Many people plan their holidays around itineraries of sightseeing and immersing themselves in a country’s rich culture. Not us. My partner James and I plan our holidays around meal times.
Don’t get me wrong, I like ancient temples as much as the next person. It’s just that you can’t eat them. Fortunately, Japan is a food-lover’s paradise, with a tasty morsel to be consumed on every corner – even at the temples.
For Every Season
Japanese cuisine usually reflects the seasons, and since we arrived in Osaka at the start of spring, most of the dishes incorporated springtime ingredients, including the revered cherry blossom. During lunch at Hanagatami – an upscale Japanese restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton – an edible cherry blossom was immersed in each of our teacups.
The meal was traditional kaiseki, which means “little tastes”. One after another, the dishes arrived at the table, each one exquisite in appearance. Presentation is important in Japanese cuisine; chefs might spend weeks struggling over how to present a slither of salmon and a slice of lemon. This is a serious business and a precise art form.
Among the dishes was toro – fatty tuna sashimi. Utterly delicious, but as it was priced at US$100 for a few pieces, I daresay I won’t be trying it again for some time.
Mingling with the Stars
Our first evening meal was supposed to be outside of the hotel, but before venturing out into the cold, we had pre-dinner drinks in the swanky Ritz-Carlton bar. As it had an impressive drinks list featuring 150 fine malt whiskies and 110 martinis, we knew we would be in there for some time.
When Liam Gallagher – the Oasis frontman himself – walked through the doors, an awed silence swept the room. Patrons traded puzzled looks and muttered, “Is that…? It can’t be.” James turned white as a sheet – Liam is his rock idol.
“Rod Stewart was in here the other week” interjected Walt, the resident pianist, while trying to remember an Oasis number from his repertoire.
Needless to say, we forewent the opportunity of exploring the city at night, in favour of staying in the bar with Liam and his entourage. That isn’t to say that we were actually “with Liam” but definitely within spitting distance.
It was during a conversation with Walt, about the frequency of adultery in Japan, that James disappeared to the bar and returned with a present for me – Liam! I shook his hand (mine went unwashed for the next two days) and asked if he was enjoying Japan.
“There are only two channels on the TV and they are both showing the news. Every time I turn it on, everyone is skint. I just want a beer!”
He turned out to be a thoroughly nice bloke, and for someone who once claimed to be a “living god” he appeared remarkably down-to-earth. While the rest of the bar’s clientele had adorned themselves in Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, Liam wore an old green anorak, jeans, and sideburns the size of Okinawa.
The following evening we went to see Oasis play at the Intex Stadium in Nakafuto. The atmosphere was electric and the crowd leapt up and down in unison – the Japanese really know how to have a good time.
The residents of Osaka have a saying: kuidaore – “eat until you drop”. And so we did – starting with takoyaki (octopus balls), a dish that originates in Osaka and one that you can’t avoid when you visit the area of Dotomburi.
Located near Namba in the Minama district of Osaka, Dotomburi is a single street that runs along a canal and is full of restaurants and arcades. This is a hotspot for Osaka’s youth and they come in droves to hang out and eat the relatively cheap street food.
Takoyaki vendors line the streets, serving up this hot dish to hungry visitors. We joined one of the long queues to sample the popular morsels – deep-fried batter balls filled with baby octopus and topped with thick okonomiyaki sauce, green laver mayonnaise, and fish shavings.
Watching the chef prepare a dish is an essential part of enjoying any Japanese cuisine, and seeing the takoyaki vendors deftly preparing the ingredients only intensified the hunger pangs. My appetite was not even suppressed by the x-rated sight of an excited terrier mounting a rather surprised looking Labradoodle, in the doggie café opposite.
The takoyaki verdict: excellent. Take note that this dish is served piping hot, so it is wise to let it cool before you take a bite, or, like me, you might find yourself one layer of skin lighter.
Where to stay in Osaka
A luxury five-star hotel, with impeccable service and great restaurants, in the Nishi-Umeda business and shopping district, and located near Osaka Station. This is where the rich and famous kick back in plush surroundings. The rooms are possibly the largest you will find in any Osaka hotel, and everywhere you look you will find wood-panelled walls, 18th-century paintings, and carpets softer than an Andrex puppy.
• The Bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for star-spotting
• Hanagatami restaurant at the Ritz Carlton Hotel
• Shizuku casual restaurant for sushi, located at the Hotel Granvia
• Dotomburi for takoyaki and local street food
• Yodobashi-Umeda for electronics. Behind Osaka Station, this store is seven floors of pure gadget heaven. Endless rows of cameras, televisions, games and phones are here for your consumption. We came, we saw, we consumed.
• Hankyu department store for its enormous food market, spread over two floors.
• Osaka Castle for its beautiful gardens.
One of the beauties of Osaka is its proximity to Japan’s other popular cities. Our trip was five days long, but it would be feasible to fit both Osaka and Kyoto into a long weekend.
It took just 30 minutes by rapid train from Osaka Station to Kyoto, but half an hour in the other direction would have easily taken us to Kobe. As much I wanted to see a cow have its bottom massaged, we decided to skip it this time.
