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Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011

Osaka: mecca for foodies, and more


By KATE CROCKETT
Special to The Japan Times

A visit to Osaka is all about enjoyment, entertainment and indulgence — particularly in the fine fare to be found everywhere around its historic sites and along the buzzing neon streets of Japan's food-fueled second city.

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Cup-winner: A statue of Momofuku Ando, the revered inventor of instant ramen, outside the Instant Ramen Museum. KATE CROCKETT PHOTOS

And so it was that a class of 8-year-olds arrived, on what would surely be their most exciting school trip ever, at the Instant Ramen Museum in the city's Ikeda district.

There, standing proudly atop an enormous granite Cup Noodle, is Momofuku Ando, the revered inventor of instant ramen whose legacy they've come to "study." He holds aloft a bag of Chikin Ramen, whose educational value in spelling terms is hopefully less than its nutritional benefits.

Swiftly bypassing the chance to learn more about Ando — who was so shocked by the poverty in postwar Japan that he decided to create a food for the masses that was cheap, simple, safe to cook, long-lasting and, most importantly, tasty — the children head straight for the My Cup Noodle Factory.

There, for ¥300, visitors can decorate their own packaging and customize their own Cup Noodle with a choice of desiccated ingredients and flavorings. Which to go for — bacon bits or sweetcorn? It's a crucial decision, and one can't help but think that these young people are being well groomed for life as Osakans — a folk for whom food is a pleasure and a passion to be indulged.

While itself being one of Osaka's top tourist spots, the Instant Ramen Museum is just one of its numerous, unashamedly gluttonous attractions, including Naniwa Gyoza Stadium and the "food theme park" that is the central Dotonburi district.

However, Dotonburi is Osaka's bright, pulsating heart. Beneath its flashing neon adverts, people flood in and out of the game centers, shops and eateries that squeeze into arcades decorated with inflatable fugu (puffer fish), animatronic king crabs and an angry-looking Daruma Daijin mascot who warns against double-dipping at his kushikatsu (deep-fried, skewered meats) chain.

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Street art: A fearsome Daruma Daijin mascot (above) outside one outlet of the eponymous chain of eateries.

Beside Ebisu bridge, a takoyaki stall is doing swift business as hungry visitors wait eagerly to get their hands on its small balls of near-molten batter with octopus bits inside, slathered in sauce and topped with bonito flakes.

At the next stall, a man is pouring batter to make taiyaki (sweet cakes filled with adzuki bean paste) in the shape of the auspicious sea bream. They taste great, handed over piping hot from the mold — perfect to nibble on as you descend to the towpath by the Dotonburi Canal.

Recently spruced up, the canalside area now has good lighting, boardwalks, benches and trees. It is a great place to sit with a takeaway and watch the world go by — day or night.

Alternatively, hop a boat from there to Universal Studios or to Osaka's iconic castle. Reconstructed in the 1930s in the style of the original fortress that burned down some 266 years previously, Osaka Castle dominates the skyline and from its fifth level affords great views of the city and Osaka Bay — and also eastward to the mountains beyond which lie Kyoto and Nara, less than an hour away by train. Inside, meanwhile, there's a genuinely interesting exhibition that brings Osaka's military history to life in beautiful paintings on folding screens.

Surrounded by a huge moat and a park resplendent with ginkgo and cherry trees, the castle looks particularly impressive in the spring, but also when it's illuminated at night. However, for the best city panorama that includes the castle, visit the Floating Garden Observatory in the Umeda Sky Building at sunset.

A suitably nostalgic tram line — one of just two remaining in Osaka — connects two of the city's other important historic sites. One is Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, with its unique, steeply arched Taiko-bashi (Drum Bridge), set in a quiet, former downtown district of the city.

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An arresting lantern in Osaka's city-center Dotonburi district.

The picturesque vermillion shrine — which is dedicated to a host of gods associated with safe travel, good fortune and even successful matchmaking — celebrates the 1,800th anniversary of its founding in 2011, making it the oldest known shrine in Japan.

It's a serene, sprawling complex of torii gates, stone lanterns and even a rice field that's dedicated to the gods and is the setting for an elaborate rice-planting festival each June. Meanwhile, "shrine maidens" grace the grounds, selling lucky charms for everything from childbirth to prosperity.

At the other end of the Hankai Tramway is Shitennoji temple, the first state-established Buddhist temple in Japan. Its clutch of wooden buildings surround a five-story pagoda that stands in a sea of raked white stones. You can climb the spiral staircase to the top of the pagoda, although, disappointingly, you can't get out onto the roof to see the view.

So instead, seek out the temple's hidden secret: a tranquil monks' garden in the north of the precincts. There you can see carp and lotus flowers (in full-bloom on spring and summer mornings), and marvel at the precisely clipped topiary.

As you leave the temple, make a visit to the Tsurigane-ya, close to the Saidaimon gate, where you can see the labor- intensive process that goes into making tsurigane manju (bite-size cakes) in the shape of the old temple bell, filled with sweet adzuki bean paste. It's exactly the way they have made them by hand for the past 110 years.

Being a port city, Osaka has a strong culinary history. Indeed, it was once known as the "larder of Japan" because goods arrived there from the various islands, and beyond, to be distributed across the country.

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Finishing touch: A worker at the venerable, seventh-generation Yoshino Sushi shop prepares one of its famed traditional Osakan hakozushi (boxed sushi) meals.

Nowadays, in the shadow of the sparkling new St. Regis hotel in Midosugi, in what was once a prosperous fabric district, the seventh generation of the Hashimoto family runs Yoshino Sushi. Makers of traditional Osakan hakozushi (boxed sushi), the family have been in business for 170 years — although these days they are among only five such specialists left in the city.

Hakozushi is made by packing vinegared rice into a square mold, adding various cooked seafood toppings and then pressing it all down to form a "cake" of sushi which is then cut into pieces — with knives made in Sakai, a famous city of samurai craftsmen south of Osaka.

Order a Naniwa box of mixed sushi and watch the chef's artistry as he assembles it: Not only is it a chance to try Osaka's own unique style of sushi, but it is also a rare opportunity to witness one of Osaka's fast-disappearing culinary traditions.

"Naniwa" is the old name for Osaka, and in the Kuromon food market, look closely and you will find on sale a handful of heirloom vegetable varieties known as Naniwa yasai. Often rather oddly shaped and gnarled looking, they are also quite cheap, as modern families don't tend to cook with them.

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Water margins: The walkways alongside the Dotonburi Canal have lately been spruced up with good lighting, boardwalks, benches and trees, making for a great place to sit and watch the world go by, or to admire the bright lights of Dotonburi itself — Osaka's pulsating city-center heart.

However, you will find these vegetables on the menu at Koryu in Kita-Shinchi, one of only 12 restaurants in the city awarded two Michelin stars. In one of seven exquisite courses, chef- proprietor, Shintaro Matsuo, 34, serves a delicate, steaming dashi (fish-stock) broth containing nuggets of rare Kotsuma pumpkin and heirloom white gourd to accompany a bundle of steamed egg stuffed with lobster.

This atmospheric restaurant is one of many fine-dining establishments in the city — 90 of which hold Michelin stars — that are changing preconceptions of Osakan food as being only about okonomiyaki (fried batter cake) and takoyaki. As a result, a new kind of visitor is being drawn to the city — the gourmet traveler.

For more information, call the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau at (06) 6282-5900 or visit osaka-info.jp. The tourism bureau has offices in Namba and Umeda stations and can organize excellent volunteer Goodwill Guides.


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