Osaka. The Nation’s Kitchen. Bright lights, bustling with tourists, gimme ALL the sushi.
(True to my namesake, here I am at IND with my carry-on… thanks for the airport dropoff, Mom!) The last time I had spoken to Tate before taking off from SFO and properly stowing my electronic devices, he told me he would be waiting for me past baggage claim in Osaka and (I quote) there’s no way I would miss him.
I didn’t think much of it, assuming he just meant it was a small airport and he’d be the only American. Little did I know he meant that he had flown a giant cutout of my head over on this business trip with him and drug it around this whole time just to whip out during my grand arrival. To this day, my biggest regret in life was not having my phone handy at that moment. Anyone who knows Tate knows he is NOT the kind to draw attention to himself, thus he refused to recreate that moment, and immediately folded jumbo-Chelsea-head up and discarded her into the nearest waste bin. What a way to kick off my Friday.
Tate was in Japan for leg 2 of a 4-legged multi-country work trip (dare I say, working like a DOG. See what I did there?) and I had some spare miles so I decided to go meet up with him for a week of fun in the midst of it.
Japan was always one of his “must see” places. It sounded cool enough to me, but never really peaked my interest much. Granted, fast forward to current day, where I regularly can be caught perusing airfare to get back over there. Funny how that always works out.
Anyways back to the land of the rising sun.
Osaka is a super easy city to navigate, and the train station is right off the airport so we hopped on and rode back to our hotel, the Swissotel Nankai Osaka. Tate picked it for it’s location since we would only be in Osaka a few days we wanted to be near everything.
I’m an avid naysayer of jetlag, so after a shower and a fresh change of clothes we headed out to explore Dontonbori (the iconic tourist and foodie area of Osaka, with the running man sign, the canal, and ALL the shopping and eating you can imagine). I knew I wanted kushikatsu for my first meal in Japan, I have no shame on attributing that to an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, so we wandered over to Daruma and devoured a sampler platter of skewered, deep-fried everything. Pork, Chicken, Egg, Octopus, Shrimp, Vegetables, Unidentified Objects, you name it they got it… It was basically the Indiana State Fair of Asia. And they give you a vat of magic sauce to dip it all in. Whatever you do, make sure you DON’T DOUBLE DIP in the sauce or I’m pretty sure they will throw you out of the place without batting an eye.
After rolling ourselves out of there we attempted to stroll through the streets full of retail stores. Let me tell you… my love for shopping rivals that of Elle Woods, but this was like 4am Black Friday at a Walmart next to a Walmart caddycorner from a Walmart, every direction you looked. Osaka is a city of 2.7 million people, coupled with all the tourists, and you just can’t take a step without bumping into six people and nearly trampling a small child.
Fear not… as we do in all large cities, we found respite in tiny restaurants and pubs. As to be expected…. The sushi in Japan is like nothing else. That week long trip has ruined me for life. The thickest cuts of fish, so fresh you chose to skip the maki (rolls) and go straight for the nigiri. I’m an easy to please kind of gal, send 6 pieces of tuna (non-fatty, which is funny because the fatty tuna is the more expensive, fancier kind) and I’m happier than a kid on Christmas morning
By about 8 o’clock the lack of sleep and time zone hopping had caught up to me and we called it an early night. Saturday morning we woke up and took the train to the Kaiyukan (Osaka’s Aquarium) . Tate had gone with coworkers earlier that week and knew I would love it, so we went back. For those who don’t know me in real life, I have a minor fascination with whales and Kaiyukan was right up my alley
It was beyond cool. The main exhibit is a ten-ish story tall tank in the center of the building and the walkway spirals around it with exhibits on the outside walls as well, so each level you’re viewing different species and the deeper you get the wilder they got. I believe there were 3 or 4 whale sharks in there, and watching them up close was just break-taking.
The real kicker, though, were these Japanese Spider Crabs native to the area, apparently live only in incredibly deep waters (thank God), they were each about 4-5ft wide, legs just as long. Forget sharks, these are the sea creatures nightmares are made of.
The last exhibit before exiting are the penguins, where you can watch them up close and personal… and of course, get your souvenir photo taken! You know I’m never one to pass up a classic photo op. As I patiently waited in line amongst the other 8 to 10 year olds, Tate was nearly dying of embarrassment.
After the aquarium, we moseyed our way back towards Dontonburi, continuing our quest to eat all the best in Japanese cuisine. The obvious first stop was teppanyaki for some iconic Kobe beef. (Pause for translation: Teppan means ‘iron girdle’ and yaki means ‘grill’, so they are restaurants based around the principle that you order raw items and cook them yourself at your table.) Say no more. I kicked back and let Tate fix the meal for once!
We did a little more shopping (I picked myself out a fantastic souvenir of some Onitsuka sneakers) and a little imbibing (highballs are HUGE in Japan, funny since my job back stateside revolves around promoting Jim Beam)
And then set out to try our hand at Okonomiyaki (I’ll save you from consulting Rosetta stone. Yaki, if you remember, meaning ‘grilled’… Okonomiyaki is literally ‘grilled how you like it’) . Aside from Sushi, I’d say this was easily my second favorite Japanese dish. In it’s simplest form you could call it a cabbage pancake. But it was OH so much more.
You chose your combination of ingredients off the menu (or in our case, whip out the ol “Point & Choose”, since the menu isn’t in English, and cross your fingers that you didn’t order cow balls or octopus tongue or something insane), and then grill it yourself at your table. There’s a fine art to it, and our sweet waiter obviously picked up on our very confused faces after placing the tray of raw ingredients down so he gave me a quick tutorial right then and there. I’m not one to boast or anything, but I think I may have unearthed some hidden natural talents that day. We found ourselves elbows deep in some concoction of eggs, cabbage, noodles, bacon and special sauce and I was not upset about it at all.
Sort of like an East Asian Waffle House… smothered, covered, chunked and diced.
At that point I honestly think I may have unbuttoned my jeans. We were beyond stuffed and exhausted. We had big plans to venture to Kyoto the next day, so we drug our happy little sated selves through the throngs of crazy Asians back up to our hotel room and closed the door on day 2 of our Japan Experience