Where is he gay today? Osaka Soemoncho, Sannomiya and Kobe Harbour.
The story so far: Dazzled by the dining options of the Dotonbori, Osaka's restaurant district, my husband and I set out to find a doofus food joint.
Don't you hate Westerners who won't shut up about Japanese food? It's so light! It 's so natural! It's so pure so special so cleansing so spiritual so harmony with nature so blah blah blah blah wank wank wank!
Here's what you should do with these people. Get them to shut their eyes, dip a piece of avocado in wasabi and soy, and tell them it's high grade tuna. They won't know the difference.
Truth is, not even the Japanese can live on raw fish and vinegary rice at every meal.
First of all, it's expensive. There's an old Japanese saying: I used to be rich, but I ate sushi. And we're in Osaka, which is cheapskate central. Here's an old Kansai saying: I'd rather lose a finger than a yen.
Furthermore, Japanese people like to drink.
Unless you're quaffing champagne with caviar, raw fish is extremely poor drinking food. Insubstantial, unabsorbent of alcohol, and frankly, a little bland.
That may be OK among the social and corporate elites of Tokyo. But Kansajin have zero patience for bullshit. Ain't got no time for twelve courses of exquisitely-arranged kaiseki. Your average Osakan would be gnawing off his limbs before dessert.
If a Kansaijin starts gnawing off his limbs, that shows his stomach is empty. Japanese people hate drinking on an empty stomach, because—how can I put this nicely?—the ability to hold one's liquor is not exactly a national trait.
Daikichi. Total alcoeats.
My husband is a Kansai lad, so he knows this district very well indeed. "Follow me," he said with a glimmer of nostalgia in his eye. "I'll take you to a place where Oscar and I would eat after drinking on the gay scene."
This remark predicted a night of heavy turpentine. Oscar is my husband's gay BFF; a brilliant Kansai native, who reads his nicknamesake Wilde in the original English, and speaks it with a perfect—and perfectly gay—Oxbridge accent. My fondest recollection of Oscar is his taste for gin and tonic, and his sneer if you pour too much of the latter.
If this restaurant has the Oscar Seal of Approval, it will serve drinking food. Decision Accomplished.
Thus did we find ourselves at the venerable Daikichi, or 大吉. The kanji translate as great run of luck or on a roll. (We didn't find fugu on the menu, so a run of good luck isn't critical.)
A thirty-seat izakaya, Daikichi cultivates a reputation as an insider secret. The celebrity autographs reminded me of a hole-in-the-wall trattoria in Naples or Brooklyn, whose proud owner boasts of the celebs who eat there. Like its Italian counterparts, I suspect that Daikichi lets the odd mafioso park his legs under a table. Tattoos, such as those in the picture of actor Ken Takakura, are widely believed to be a sign of a yakuza.
In Japanese, the kanji for izakaya (居酒屋) literally mean a liquor store you can stay and drink at. Dishes tend toward bar food, small and sharable, like tapas. Management plasters the menu on the wall, revealing prices between 90¢ and $3.50 (USD)
Daikichi provides an English menu for its foreign guests. Though the word English may be generous.
My husband needed neither menu nor wall; he ordered from memory. His youthful evenings always kicked off with octopus, and a fine choice it is.
More fast food followed, keeping us content while our main meal was prepared. The tofu soup and grilled sardines made a small gesture to healthy dining. We quickly undid any health benefits with two rounds of Asahi Super Dry.
(An aside: when I lived in Japan, I always wanted to get into English language voice-overs. Many commercials end with an English tag-line, and I imagined it to be a pretty good racket. Most famous was the abundantly-advertised Asahi Super Dry beer, whose royalty-rich TV spots concluded with its name delivered in a perfect be-afraid-be-very-afraid blockbuster American movie voice, which I can do in a dawdle. Alas, the only gig I could score was Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat.)
While we drank and nibbled, the TV on the wall caught our eye. An Osaka talk show.
In Japan, the words "Osaka" and "Talk Show" add up to an oxymoron. Osaka has talk-everything. Nobody ever shuts up. (The stereotype of shy Japanese folk comes from Tokyo, where government bureaucrats and corporate cogs waste oxygen in silent, organisation-man presenteeism.)
