I didn't consume only western media and Japanese pop culture on my trip to Osaka, I consumed lots of food. Lots of really really good food, mostly seafood. The quality of the food alone makes Japan a worthwhile vacation destination. And I had work-related meals every night I was there so I got to see a broad range of good authentic Japanese cuisine. Here are some highlights.
I went to dinner with some Bostonians my first night in Osaka. They wanted to go to the Dotonbori neighborhood because "it's the Times Square of Osaka!!" I bit my tongue and went along with it. Lots of neon, lots of bootleg t-shirts, lots of tourists. Yep, it's the Times Square of Osaka!! But there are plenty of good restaurants. We went to Chibo, a spot that specializes in okonomiyaki, which is sort of like a cross between an omelette and a pancake stuffed with seafood and coated with mayonnaise and barbecue sauce. It's much better than it sounds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chef isn't Jewish and doesn't take Leviticus seriously--everything contained shellfish, pork, and/or meat with cheese. I got the "number one" which has cuttlefish, octopus, scallops and a giant prawn sticking out of it:
The next morning I went to the hotel's complimentary breakfast buffet:
Fish and pickled vegetables for breakfast! Miso soup too. I'm a shameless caffeine addict so I washed it all down with coffee, which was surprisingly and uniformly excellent throughout Osaka. I got used to this combination after a day or two.
I tried big sushi plates twice. The first was at an upscale shopping center:
It was very good although not the best I ever had. It's more like the clean, refined flavors of Yasuda than the bold Americanized fusion stuff you get at Nobu or O Ya. There were a few noteworthy differences. The wasabi is completely different from the wasabi you get here, aside from its color. Taste, texture, solubility, consistency, you name it it's different. The wasabi is always complemented with these little red flowers, which you're supposed to put on the sushi along with the wasabi. Sometimes you get a pile of chunky sea salt which also belongs on the food (they include this salt with lots of stuff, not just sushi).
Later I went to dinner with two guys I know very well. They're native Osakans in their mid-to-late thirties so they took me to a cool neighborhood with lots of trendy restaurants and young people. We ate and drank our asses off at The Swimming Squid. Highlights include some of the best sushi I've ever had:
The pink strips on the left are fatty tuna, and they absolutely destroy the stuff we call fatty tuna here. It dissolves in your mouth like a fishy communion wafer and it's just as religious an experience. Indeed, if a food can become the body of Christ then the fatty tuna at The Swimming Squid is mostly likely the Messiah.
The white fluffy looking stuff on the bottom left isn't rice, it's sweetfish carefully chopped all the way through the meat but not the skin, so they can turn it inside out and make it look like rice. Apparently this is a traditional way to prepare it in Osaka. The three solid white fish are cuttlefish, squid, an octopus. I can't remember all the other fish but they were outstanding.
They ordered some stuff expressly to gross me out but with no success. One such dish is made as follows: take a squid and hit him with a mallet so he's stunned. Then take a knife and cut him into strips. Slide everything on the cutting board into a bowl. It looks like this:
It was very salty but not bad. The bowl clearly contained ink and other squidly fluids, some of which I don't want to ponder too deeply (like squid shit and squid jizz).
Another gross-out attempt was dried ray wing. They cut the wings off of stingrays and dry them like jerky. They serve them with an open flame so that you can heat them to make them soft, then you dip them into mayonnaise. I liked it.
The final and allegedly grossest course was giant fish eggs on rice. One of my friends was absolutely stunned that I scarfed it down.
I said "What's the big deal, it's just fish eggs and rice" to which he replied "That's not rice."
Turns out the rice were baby sardines or something similar. I don't see why this is any grosser than eating full-grown sardines so I kept on munching. It was really tasty.
This segues nicely into my favorite aspect of Japanese cuisine: what you're eating often looks the same as it did when it was alive. You know it when you see it! Like this squid dish:
And this sweetfish dish:
The only truly unsettling part of a Japanese meal is the alcohol. Every meal starts with beer, which over there is really malt liquor. From there you move to saki and then shochu, which is sort of like a 60 proof vodka made typically from rice (although the stuff made from chestnuts is faaaaaaantastic). After this approach was explained to me at my first big dinner, I blurted out "So we're doing beer before liquor?!?" which made my fellow Americans smile and my hosts reply with a matter-of-fact "Yes."
If you ever go to Japan I encourage you to keep an open mind when it comes to food and try everything you can no matter how intimidating. You never know when you'll stumble across a hidden gem like aloe yogurt!