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Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007

WEEK 3

Dig in at this genuine cantina

A dining experience best described as 'late '90s chic homeless-shelter'


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Osaka likes to brag that it is the kitchen of Japan, where the stomach is the most important body organ. But as the guidebooks might say, "Cheap and cheerful is the rule" when it comes to establishing a decent greasy spoon in this city, which prides itself on its working-class, merchant roots.

News photo
News photo A wide variety of canned food from around the globe can be found at Kanso, in Osaka. Customers get to eat their selections cold with plastic forks or spoons (above). ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTOS

So if you're tired of truffles, bored with Beef Wellington and you'd rather go hungry than dig into duck, put on your finest double polyester, salaryman-style lime-green suit and some cheap hair cream, place a toothpick in your mouth and drop by what is surely one of Osaka's most unique establishments, the Kanso restaurant, if it can be called a restaurant. For Kanso is neither your traditional yatai (food stall) nor, despite the array of foreign food, one of those faux "international-style" bars that offers stale nachos and pizza with unidentifiable toppings. It is, by its own admission, a "can bar," one that has been going strong for nearly four and a half years.

Here, you can choose from a wide selection of delectable delights ranging from Spam to asparagus, and enjoy them in their purest form -- straight out of the can. No need to heat anything up (there's no oven on the premises), no need to have a waiter deliver the dish to your table and no need for fancy plates or silverware, as management thoughtfully provides plastic spoons and forks upon purchase. After you've ordered, pull your food and drink up to one of the steel barrels that serve as tables in the dining area, which is actually a bare lot, open to the air in summer and enclosed with plastic sheeting during the colder months.

Kanso is the brainchild of Osaka-based Clean Brothers, a company specializing in the design of restaurants and cafes.

"We opened Kanso in July 2002 after deciding we wanted to create something unique. As we had lots of connections to food suppliers, getting cans of food cheaply and quickly from overseas was no problem. It was, we believe, the first establishment of its kind in Japan," says company spokeswoman Hitomi Sairyo.

Kanso's bohemian atmosphere has been described by certain critics as "late '90s chic homeless-shelter," and the menu will satisfy a variety of palates.

Upon entering the establishment, you face a series of shelves stocked with a variety of canned goods from all over the world. Sardine curry, red kidney beans and chili, smoked oysters and anchovies are among the favorites, while Asian gourmets can enjoy cans of Thai green and red curry.

If you're feeling a bit adventurous, pop open a can of seal, bear or deer meat curry from Hokkaido. Just the thing to get you through these long, cold winter nights (or not); at 2,000 yen per can, they aren't cheap, but nothing good ever is, right? Speaking of Hokkaido, better establishments around the nation are full of customers cracking open fresh crab from that region and the Sea of Japan. At Kanso, you can enjoy crab as well, just by cracking open the can -- no bib or special little fork needed.

Being a traditionalist, this writer was less impressed with Kanso's gourmet items and more pleased to note that it had the basic snack foods that Westerners of a certain age grew up with. There is, as noted above, that much-maligned perennial Spam, which in addition to being an old American favorite is also used in Okinawan cooking (and is a good reason one should view with suspicion any claims that all Okinawan food is extremely healthy).

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Cans of curried sea lion and curried bear sit on a shelf at Osaka's Kanso bar. ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

But for a real blast from the past, the little cans of deviled ham can't be beat. Memories of elementary school lunch boxes, decorated with your favorite cartoons or 1970s Saturday morning TV shows and packed with deviled ham sandwiches and Twinkies, will come flooding back as you open a can of the mystery meat.

Of course, there's no need to wash it all down with milk. Kanso offers only the finest quality one-cup sake and canned shochu, chuhai, whiskey and water, as well as beer; not canned beer but draught beer, actually -- a major departure from the theme. But judging by the number of empty beer cups, that was no doubt a sound economic decision.

Prices for drinks range from 300 yen for the chuhai to 400 yen for the one-cup sake and whiskey and water. If you're feeling the need for some salt, potato chips and a variety of Japanese snacks are also available. The beer is only 350 yen, which makes Kanso one of the cheapest places in Kansai to drink.

Although Kanso is a self-serve establishment, that's not to say there is no service. If you need to use the washroom, the manager will happily provide a key for, or even escort you to, the Port-a-Potty located about 50 meters away beside a parking lot and construction site. No towel service, unfortunately, and it's probably best to bring along your own paper (and I don't mean newspaper). But you get a stunning view of garbage floating in the Dotonbori canal.

It's not just fine dining that brings the punters to Kanso. Live music acts, ranging from blues to bossa nova, occasionally perform, and artists sometimes display or advertise their works, especially during Osaka's beastly hot summers and weekends, when Kanso draws the most customers.

You might well ask why anyone would pay to eat cold food out of a can?

"It's a combination of the friendly atmosphere and the novelty of the place," explained one customer. "A lot of people I know have started coming here."

Even so, the man wasn't willing to put his name to his endorsement.

With its location right beside Yotsubashi boulevard on the north side of the Dotonbori, and only a two-minute walk to Osaka City Air Terminal station, Kanso draws a wide variety of customers. College students, housewives and office ladies, blue-collar workers, struggling artists and musicians, well-dressed men and women working in the various "entertainment" establishments nearby and foreign English teachers are among the regular customers. Really busy nights will remind you of the cantina scene in the original "Star Wars" film.

But if you're going, you may need to drop by soon. There are development plans for the surrounding area and both management and regular customers fear Kanso could be forced to shut.

"We did want to open other, similar establishments elsewhere, but we haven't been able to find the right location. Kanso attracts a very diverse group of people from all walks of life and all different ages, and part of the reason is its location and its prices," Sairyo said. And, let us add, it's simple, no-frills menu that makes a perfect additional cupboard in "the Kitchen of Japan."



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