Osaka (12 to 15 June 2024)

As a major industrial centre, Osaka was repeatedly bombed in WWII.   Rebuilt in a rush afterwards, it’s a big, modern and not particularly attractive city visually.

Not much of historical significance remains, one of the exceptions being Osaka Castle.  First built in the late 1500s, it’s been sacked, burned, bombed and left in ruins for long periods, but was rebuilt again and again.  What’s there today is largely a concrete reconstruction dating to the 1930s which miraculously escaped destruction during the WWII air raids.  Despite being relatively new, it’s a faithful recreation and one of Japan’s most famous landmarks.

Osaka isn’t really a city you come to for cultural sights.  You come here for the food.  Osaka is ‘kuidaore no machi’, ‘the city where you will eat yourself poor’.  It doesn’t mean food is expensive.  Rather, Osakans are so food-obsessed, kuidaore is sometimes translated as meaning a compulsion to ‘eat till you drop’.  The Japanese even have a saying that translates something like ‘bankrupt yourself on fashion in Kyoto, eat till you’re broke in Osaka’.

At the Kuromon Market, 150 shops selling seafood, fruit and vegetables, pickles, Kobe beef, sweets and dried foods spread down a 600 metre long covered market.  It’s touristy but worth a look around.  Get here early before the hordes make movement near to impossible.

You can drop some serious coin here.  On today’s exchange rate, these crab claws are the equivalent of just under $AUS250.00 for half a crab.

Every night, crowds flock to Dotonburi, a restaurant and entertainment precinct known for its huge food- related signage.

And for the famous Glico Running Man who’s been bounding alongside the Dotonburi Canal since 1935, although now in his sixth incarnation.  Glico is an iconic candy manufacturer who created the Running Man to advertise caramels dosed with glycogen derived from oysters.  The company claimed each sweet produced enough energy to run 300 metres.

On one night of our visit, there were crowds going nuts for these poppets, who we assume are well known pop stars, performing from a balcony over the canal.

We preferred the quieter, more traditional Hozen-ji area behind Dotonburi where it’s still possible to find tiny places specialising in just one dish, with seats for 10 or less.

Or to go exploring the alleys for hidden gems where food is still being cooked the traditional way.

The sheer number of eating establishments is mind boggling, but what foods actually originated here?  Glad you asked.  Osaka’s contribution to world cuisine is three-fold.

Firstly, takoyaki, octopus balls which are sold from little stands all over the city.  Those must have been big octopuses.

Secondly okonomyaki, the grilled savoury cabbage pancake which appeared in Osaka in the late 1940s and began to spread across the world after Osaka hosted World Expo 1970, the first time an Expo had been held in Asia.  Now they’re a staple at markets and food van locations all over Australia and elsewhere.

The addition of grated yam makes the batter extra fluffy compared to the ones in your home country.  Some of the more exotic toppings now include scallop, shimeji mushroom and cheese, with a sprinkling of chopped shallots and bonito flakes.

And thirdly, kushikatsu.  The philosophy seems to be that if it tastes good on a skewer, it will taste even better crumbed and deep fried.  We find it difficult to argue with that.  Meats, vegetables, slices of lotus root and just about anything else capable of being pierced with a stick are battered, rolled in panko crumbs, fried and served with a sauce that tastes curiously like Worcestershire.  Double dipping is a major etiquette fail.

Actually, make that four foods that Osaka has gifted to the planet.  Because here, in 1958, Ando Momofuku invented chicken ramen, the world’s first instant noodles.  They became a global phenomenon.

In 1971, on a visit to America, he observed people would break up the dry noodles, put them in a cup and add the hot water, then eat the noodles with a fork.  Inspired by this, on returning to Japan he invented a contraption to shape and package the dried noodles into a disposable cup which was then plastic-wrapped after flavourings were added, thus marketing the world’s first cup noodles.

All over the world, generations of students have avoided starvation through their university days thanks to Mr Momofuku.  And here in Osaka is the Cup Noodles Museum with a statue of the great man standing on a noodle cup out the front.

Inside, there’s a Tunnel of Ramen with one of every kind of instant noodle ever produced by the company.

Some flavours were a bit dubious.

There’s a small exhibition with a downloadable audio guide explaining the history of instant noodles and a mock-up of the shed in which Mr Momofuku developed the process for instant noodles.  Essentially they are first steamed then fried, which creates tiny holes, making them highly porous so they cook ‘instantly’ compared to ordinary noodles.

Mr Momofuku lived to 97, and kept on inventing all his life.  Two years before his death in 2007 he invented Space Ramen, the first noodles to be eaten in space.

He was a philosopher for the modern world and his words of wisdom are printed on the bags in the gift shop.

For the princely sum of $AUS5.00 you can get your own noodle cup which you decorate.

Then take to the counter where you can create your own pot noodle flavour by choosing from various stock powders and dried ingredients.

They shrink wrap it and give you a blow-up bag in which to take the cup home.  We had ours for breakfast next morning.  A taste sensation!

Kids love it.  And it’s fun for the grownups too.

To finish our time in Osaka we visited the teamLab Open Air Museum at the Osaka Botanical Gardens.  TeamLab is a digital art collective who have created exhibitions in many cities including permanent ones in Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Jeddah.

And this one in Osaka.  The idea is blending nature and art, in installations which change in response to weather and human interaction.  Might sound artsy pretentious but it was pretty cool.

There were swirling projections on some buildings.

A forest that looked like something out of the movie Aliens.  When one of the ovoids is pushed over by a person, or impacted by wind or rain, it changes colour and emits a sound, and the ovoids around it follow suit.

And a maze of inflatable eggs that invited viewers to walk through. These, too, responded to being pushed and touched.  And if left for a period started to blink and shut down.

We’ve no idea what it all meant, but with a sake or two on board, it was a bit trippy!

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  1. Chris Cameron
    June 21, 2024 / 4:36 pm

    The teamLab Open Air Museum is really cool. I love the idea of it changing in response to the environment. And the Noodle Museum looks like quirky fun there is one question left unanswered.
    What flavour noodles did you make ?

    • twotravelcats
      June 21, 2024 / 5:55 pm

      With no idea about what the ingredients were (labelled only in Japanese), we picked on visual appearance. Curry powder, dried prawns, various dehydrated tofu/veges and, in John’s case something we think might have been dehydrated pork.

      • Chris Cameron
        June 23, 2024 / 8:28 pm

        And they tasted good so that’s what counts 😀

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