Tokyo’s Misfit Sibling Comes of Age

Skylife, March 2018 — It’s best to say out loud from the outset an open secret: Osaka is not on the radar of everyone who visits Japan. Most people travel to Tokyo, the neon capital of the world, but bypass Osaka and continue to Kyoto, the country’s cultural heart. As the noisy and fun-loving sibling of the more successful and classy Tokyo, Osaka has always been the nail that somewhat sticks out.

Osakans are rebels and larger-than-life characters. They queue on the wrong side of the metro stairs. They greet each by saying mokarimakka, “Are you making money?” in local dialect. This level of genuineness may sound borderline rude if you are not well prepped about their twisted humor.

I must confess that I, too, had dismissed Osaka as an unattractive place the first time I visited it for business 20 years ago. My impression at the time was that the city, whose metropolitan area population of 19 million during daytime
is the second in Japan, had neither the grandiose of Tokyo nor the elegance of Kyoto. Yet, Osaka, the one ridiculed for its kitsch taste in food and clothes, is also the more open, creative and entrepreneurial of the three siblings.
Roland Kelts, the Japanese-American author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. and one-time Osakan, agrees:

“[Osaka’s] character is defined by the openness, curiosity and provincial pride of its people, and its ease of accessibility. Its locals take great pride in their town, recommending restaurants and advising you to ‘look people up’.”

He adds, “Osaka is Osaka to the core. Tokyo just is.”

With its geographical borders defined by natural waterways like its bay and rivers flowing into it, Osaka is indeed a giant mishmash of everything much like
New York City. Thanks to the street grid at its center,
it has a defined uptown (Umeda), midtown (city hall, Nakanoshima), and downtown (Shinsaibashi/Dotombori), making it easier to navigate both physically and conceptually.

Once the capital of Japanese Empire, Osaka was bombed by the Allies during WWII and suffered a magnitude 6.9 earthquake in 1995. Somehow it managed to reinvent itself, most recently as a business city: it has a 15-20 percent lower cost of living than Tokyo and an equally developed transportation system and educated labor force. It also has a much younger population compared to Tokyo where by 2040, nearly one in three people will be 65 years or older. If Tokyo has 2020 Olympics to look forward to, Osaka has the 2025 EXPO candidacy. Disregarding what I knew and experienced, I decided to give Osaka a second chance after all these years.

My second visit appropriately fell around the Japanese national holiday of Coming of Age in January. I found a mature city that had stopped comparing itself to Tokyo, and had grown comfortable in its own skin, accepting its defects and all.

“Eating yourself bankrupt” in the nation’s kitchen

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Hideki Maeda, chef owner of Chitose, prepares his popular okonomiyaki. (Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz)

Tucked in an unimpressive side street in Osaka’s entertainment district is a shoebox of a restaurant called Chitose. The place barely sits 12 people at once, but seasoned travelers to Osaka never leave the city without eating owner Hideki Maeda’s legendary okonomiyaki.

This Osaka-born dish is the culinary equivalent of the savory Japanese pancake. Maeda-san, who took over the 60-year-old establishment from his father some 30 years ago, mans the hot grill. He mixes the batter made of flour, grated yam, dashi (fish stock made of bonito flakes), eggs and shredded cabbage skillfully. Then it’s “up to the customer”, hence the name okonomi (“as you like”), yaki (grill), to add ingredients like green onion, meat, octopus, vegetables, or cheese.

Osakans take their food very seriously. After all, they invented the pot noodle and the mechanized sushi band. There’s even a local saying, which goes like “eating yourselfbankrupt.” Fortheincrediblysoftwagyu (Japanese beef), try Matsusakagyu Yakiniku (Grill) in the lively Namba district.

For soba noodles, head to the nearly 100-year-old Genchi Soba – it’s a small restaurant serving soba so famous that it was featured in an NHK (Japanese national television) drama.

Takoyaki (grilled octopus) is another local favorite. Finish the meal with a fluffy, warm cheesecake fresh from the oven at Rikuro Ojisan no Mise, if you can beat the line in front of it.

Tokyo may boast about its 300,000 restaurants, but Osaka somehow manages to steal the show, earning itself the nickname “the nation’s kitchen.” As far back as the 15th century, produce like rice, fish and seaweed from all over Japan was sent to this merchant city to be traded in its vast commodity markets. With its rich Korean population and open-air shotengai markets, Osaka is still the most Asian- friendly city in Japan. So much so that you can see many Asian tourists dragging their suitcases on wheels around the city, making Osaka literally a “city on the move.”

Indulging in retro pastimes and kitsch things

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The famous Glico Man of Osaka comes alive after dark. (Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz)

Be prepared for an all-out assault on your senses when you enter Dotonbori, the entertainment district of Osaka, with singing voices coming from its karaoke clubs and the “Katching! Katching!” sounds from the pachinko (pinball) parlors lining the street with giant replicas of fugu (blow fish), crab and gyoza (dumplings). At night, when the neon lights of large billboards and TV screens come alive, everybody comes to Dotonbori Bridge to take a picture in front of the Glico Man: a 33m gargantuan yet simple graphic of an athlete in a victory pose that somehow looks out of place amongst the modern advertising around it but doesn’t care – just like Osaka itself.

Super Potato is great for retro game-enthusiasts and bunraku (puppet theater originating in Osaka written in the 1700s), which draws thousands with its still relevant themes of love, longing, and honor. Doguya-suji arcade is for cooking utensils and those plastic food models that you see in front of every shop to depict the menu.

Then there is sukajan – the ultimate kitsch (and the only) souvenir I would recommend buying in Osaka. It’s a satin jacket remodeled after bomber jackets worn by American soldiers stationed in Yokosuka Naval Base after WWII, who liked having Japanesque and other oriental patterns like the sun, cherry blossom, dragon, etc. embroidered on the back of their jackets as a souvenir before they left Japan for home. Today, every Osaka clothes shop stocks reproductions of this nostalgic piece in its many variations.

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A shop selling “sukajan” jackets at the Osaka street market. (Photo: Ilgin Yorulmaz)

 

 

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