The Osaka dialect reminds an Anglophone listener of outer-borough New Yorkese; fast, impatient, and the natural language of comedy. There's no better example than Sanma Akashiya—Sanma for short. A titan of mirth, he's been clocked as Japan's fastest speaker. (Click this link to hear how fast he talks while interviewing hapless heartthrob Takuya Kimura, a Tokyo native and ex-member of Japan's most popular boy-band of the early twenty-first century, SMAP. The limp-personalitied Kimura stands no chance against smart-aleck Sanma. Even Beyonce totally pwned Kimura.)
But that night on Osaka TV, Sanma encountered someone who could give it as well as take it. Hailing from Chiba (Tokyo's New Jersey) the sumo-sized cross-dresser Matsuko Deluxe furnishes bitchy wisecracks to talk shows across the nation. She started her career as a writer for Japan's pioneering gay magazine, Buddy, before hitting the big time.
Choosing the politically-correct English pronoun for Deluxe is no easy matter, since Japanese pronouns have no gender. Her drag-name, Matsuko, is clearly female. Ko means small, and as a suffix, it might be translated as -ette.
To assign the right pronoun, we must listen to her speech patterns. Deluxe uses the grammatically proper watashi to refer to herself, equivalent to the English I or me. When speaking casually, most women will continue to use watashi or atashi, whereas men will adopt manly slang like boku or ore. It causes a snicker when men who have learned Japanese as a second language continue to use watashi, no matter what the context. Lookin' at you, millennial American gamers.
This show combined two Osaka obsessions, talk and food. A rather large panel of talkative celebs watched evergreen A-list tarento Nozomi Tsuji prepare a meal, to crack wise at her attempts. Displaying no gender ambiguity whatsoever, we caught the former starlet preparing a seaweed garnish for miso soup.
Sanma and Deluxe traded gags, while a noted doctor (also on the panel) touted the digestive virtues of having miso soup with your rice. We listened closely. We could use a few urgent health tips, since main course was on its way.
Many westerners look at Japanese people, and clock very few fatsos—sumo wrestlers and Matsuko Deluxe notwithstanding. World Health Organisation data published in 2017 ranks Japan 185th out of 191 countries in obesity, with a mere 4% of citizens officially classed as tubby. The average Japanese Body Mass Index lobs in at a svelte 23. Thus, many conclude that a Japanese diet keeps one trim, and that all Japanese food is low-fat, nutrient rich, and good for you. As I mentioned, that assumption is false. Because this:
What lardy magnificence! It's an Osaka specialty known as kushikatsu (串カツ). If one prefers to avoid katsu, the borrowed French word for cutlet, one can also say kushiage (串揚げ). Literally: fried stuff on a stick. The Japanese character for skewer, kushi (串), is a nice bit of visual onomatopoeia.
Now this is goddamn drinking food, amirite? Beats your hard-to-eat wings and nachos. And please, don't tell me that everything looks like a corn dog, because they just ain't in the same league.
In olden times, restaurants charged the same price for every stick. Customers would present a glass with their empty sticks to the cashier, who counted them up and thus settled the bill. One gets a proper check nowadays, but the tradition of collecting your skewers in a beer glass remains.
I took in this glorious scene, and grilled my husband.
"An Osaka specialty, you say?"
"So, other restaurants in Kansai serve this?"
"Everywhere. Western Japan loves fried food."
"That means we don't have to live on sushi and ramen for the whole of this week, right?"
My husband scoffed. "Of course not. Kansaijin aren't stupid."
Our vacation was looking up.
Suika KYK, Sannomiya. Pig out.
The next night, we set off in search of the crumbiest dinner we could find. We made it just in time. Restaurant KYK closed permanently not long after we visited. Clearly, we were the ultimate alpha-customers. Management gave up. Future patrons could never beat our gluttony.
Thrifty Kansai fellow that he is, the numerous set-menu options in the window attracted my husband's attention. Frittered food makes an ideal Japanese restaurant window display; the crumbs are very easy to duplicate in acrylic, and lose none of their appetite appeal. Oddly, many restaurants cover these fake plastic dishes in cling-film overnight. Not to preserve the food, but simply because the plastic models are a pain in the ass to dust.
Digesting such mountains of fried food makes even the sturdiest bowel wince. Osaka custom demands side-dishes of fibrous cabbage, rice for ballast, and miso soup as a digestif. In unlimited quantities, to do battle with the giant gut-clogging cutlets for which KYK was famous.
Look at the pork cutlets below, and look at my husband's hand for scale. KYK served up a mess o'pig. Fried to perfection, these thick slabs of pork stayed juicy, with just the barest wisp of pink in the middle.
