Saturday, October 18, 2014

Osaka 1 - Home of BIG Food

18 October 2014

We've been busy!  Osaka is a booming industrial town, but also old and full of history.

And known for its food!  The rest of Japan refers to Osaka as "Japan's Kitchen" - and we found what we think of as Kitchen Street!

Okay, I should back up.  We survived Typhoon Vongfong just fine (it was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it arrived), and we spent a day or two getting acquainted with our neighborhood, which is what we usually do - walk around, find the subway or train station, locate a few places to shop or eat, things like that.  (We also found what seems to be the tsunami refuge center building, or something like that.)

Then we were ready to head to downtown Osaka.  We figured out that our local train goes to the Namba station, and we could visit the tourist info office there.  We could also walk to a pedestrian street that the online guides referred to as "foodie heaven."  And we could spend some time just exploring Osaka.

Plus this would be an easy trip on the train, we could get on the local station and just go straight to Namba station, without changing trains or lines.  Because, as in Tokyo, there are various private lines as well as the national (though privately owned) JR line.  Which makes things more confusing than you might expect, since the connecting lines at transfer stations aren't always at the same station.  Anyway.......

We arrived and chatted with the lady at the tourist office, and collected the few brochures available in English.  We headed out to go to the foodie street.  And we came out into the midst of some sort of rally!  NO idea if it was a protest march, or a political rally, or something for a candidate.  But orange seemed to be the color of the day, as half the people gathered were wearing orange or giving away orange scarves, which people tied on their heads or arms.

I took a few photos of the crowd, and the funny guy with the drum and a tambourine around his head - he thanked me for taking his photo.  Then I noticed the wonderful mosaic frieze on the building, and started taking photos of that.  

Well, as I was leaning back on a railing to get a good photo, one old lady in the rally started talking to me.  In Japanese.  Of which I could not understand a single word.  So I started talking to her in English, about the mosaic and why I liked mosaics and that I had constructed several with my classes at school.  She had no idea what I was saying.  The conversation was "Blah blah blah" in Japanese, and then "blah blah blah" in English.  We probably were talking about two different topics altogether.  But when I finished with my photos I smiled at her and bowed, she smiled at me and bowed back, and I wandered off to take photos of the wonderful manhole covers.  

I find it quite amusing - we'll ask for directions (I can say "excuse me" in Japanese, then I ask for whatever we're looking for) and the response almost always is a long verbal direction, in Japanese, with hand gestures.  We can follow the hand gestures - go straight, turn left or right, go some more.  Fingers show how many streets to go before turning.  But all the verbal stuff?  NO clue.  None whatsoever.  And people don't try to make it simple with a few key words, they just keep explaining as if we were Japanese and understood every word.  I find it quite funny.

Okay, so, we headed to Honzenji Yokocho.  Honzenji is the name of the temple on this street, though we didn't see it anywhere.  Yokocho means alleyway, but often markets are located on a yokocho, and also small cafés and bars - so all of that becomes part of the yokocho.

Anyway, the trendy thing seemed to be having giant replicas of the food the place serves somehow hanging out front.  So yes, okay, a giant moving crab, legs flailing and eyes rolling around.  A giant octopus, again tentacles moving around creepily.  But then, giant, um, gyozas?  Fried dumplings?  Potstickers?  Looking somehow not like potstickers at all.  I didn't even try for a photo of the monster-sized slab of sushi maki, the raw tuna on rice, jutting out from the front of the building.  And the life-size black plastic cow hanging like some synthetic sacrifice in front of the store?  Not appetizing at all.  Beyond ludicrous.  Just, weird.

I think the best were the blowfish, though, giant puffed silk fish over a wire structure, something like wind socks, looking so innocent when we all know that the blowfish is poisonous if not sliced exactly right.  

But the monster-size candy was really fun too!

It was just strange!  Strange and funny!

Pretty soon, we realized that not all the giant objects were food.  Monster dragons outside the slot machine and pachinko house.  Huge dragons climbing out of "holes" in other buildings, maybe advertising Chinese food.  Dragons dragons everywhere, but nary one to eat.  Which is probably a very good thing!  Even better, the giant cat signs were NOT serving cat.  The cat is just a lucky symbol for the owner.  Or cute for the cat lover.

Eventually it got dark, and the whole area had great lights - all the neon lights shining bright, tons and tons of lanterns everywhere, and things just glowed!  I love the way the lanterns look at night, and the colors are so bright!

We munched on a few things - ended up eating at the happy cat place.  Turned out to be Korean, so I enjoyed a hot stone bowl full of bibimbap (rice, vegs, spicy sauce, and no egg for me - mix it all up and each bite has a different combination).  

And then we wandered some more.  Because the whole area is devoted to food.  It isn't just the one pedestrian mall street that is foodie heaven, the cross streets and parallel streets are all part of this network of food-oriented shops.  Certain roads were for fast food, other areas seemed to be devoted to sit-down dinners.  And somehow, we found ourselves in the restaurant-accoutrements area - stores full of dishes, or a shop for just knives and cleavers, another devoted to cooking implements like the special pans for various kinds of dumplings or fritters.  Then a shop full of only lanterns, another with linens and cushions and curtains, or another store with the happy cats to bring in customers and make the owner rich.  It was fascinating, and we walked around looking at everything and just browsing.

Cats seem to be a popular motif, for shops, restaurants, homes, just about everywhere.  The story behind the happy cat waving at the front of a shop has its origins in a legend about a cat who was saved by a merchant, and then rewarded the merchant by making him get wealthy through his very successful business.  But cats are also just, well, very sweet and cute (to a cat lover) and cats seem to be loved by the Japanese.  This IS home to Hello Kitty, and several cat cafés.  So it seemed perfectly normal to find several cat outlines embedded in the sidewalk, or on a wall.  Or kitties on fabric to hang in your doorway.  Or cats painted on shop security doors, letting shoppers know what's inside and please come back during open hours.  (I'm just guessing here.)  

I felt like we were on some scavenger hunt, following the trail of the elusive shop cat!

We had a fun day, and enjoyed exploring this corner of Osaka.  And you know we had a good time trying a few items.  Though we didn't go overboard - we both are a bit squeamish about eating certain items (kishkes, or organ meat, is off my list, as are fish roe, squid, and octopus because I just don't like them very much) so that slows us down.  Well, and not being able to ask what's inside something - there are these lovely smelling fritters we see being cooked, and when we asked what was in them, I swear the guy said "ox blood."  Uh, no thanks.

We'll continue to stumble around and see what we can find, and will report back!  Next up - old old old Osaka!


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