We visited Osaka (pronounced O-saka rather than o-SAR-ka) on our very first trip to Japan many years ago. We had already spent time exploring Tokyo, Hakone and Kamakura and it was following an afternoon and evening in Osaka, exploring the neon arcades and playing video games, taking silly photos in the print club booths, riding the Hep 5 big wheel and singing our socks off in a karaoke bar (where you get a private booth rather than have to sing in front of complete strangers), that we realised that we had fallen in love with Japan. The following day we visited the Dotonbori area in the Namba district and discovered Osaka’s restaurants. We decided that Osaka was our favourite place in the world.
We’ve returned to Osaka many times over the years and we always make a beeline for Dotonbori. We’ve often stayed in business hotels close by. It’s a short walk away from the JR Namba Station Exit 14 (Yamatoji line), which is especially useful if you are using your JR Pass. Be aware that Namba is a big station. If you are arriving on the shinkansen (bullet train) you can get there from Shin-Osaka using the subway Midosuji line to Shinsaibashi Exit 4-B. (N.B. you can’t use your JR Pass on the subway.)
Osaka is known for being one of Japan’s centres of commerce, indeed there’s a phrase that many salarymen use as a greeting: ‘mokari makka’ which means ‘are you making money?’ The residents of Osaka speak Kansai Ben, the dialect of the region. It’s quite different to the Japanese we’ve learned in classes. For example, Osaka residents will say, ‘okini’ as thanks instead of ‘arigato’; although arigato will absolutely be understood you may well receive a big smile if you use ‘okini.’
Dotonbori means ‘Doton Canal’ and the history of the area goes back several hundred years to 1612 when Yasui Doton, a local merchant, started constructing a canal system in the area to link the Kizugawa river to the Umezu river. However, he was killed in 1615 during the Siege of Osaka and his cousins completed the canal project, naming it after Doton. Following completion, the area thrived, trade increased due to the better transportation along the canal and Dotonburi became an entertainment district, with theatres, teahouses and restaurants. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially for foodies!
The district is defined by street between the Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge. Probably the most iconic image of the area is that of the Glico running man – and it’s essential to see him at night, brightly lit in neon. Glico is a sweet manufacturer established in 1922 and famous across Japan. They are probably best know for those delicious Pocky coated biscuit sticks.
Dotonbori is one street, but actually the surrounding streets are also full of excellent bars and restaurants. We’ve had some of our best nights out in Osaka by wandering into random bars in the area. Locals and tourists alike are very friendly and we’ve often just started chatting with people. There was one particularly memorable night when a pair of airline pilots decided to buy Jagermeister bombs (a Jagermeister shot inside a glass of Red Bull) for the denizens of the entire bar which resulted in a highly caffeinated boozy evening and us sleeping in so late that we missed much of a planned excursion to Kobe the following day!
The word ‘kuidaore’ means to go bankrupt by extravagant spending on food and Dotonbori would be a place where you could have a really good attempt at achieving this as it is chock full of excellent restaurants.
One thing to remember when visiting cities in Japan is to look up! In the UK most shops and restaurants are located at ground level but Japan is a country with high rise buildings. Very often shops and restaurants will be located on multiple levels within the same building. You will often see boards outside the building advertising various emporia: F1, F2 etc to go up, B1, B2 etc to go down. (N.B. floor levels in Japan match the American model where the ground floor is called the first floor, unlike in the UK where the ‘ground floor’ is at street level and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’.)
Essential Osaka Restaurants
Takoyaki – The Best Street Food
Takoyaki is quintessential Osaka street food. It comprises spherical octopus pieces in a batter which are cooked en masse in a griddle.
The takoyaki maker expertly and deftly turns each octopus ball by hand so that they are cooked evenly.
Served with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which is similar to brown sauce) and bonito flakes (skipjack tuna flakes shaved to wafer thin slices – which are rich in umami and are often used to make Japanese dashi stock), which undulate gently in the heat of the takoyaki. You just have to wait a little while before scoffing because they will be extremely hot as soon as they come out of the griddle.
