When you haven’t seen a good old friend for so long, the catch-up will include years-worth of stories over a mass of food and drinks. But if that friend is half-Japanese and manages a restaurant on a high-rise downtown Japanese mall, you get to start the reunion with unlimited world-class whisky–Yamazaki. Needless to say, I wouldn’t have spent my welcoming hours in Osaka any other way.
Miyuki and I go way back. We spent 4 years in Highschool and we were in a same clique or barkada. After college, she went back to Japan to study and live there for good. She occasionally visits Manila but not for the last few years. When I decided to travel around Japan for New Year 2016, stopping in Osaka was never about the infamous Universal Studios nor the downtown shopping–It was all about spending a few but quality days with a good friend I truly miss.
Osaka is Japan’s second largest metropolitan area after Tokyo and the third city in my #JapanSeries. It has been the economic powerhouse of the Kansai region for many centuries and it has continue to serve as a sub-capital that plays a significant role in welcoming foreign culture and trade.
Historically, Osaka was known as “Japan’s Kitchen” for housing essential goods and staple food of the East for shipment to other parts of the country and other international destinations. Hence, it’s true that Osaka can offer a flavorful plate but what is not known to most, Japan is also one of the world’s best in producing high-grade liquors not just rice wines.
I arrived late night in Osaka after about an hour train-ride from Kyoto, just around the same time Miyuki finishes her shift in the restaurant. Dragging my luggage and totally under-dressed, we went to a local and literally underground bar for a quick chat before heading home to Miyuki’s very minimalist Japanese apartment.
Majority of things do not come cheap in Japan, but anyone would gladly shell out if what you will get is worth more than gold–the craftsmanship and quality of basically anything Japanese.
Miyuki took some time off work to tour me around nearby sites and to prepare me a hot bubble bath for the precious two nights that I stayed with her haha. It was a holiday season thus most museums or office-controlled attractions were closed to public.
Ergo, second order of business: Castle.
Osaka Castle was originally built by one of the three great warlords and unifiers of Medieval Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The castle was burnt to the ground from the battles and natural disasters raged between 1614-1665. Since then, Osaka was restored from the ashes of civil war and quickly grew into the county’s economic heart. As they claim, “Osaka Castle lives. It will stand forever”.
Third order of business: That happy runner–Glico!
What used to be a theater district, Dotombori is now a popular nightlife, shopping center, and entertainment area characterized by its quirky atmosphere illuminated by neon lights of huge billboards and Ad screens.
But the one sign that has lasted for over 70 years now is the 33 meter Glico Man sign at the Ebusubashi bridge. It’s a simple image showing an athlete in a victory pose as if he had just crossed the finish line.
Fun Fact: Glico Man still has enduring popularity amongst the locals who congregate here to celebrate sporting victories. The company behind the ad, Ezaki Glico, is a confectionery manufacturer based in Osaka.
This area is highly touristic especially during the holiday season. There was a bizarre flow of people, locals and foreigners, who stop by in the middle of the bridge to have a photo op with Glico (see exhibit A in photo above 😉 ) or who are in their usual holiday mall-stroll pacing. Osaka boasts one too many well-known restaurants, leading us to the main event: Food trip.
The most memorable of my travels are those shared with the locals. For this Japan trip, I was so happy to have spent it with a good friend who knows the ins and outs of the place and who speaks one of the most complicated languages in the planet. Miyuki took me to several hole-in-the-wall restaurants and izakaya or a small inexpensive Japanese bar. I remember being the only foreigner walking along those little streets and the darkest skinned customer drinking in those even tinier izakaya. Quite the experience any traveler is aiming for.
Osaka is famous for Okonomiyaki or a savoury grilled pancake with basically any ingredients of your liking, true to its literal meaning in English: “What you like”. We tried the one with sea foods and loads of cabbage topped with a savoury dressing. In the same restaurant, I was fed an authentic Takoyaki and not the 80% floured one. It is a ball-shaped Japanese snack often filled with minced octopus, tempura scrap, pickled ginger, and green onions.
After a heavy pre-dinner, we strolled around the area and went to an izakaya famous for its Yakitori or chicken skewer in different amazing sauces! What I love about Japanese servings is that it comes in a package of many little goodness. Our plate of yakitori is served with ginger, vegetable shreds, and Edamame beans, which happen to be one of the best alcohol pairings I have ever tried.
As there is Yakitori there should also be a Soba or noodles, which recipe is basically derived from Chow mein of the Chinese. All these with a bottle of good-ass Sake or rice wine. These food nor the places we went to are not the cheapest but always remember: “Never be a tight cow for a good chow”.
Almost-pro Tip: Just friggin’ go inside any izakaya you see in Osaka, you’ll never regret entering. Heck, you might come out with an unbutton pants or no pants at all. Read: Drunk and full!
It was one of those 3-degree Japanese winters but with good food and good company, all I had in my head was an endless chant of Kampai! Kampai! Kampai! and I seriously never want it to stop.
Watch my travel video of Osaka-Hiroshima-Miyajima here: