An affordable guide to Japan’s food haven
In Osaka, colloquially known as the “nation’s kitchen”, the locals take eating to a whole new level. In the prefecture’s capital city, there’s also a word that embodies this culinary obsession — kuidaore, which translates to “eating until you’re broke”. In the hometown of takoyaki, the ubiquitous batter balls filled with chopped octopus, that’s definitely doable — but it’s also possible to fill your belly to the brim without emptying your wallet.
Day 1: Going old-school
On this eating expedition, the best place to begin is Kuromon Market, right by the bustling Namba district. A legendary and long-running market, Kuromon has served ravenous Osakans and tourists alike for the past 170 years. Flowing through one of the city’s many covered pedestrian shopping streets, called shotengai, the market is a sensory delight, housing an eclectic family of brightly colored stores.
Take some time to stroll through the strip, and once you think you’ve seen it all, make a beeline for one of the smoking grills to try the market’s buzzed-about scallops. At about US$7.30 a piece, the size-to-price ratio doesn’t seem budget-friendly, but it’s worth it. The scallop preparation is a show in itself — place your order and watch the vendor masterfully crack a fresh scallop open, dig out the soft, juicy flesh, grill it over hot coals, season it with sprays of soy sauce and serve it to you in its original shell that’s been cleaned out and coated with warm butter. Treat yourself to three delicious helpings.
From the market, take a 10-minute stroll to Dotonbori, passing through Hozenji temple on the way. Tucked away in the backstreets, the temple is a little corner frozen in the past. A contrast to its ultra-modern surroundings, this atmospheric pocket of the city is also home to Hozenji Yokocho, a narrow tavern-lined alley. Dating back to the 1600s, the alley is decorated with swinging lanterns and paved stone streets that make you feel as though you’ve traveled back in time — as you look around today, you’ll find countless little homages to its history. Spot retro posters adorned with famous actors appearing in old kabuki, a form of traditional Japanese drama.
Continue to Dotonbori, where you’ll find the iconic electric-blue Glico Man sign and enthusiastic tourists mimicking his triumphant pose. At Nippombashi Station, pick up an Enjoy Eco Card pass, which unlocks unlimited metro usage for an entire day (about US$7.30).
Arrive at Ogimachi Station on the Sakaisuji Line to hunt down Hiroko’s Takoyaki, a humble outdoor takoyaki stand run by a local grandma who’s universally loved for her warm hospitality. At US$2.30 for 10 soft, doughy, golf-ball-sized pieces, it feels criminally underpriced.
You can’t visit Osaka without spending an evening at Shinsekai, a culinary amusement park complete with illuminated, balloon-like fish lanterns and massive plastic food displays. Positioned under the iconic Tsutenkaku Tower in the same area is Radium Onsen, a rustic tattoo-friendly onsen — the classification relates to body art still being shunned and associated with the country’s organized crime gangs. Entry costs about US$4.50. Go ahead and have a relaxing pre-dinner soak in your rental towel.
Then, make Kushikatsu Baikingu Daitoryo your last stop of the evening. The lantern-lit izakaya specializes in kushikatsu — deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables. If you’re up to it, sign up for the all-you-can-eat dinner course (around US$14.80).
Day 2: Staying on trend
If you passed on boozing with the friendly Osaka locals late into the night and are ready to tackle the morning head on, Mondial Kaffee 328 makes a great first port of call. This laid-back Seattle-inspired Osaka chain has five outposts in the city, so it won’t be too difficult to find one nearby. Grab a perfectly brewed latte and toast set for about US$6.
Osaka is relatively flat, so one of the best ways to feel the beat of the city is to grab a bike. HubChari rents red electric bikes (US$1.40 for 30 minutes, US$13.70 for the entire day), with over 120 rental stations conveniently located throughout Osaka. Pedal on over to Nakazakicho, popularly known as Osaka’s hipster haven, for some window shopping on wheels.
This neighborhood, which managed to avoid damage during World War II, still has gracefully aging prewar buildings — many of which have remained relatively preserved in their transformation into vintage stores, cafés and galleries. Be sure to visit Irorimura, a small artist village that boasts studios, classrooms and free galleries.