Okonomiyaki – As You Like It
Okonomiyaki, which translates as ‘as you like it’, is often described as a cross between a pancake and a pizza. It’s a cabbage based batter (but don’t let that put you off – it’s really delicious) with multiple fillings and toppings. Some establishments have a chef prepare the okonomiyaki, others will let you sit at the griddle and you can cook it yourself.
The basic batter mixture is prepared and cooked on the griddle.
Then you have a choice of toppings – meat and prawns are popular choices and veggie options, such as kimchi are also available.
The okonomiyaki will be garnished with a variety of yummy things, including mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (similar to takoyaki sauce/brown sauce), flakes of nori seaweed and those delightful undulating bonito flakes. Chilli sauce may also be available. The chef will embellish your okonomiyaki in the most delightful way. And of course, when the chef asks you what garnish you would like, the correct answer is EVERYTHING!
Fugu – Dare You Try Puffer Fish?
Fugu is the fish that has a formidable reputation – it’s the puffer fish, parts of which are deadly poison particularly the liver, the ovaries, eyes, and skin. The toxin basically paralyses you and you asphyxiate while still conscious. Not very nice at all.
But fugu is also a prized delicacy. The non-poisonous bits are fine to eat but absolutely can only be prepared by a licenced chef who has trained for several years. You can eat fugu all over Japan but it was at Zubora-ya, with its highly distinctive sign comprising a giant pufferfish lantern outside the restaurant, that we first tasted this fearsome fish.
We thoroughly enjoyed a set menu at Zubora-ya – sushi and sashimi is the conventional way to enjoy fugu. It has a mild flavour and a firm texture that is something like a cross between squid and monkfish. It was delicious. And we survived!
Sadly, Zubora-ya had to close during the pandemic and has not reopened.
Kani – Crab Heaven
Kani Doraku is another distinctive restaurant which has a model of a giant crab waving its pincers on the outside wall, beckoning you inside (well, that’s our interpretation!).
We have eaten here several times and always had a hugely enjoyable meal. Again, it’s a multi-storey building and, depending on how busy it is you may eat within the restaurant or be taken to a private room with tatami mat flooring and a telephone. The telephone was a bit daunting first time around but we picked up the phone and said, ‘kite kudasai,’ (please come here) and someone came along to take our order – which largely involved pointing at a picture menu. Even though it’s a large restaurant it’s very popular these days so it’s worth booking. There are actually multiple restaurants of this chain along Dotonbori, so check out the others if the first one you try is full. (The most popular is closest to the Glico Man.) The set menus aren’t cheap but they are good value and the food is utterly delicious.
We’ve enjoyed crab sushi and sashimi, crab chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), crab tempura and crab gratin with a clear soup and matcha ice cream for dessert. Utterly delicious.
Other Dotonbori Establishments
There are loads of other restaurants along Dotonbori and the surrounding area. Kuidaore was an enormous eight storey restaurant founded in 1949. It was recognisable by its iconic Kuidaore Taro Clown, a vaguely creepy mechanical drumming puppet at the entrance. Sadly it closed some years ago but the building was populated by different shops and restaurants in what’s now known as the Nakaza Cui-daore Building.
If you like ramen noodles (and who doesn’t?) there are three Kinryu restaurants along the street. Kinryu translates as ‘golden dragon’ and the restaurants can easily be found by their distinctive dragons on the hoardings above the shopfront.
And even the standard restaurants on Dotonbori, those without the amazing neon signs, are worth checking out. One of the great things about dining in Osaka – and indeed throughout Japan – is that you don’t need to speak or read Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English, Chinese or Korean menu and those that don’t will often have a picture menu or, better, realistic models of the food in the window, usually with prices. You can take a photo of your desired dish or even take your food server outside and point to the dish you want.
The models of the food are surprisingly realistic and many are made in Osaka. We managed to find a shop that sold them but they are hideously expensive, so we treated ourselves to a couple of sushi fridge magnets as a souvenir.
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