Kyoto literally means “capital city”, which it was before 1868 and Japan’s reunification. Surrounded by mountains, the city is the seventh largest in Japan, and despite its reputation for serenity, there is also a fashionable buzz emerging in the city centre.
Bamboo was one of the ingredients in season during our visit, and we tried it several ways. Firstly, barbecued from a street vendor at one of the city’s 1,600 temples, and then as tempura at the Manzara Smile izakaya on Sanjo Street – a trendy avenue lined with chic boutiques, museums and eateries.
An izakaya is a traditional pub that serves food, and can be found all over Japan. The Manzara Smile served delicious, reasonably priced food, and despite the menu being in Japanese, we had great fun with the chefs, who used sign language to explain the dishes – chicken breast being of particular amusement to all parties present.
After copious amounts of sake, we found ourselves communicating with the other Japanese customers through the medium of song – Bon Jovi to be precise. And after cooing over photographs of the head chef’s new baby, we bade them farewell. When the entire pub came out onto the pavement to wave us off, we realised just how friendly Kyoto is. If you ever find yourself in this area, the Manzara Smile is a must-visit.
Temple of Bloom
So, we did manage after all to squeeze in a few temple visits between meals. We had pre-booked a private tour with Chris Rowthorn Tours, and our guide, Koko, spent eight hours walking us around the city, showing us numerous sites and explaining in perfect English the history of each one.
Tour guides must spend years studying before they are unleashed on visitors, and Koko really knew her stuff. Each temple was more beautiful than the last, and each one reminiscent of a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha. Nanzenji Temple and the Golden Pavilion are two of the bigger sites, and the Hirano Shrine is famed for its gardens of cherry blossom trees.
Food Glorious Food
You reach a point during any temple tour when, frankly, you become templed-out. So it was on a bus bound for the last temple that Koko pointed out Nishiki Market – a long stretch dedicated purely to food. Jumping off the bus, we entered the narrow street filled with every ingredient you can imagine. Through the crowds we spotted oversized vegetables, small boxes of giant strawberries costing US$100, seafood, fresh tuna carpaccio on sticks, freshly made Japanese rice crackers, a grilled oyster and beer stall, and – my favourite – roasted chestnuts.
It took some time for Koko to pry us away from Nishiki, and we never did find out what that temple looked like.
Kyoto is home to the elusive geisha, or geiko as they are known in Japan. These mysterious ladies are highly respected, Koko told us, not necessarily for their looks, but for their dance, music and social skills. They are ranked up there with movie stars.
There are about 150 geisha in Kyoto, and seeing one can prove difficult. However, Chris Rowthorn has good connections with the geisha houses, and can organise entertainment on your behalf. Gion and Ponto Cho are perhaps the most famous of the five geisha districts, and though we hung out in these areas, the geisha eluded us this time. We did see many women dressed in the traditional kimono, however.
The underground systems in Osaka and Kyoto are a doddle. Somewhere in each station you will find a map that has English translations, and if you can’t find it, a nice chap employed by the station will invariably be on hand to guide you.
Chris Rowthorn Walks and Tours
American Chris Rowthorn writes for Lonely Planet and has been living in Kyoto since 1992. His private tours are cheaper than some hotel group tours.
Kunugi Teppanyaki Restaurant at the Westin Miyako Hotel
It’s pricey, but the chef is an expert who prepares each dish at your table, and the food is as fresh as it can get – our lobster was still twitching when it hit the hotplate, and a live shrimp made one last bid for freedom when it leapt onto the table.
Famous for its soba noodles in hot broth, and located close to the Golden Pavilion.
A five-minute walk from the Westin Hotel, and one of the few eating-houses that opens between lunch and dinner. Everything was lovely except for the crunchy chicken liver yakitori, which ended up in a tissue in my handbag.
Manzara Smile izakaya
On Sanjo Street, opposite the Museum of Kyoto.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
The Westin Miyako, a five-star hotel located in the Higashiyama-ku district, is just a two-minute stroll from the subway, and within walking distance of several shrines and the entertainment district. The interior of the hotel is elegant, the rooms large, and it has good selection of restaurants. Ask for a room overlooking the mountains – the view is spectacular.
• Tipping is not practised in restaurants in Japan, and service charges are unheard of. Tipping is often viewed as a bribe.
• Don’t rub your wooden chopsticks together. This will insult your host as it implies that the chopsticks are of poor quality.
• When drinking alcohol in the company of others, don’t pour yourself a drink. Offer it to your companions first and hope that they then return the favour.
• Always lift your cup and tip it slightly when someone is pouring you a drink.
• Many small restaurants will not take credit cards, so have plenty of cash with you.
• It is common for restaurants to close between 2pm and 5pm.
How to get there
Singapore to Osaka: Singapore Airlines has daily flights from Changi Airport to Kansai International Airport, and Japan Airlines has four flights a week. The flight time is about six hours.
Osaka to Kyoto: By regular rapid train it takes 30 minutes and costs about 540 yen (S$8.50). The train runs every 15 minutes, and there is no need to make a reservation.