The next stop transports you from retro to trendy — welcome to America-mura (literally “American Village”), the city’s youth culture hub. This busy spot got its name when stores in the area started importing the latest apparel from the US almost 30 years ago. It’s now so much a part of Osaka’s youth and fashion identity that some have compared it to Tokyo’s Harajuku. Grab a classically American hamburger and your choice of salad or fries at Critters Burger for US$9.10.
If you have time, ride on over to Truck, the coolest furniture store in town. The shop makes its collection of rustic-chic tables, desks, lamps and chairs right here in its light-filled warehouse studio. It occasionally hosts events too.
Then wrap up the night with dinner and a drink at Tenma Stand Kobachi, a breezy standing bar that opened just last year. This establishment serves modern versions of classic dishes. Go with a friend and order a sashimi plate, lightly fried mochi, tempura and a beer for a total of US$13.70 each.
Day 3: Round it out
Loosen those belt buckles because this last day is going to be all about food. Start easy with coffee (US$3.65) at Chidori-Bunka — a warehouse that’s since been converted into a café and community space. Pick up another Enjoy Eco Pass and head over to Tsuruhashi, or Korea Town.
A sizable number from Osaka’s population of native Koreans have set up tight-knit business communities here in Tsuruhashi. You’ll find Korean beauty and merchandise shops along the main shopping street that are more like shrines to K-pop stars than retail outlets. Check out the numerous food stands that offer deliciously spicy dishes at bargain prices. You can’t miss the chilled reimen soups — with their toothsome translucent noodles — that go for about US$3.65 a bowl.
With extensive food and drink options, the yakitori-centric Batten looks like the type of place where kuidaore might become reality — but it’s simply too cheap. The restaurant serves freshly grilled meat and vegetable skewers (from US$0.80 to US$2.50 each), soba and various offal — not to mention 360ml and 720ml beers that go for about US$0.45 and about US$0.85 a pop respectively. A lunch of 10 skewers and two drinks can add up to a healthy bill of about US$15.
A new player on the quirky food scene is Nissin Cup Noodles’ veggie-themed instant ramen shop. Opened in late 2018, the eye-catching Momofuku Noodle stand is situated in the equally vibrant Umeda district. For about US$4.95, you can create your own unique blend of take-home cup noodles by picking from the various ingredients on display.
The final stop on this food tour is the quaint eatery Fukutaro. Located in Namba, it’s a local institution with a reputation for having the fluffiest okonomiyaki — savory pancakes — on the scene. Folks have no qualms lining up beyond the door just for a spot on the bench. We recommend beating the dinner rush if you’re opposed to waiting. The pork negiyaki (about US$8.95), a pancake filled with juicy pork and stuffed with more than its fair share of green onions, makes a delicious closing meal for the day.
Stylish budget stays
Briller Nakazaki. Representative of the artsy neighborhood of Nakazakicho is Briller Nakazaki — an eclectically designed hotel perfect for couples looking to get a taste of the city without breaking the bank. Its location is ideal too. Take in the quaint cafés and galleries as well as the striking Umeda Sky Building, all from its rooftop deck. nakazaki.brillerresorts.com
Hostel Mitsuwaya Osaka. With its foundations laid back in the 1930s and its previous iteration as a wholesale toy store, this hostel is now anything but dated. With sleek, minimalistic rooms, a rooftop deck and plenty of communal spaces, it’s the perfect place for travelers looking to connect with like-minded folk. It’s only a short walk from Dotonbori too. mitsuwaya.tesen.jp
More city experiences
Osaka Castle Sakuya Lumina. Prepare to be enchanted by Sakuya Lumina, the city’s new night walk event set inside Osaka Castle Park. By combining interactive digital art with exciting audio-visual displays, the production tells the tale of Akiyo, a teenager from the future trying to find her way home. It’s a family-friendly adventure and an exciting new way to explore the historic castle. sakuyalumina.jp
The latest in onsen pampering. Open since February this year, the Solaniwa Onsen at Osaka Bay Tower brings the traditional pastime of hot spring bathing to modern city life. With sprawling indoor and outdoor bath complexes, stylish traditional design and a host of contemporary health and beauty treatments, it’s a day spa like you’ve never seen. solaniwa.com/en-us
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Smile magazine.