Craft beer and kushikatsu: a culinary guide to Osaka, Japan's party city

If you want to understand just how revered beer is in Japan, then head to Osaka. The nation’s party city positively effervesces with new craft breweries, old izakayas and cosy hole-in-the-wall bars.

Saturday, September 26, 2020,
By Chris Tharp
Photographs By Ben Weller
Colourful signage in Dontonbori, the city's best-known commercial concourse.

Colourful signage in Dontonbori, the city's best-known commercial concourse.

Photograph by Ben Weller

It’s early afternoon, and Sake no Ana is nearly full. Customers hunker down at the bar, sipping sake, highballs, shochu, and glasses of beer. They’re mostly men in their 60s, or older, unified by a rough, world-weary look. As I slide onto a stool, I’m met with shy smiles. This working-class establishment in Osaka’s Shinsekai neighbourhood may not win any awards for design, but I feel welcome — included in the camaraderie of day drinkers, bound by an unspoken understanding among those who sip their tipple while the sun still hangs in the sky.

Menu placards are tacked to the smokestained walls, announcing the culinary choices in bold yellow, red, black, and white. Behind the bar, two elderly women are busy preparing drinks and, more importantly, cooking side dishes of kushikatsu, the deep-fried skewers that Osaka is famed for. I order some — little plates of sausage, quail eggs, beef and pork — and wash them down with a couple of mugs of draft Asahi, the savoury crunch of the kushikatsu perfectly complementing the crisp Japanese lager.

Co-owner Jesse Theriot behind the bar at TNT Craft Beer Pub, in Taicho.

Photograph by Ben Weller

Walking off my midday’s indulgence among the Technicolor splendour of Dotonbori, the city’s main tourist area, I pause on the crowded bridge overlooking its oft-photographed canal, taking in the cartoonish yellow-and-red, ovular Ferris wheel outside the Don Quixote store, as well as the iconic Glico ‘running man’ sign. This is tourist central — Osaka’s version of New York’s Times Square — and while it certainly fires up the senses, I soon feel myself pulled back towards the town’s less shiny side.

It doesn’t take me long to find it once again. I meet up with a local man, university professor Momotaro Takamori, and longtime Kiwi expat Rodney Smith in the Nishinari District, notorious for its homeless population and flophouses, not to mention periodic riots by the area’s day labourers — often targeted at the local police. “This is Japan’s biggest slum,” says Rodney, a food and drink guide, “but it’s still safer than where you or I come from.”

“Osaka’s tiered castle is a reconstruction, completed in 1997; the original was burned to the ground in 1615, rebuilt and destroyed by lightning in 1665, burned down again in 1868, and badly damaged during the Second World War.”

by Chris Tharp

We sip glasses of Nishinari Riot Ale at Ravitaillement, a little bar pouring pints from neighbouring Derailleur Brew Works, a micro brewery that employs former addicts and the disabled. Part of Osaka’s blossoming craft beer scene, Ravitaillement has eschewed more fashionable parts of town to set up shop in one of the city’s most neglected areas. Here, in the warren of side streets, we stop at a cart for some cheap okonomiyaki — the city’s signature pork and cabbage pancake — before squeezing into a tachinomiya, one of the city’s ubiquitous, hole-in-the-wall ‘standing bars’.

“Osaka’s unofficial slogan is kuidaore,” says Momotaro. “This means ‘eat till you drop.’” He takes a swig from a frothy-headed glass of Kirin lager and chases it with a skewer of deep-fried chicken hearts. “Osakans could go bankrupt with their food and drink habits, so we know how to do it on the cheap,” he adds.

It’s Thursday night, and the place is packed with a boisterous crowd, munching, sipping, letting their hair down. It’s smoky and loud, and people wave and greet us from all sides — quite a contrast to the sedate side of Japan I’d witnessed elsewhere.

“In Japan, you’ve got your tatemae and your honne,” Rodney says. “Your tatemae is what you show the world, and your honne are your true feelings.”

“Exactly,” Momotaro nods. “Tatemae is acting.”

“However,” Rodney continues, “Osaka people are not so good at doing that. They’re more about honne; they wear their hearts on their sleeves. They’ll tell you what they think, and that’s why so many foreigners appreciate this place.

An octopus marks an arcade in Dotonbori, Osaka’s best-known commercial concourse.

Photograph by Ben Weller

As you like it

“Wherever I go in Osaka, I like to administer the ‘potato salad test’,” says Richard Farmer, a food and culture guide for Inside Japan Tours. “Nearly every restaurant or bar has potato salad, so I always order it. If it’s good, you know that the rest of the menu will be good, too.”

We’re at Houzenji Sampei, a teppanyaki joint tucked away down a side street near the Dotonbori Canal. And while the potato salad is indeed good, the real star of the show is what’s sizzling up at our table: yakisoba (fried noodles), tonpeiyaki (pork belly wrapped in egg) and okonomiyaki.

Okonomi simply means ‘as you like it’,” Richard explains. “That’s why it varies so much; each place has its own take. There are no rules in Osaka.”

As I stuff my mouth full of the rich, omelettey wonder, I know he’s right: this multilayered creation is in a different league to the simple street fritter I tried the night before. However, once I follow it up with a cold sip of Asahi, it occurs to me that while there may be no rules, there is at least a quality binding together much of Osaka’s food: it all seems tailor-made to go with beer.

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With that in mind, we head out into the buzz of a Friday night in search of more boozy revelry. Richard leads me into the bustling nightlife district of Ura-Namba, where we sample the wares at Sake Sai bar before grabbing a couple more beers at Stand Ajito, a tachinomiya popular with young women and famous for its side dish of fried spaghetti, the ultimate in drinking comfort food.