Crumbed prawns (or for you Americans, breaded shrimp) came with the set. The decadence of deep-fried oysters was entirely my husband's touch. Note the plentiful dipping sauces and sinus-scorching Chinese mustard.
We tucked in so heartily that the server rushed over with emergency cabbage, almost instantly. She repeated this several times.
I had never experienced a food coma in Japan. But this meal caused our eyelids to droop, and both of us to yawn with satisfaction. We lounged around for about half an hour, picking our teeth with a Proo.
We took my husband's parents to dinner in Kobe the following evening, which pushed us upmarket. Could we keep up our fry-happy lifestyle? Teppanyaki gave us the perfect solution.
The Restaurant Tajima sits in a hotel on a man-made island in Kobe Harbour. I use the phrase "man-made" because when I called it a fake island, my husband objected. "It's not a fake island. I personally saw the many tonnes of dirt they trucked into the harbour to make it. It's a true island from top to bottom."
(Hmmm...surely, islands don't have bottoms. That's how you can tell them apart from a boat.)
When in Kobe, beef it up. And since Kobe is a port city, do seafood too. The lanced prawns were still alive and wriggling as the chef presented them to us.
- It's fried.
- Look at the fat in the Kobe Beef above. I'd say the fat/protein ratio in that cow ran at 50/50. This pushes it well into state fair concession territory, and maybe even rivals French food.
- Look at the picture below. The chef topped the scallop dish with a pillow of fried cheese.
- Let me repeat: fried cheese
On the Kobe waterfront, we hit a motherlode of oil and crumbs.
Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari perches in a mall of restaurants facing the Kobe waterfront. The name is almost as long as one of those pesky German words. It's so long, I haven't attempted to type it; readers may assume that every mention of the restaurant's name has been cut and pasted from its Yelp entry.
As best I can figure out from the kanji (神楽食堂 串家物語), the name means The Story of the Gods' Temple of Easy Meals.
"Here's the deal," explained my husband. "At (ctrl+V) Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari, ¥2000 (USD $18, €15) gets you all you can eat. Another ¥1000 ($9, €7.50) gets you all the beer you can drink." He paused for a moment, trying to contain his enthusiasm. "I think we'll get our money's worth."
"What's on the menu here at (ctrl+V) Kagurashokudoukushiyamonogatari," I asked?
"Fried stuff on a stick." His eyes went dreamy. "Fried stuff on a stick, forever. There's a catch, though. Like Korean barbeque, you gotta cook it it yourself."
One starts at a buffet of pre-stabbed edibles. Patrons choose among meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, tofu, and other items of indeterminate provenance.
A diner-cum-chef carries his selection to the table, where a modest friteuse waits, dangerously hot. (The grillwork on all four sides is an exhaust fan, by the way.)
One coats the food with a slurry of water and cornstarch, so the breadcrumbs can adhere. You balance the coated stick inside hot oil, and when done, slather it with dipping sauce. At this link, you can watch two young women show how it's done.
The sticks emerge crisp, ready for a good dipping.
The two teen girls at the next table had packed away a brace of kushi, and moved onto dessert. I did a double take when I saw them eating soft-serve ice cream cones with a spoon.
In Japanese culture, opening your mouth too wide is kind of vulgar; a little too intimate. Women feel particularly sensitive about it, and will often cover their mouths when they laugh or eat. Ice cream poses a special problem; licking is icky.
As with everything else, the ice cream was self-service, and so was the dessert bar. Their English skills rivalled Daikichi.
Keeping with the stuff-on-a-stick schtick, a chocolate fountain drenches your stabbed morsel of choice in brown goo. You can even dip french fries in it. Finish the evening with coffee-flavoured Jello, which you garnish with non-dairy creamer from those little sealed cup-things. Because your body is a temple.
My husband insisted I take the picture below, as proof that we nailed this whole skewer business. We couldn't count the number of sticks demolished, because we got excellent value out of the ¥1000 bottomless beer. My beloved topped it off with an ice cream cone, which he licked, because he's a real man who laughs at all this prissy business of covering your mouth. You could see his tongue. It was very erotic.
No doubt, you readers have noticed that I've been typing this slowly. The memory of that dinner (and the next, since we returned the following evening) has put me into a food fog and beer haze. We got wasted, and waisted. We left the restaurant totally full, ready for a stroll along Kobe waterfront, and onward to a highly necessary evening's sleep. Barely made it. Goodnight, and sayonara. I gotta go burp.