Oscar the Grouch?
One assumes that jittery diners can stop by for a pre-fugu pray. Handily, Osaka's most exclusive fugu specialist sits just across the street. The Asakusa Hosenji restaurant presents a discreet front, exuding an air of calm that many diners would find comforting should—Fudomyoo forbid!—they find dine themselves into the afterlife.
Mercifully, one needn't risk an agonising death to eat here. They have a second, much safer specialty. It's turtle.
I suggested perhaps this might be a nice delicacy on which to feast (as long as the restaurant practiced strict separation of crockery). I mused that some nice turtle sashimi might be just the ticket for two hungry gents.
My husband sneered, in the way that spouses reserve for each other when one of them has committed a faux pas that is just a little too much in character. After executing a monster eye-roll, the size of which I'd never seen before on a human being, he scolded me for knowing absolutely nothing about turtle! Turtle, apparently, is far to gummy to eat raw; you need to soupify it for hours. A pointless discussion about the merits of turtle for our evening meal followed, brought to a close by a look at the prices on the menu.
Wasn't there someplace here in Osaka that made food really cheap and easy, for gaijin dolts like me, I asked?
And with that question, my fine husband knew exactly where to go.
What did we eat? To find out, you'll have to wait for Part Two. Hint: the picture at the top of this post is a clue.