Houzenji Sampei, a teppanyaki restaurant near Dotonbori Canal.

Photograph by Ben Weller

Glasses drained, we’re soon back on the move. After a short subway ride, we emerge into Shin-Umeda Shokudogai, a labyrinth of tiny restaurants and drinking spots located in the bowels of Osaka Station: a subterranean mini-city unto itself. We secure a couple of spots at Peking, a narrow, wraparound, standing bar populated by working men getting their drink on before the last train home.

Squeezed in next to us are railway manager Michiaki and his buddy, Hiroyuki, a young graphic designer. They both drink highballs and introduce themselves in the best English they can muster. I see looks of relaxation wash over their faces when Richard switches to Japanese, but Michiaki still attempts to make me feel at home.

“Have... you... had... raisin butter?” he asks, leaning in to be heard over the din. I shake my head and grimace. Hiroyuki doubles up laughing. Michiaki meanwhile, seems legitimately surprised. He motions to the bartender and places an order; five minutes later, I’m presented with a tiny plate of butter slices dotted with raisins, along with a few crackers. Hiroyuki beams as I place a butter slice on top of a cracker, slip it into my mouth, and chew.

“It’s good, yes?” he asks. I’m not lying when I flash him a thumbs-up. It’s surprisingly good, made better by the frosty mug of beer in my hand.

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Richard hauls me back onto the train, and after a stop or two we find ourselves in Tenma, a neighbourhood packed with yet more food joints and bars, all abuzz. At this point, possibly thanks to the beer, Osaka’s nightlife appears to have dissolved into a seemingly infinite map of places to dine and drink: too widespread and numerous to ever exhaust. This is a city that really knows how to let loose.

Koji Inokuma, owner of off-licence Asahiya.

Photograph by Ben Weller

We find ourselves propping up the bar at Beer Belly, a craft beer joint owned by Osaka’s award-winning Minoh Brewery, washing away the remnants of the night with a couple of pints of its surprisingly drinkable W-IPA, which, at 9% ABV, threatens to deliver the knockout punch. On the verge of overdoing it, we make the wise decision to get a bit of food. I order a plate of duck prosciutto, while Richard, of course, goes for the potato salad.

The following morning, despite my throbbing head, I’m determined to make a pilgrimage. Located in the city’s Asahi ward, off-licence Asahiya is a bit far from the action, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a local institution.

“This was originally my family’s soy sauce brewery,” says owner Koji Inokuma, “but in 1950 my father got a licence to turn it into a liquor store. We now specialise in craft beer.”

“In addition to its reputation for food and beer, Osaka is known for its comedy shows, especially the straight man/funny man double act-style known as manzai.”

by Chris Tharp
National Geographic Traveller

A number of people in Osaka’s beer scene had told me to pay a visit to Koji, who’s regarded as something of a local guru. His shop speaks to this, with hundreds of bottles from around the world standing atop tables like soldiers in formation; two big refrigerators are packed with even more offerings.

“I’m 70 years old and love beer — too much,” Koji chuckles, patting his belly, as he leads me into the main room. It’s a highceilinged affair with wooden rafters, lending the place the look and feel of a tiny barn. “Soon I’ll retire, and my daughter will take over the shop.”

Koji opens a fridge and produces two glistening bottles: a Minoh Pilsner for me and Minoh Pale Ale for himself. He pops the tops and slowly pours their amber contents into awaiting glasses. “Kanpai,” he smiles, raising his glass with the pure honne I’ve seen mirrored in so many people in Osaka. “Kanpai,” I return. We clink and drink.

Still reeling from the previous night’s revelry, this early-afternoon beer is sure to help take the edge off, but I also know that I’m downing something far greater than a cool glass of froth: I’m sipping both history and the future, and for that — headache or not — I’m grateful.

Three insider top tips

1. When looking for a decent sitdown restaurant in central Osaka, get off the main Dotonbori strip and head to the nearby Ura- Namba neighbourhood, where you’ll get better food at nontourist prices.

2. Despite its reputation as a high-tech mecca, Japan can be remarkably old-school when it comes to taking credit cards. This is especially true in Osaka, so have plenty of yen to hand.

3. With loads of quality choices and rock-bottom prices, Japan is a whisky-lover’s dream. If you’d like to bring some back, forget about the airport duty-free; for better choice and prices, pick up a bottle at a local off-licence instead.

ESSENTIALS


Getting there & around
Average flight time: 12h. British Airways and Japan Airlines fly nonstop from London to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, while airlines including All Nippon AirwaysKLMKorean Air and Virgin Atlantic all offer one-stop services from the UK. High-speed trains connect Kansai International Airport with the city’s Osaka, Shin-Osaka, Tennoji and Nankai Namba Stations. The Airport Limousine Bus and taxis also connect to the city centre.

When to go
Osaka is best visited in spring and autumn, when temperatures range from 10-25C. Winter is chilly but not freezing, while summer is hot, often humid with highs of around 33C.

Where to stay
Hotel the Flag, in Shinsaibashi, has doubles from 12,000 yen (£83) a night. Cross Hotel, near the Dotonbori Canal, has doubles from 13,000 yen (£91) a night.

More info
Japan Tourism 
Osaka Tourism

How to do it
Inside Japan Tours’ seven-night Kansai Culture trip includes four nights B&B in Osaka and a street food tour, plus three nights’ self-catering in a machiya townhouse in Kyoto, transport in Japan, airport transfers, and international return flights with British Airways from London, from £2,065 per person.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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