An Osaka stopover
The last time I was in Osaka, nearly 15 years ago, the rows of cherry trees lining the riverbanks were in full bloom. Arriving by night, I spied walls of blazing neon through the windows of our tour bus, and a series of waterways carving their way through an urban labyrinth. By day I remember standing in the grounds of Osaka Castle, marvelling at the size of its curving ramparts and the gilded reliefs on the uppermost level of the main keep.
I’d always wanted to return to Japan, but Hong Kong’s relative proximity to the country and its reputation as an expensive destination had kept me away. It was only after moving to Southeast Asia that those plans became anything more than a possibility. Bama had never been, and that was enough reason to put us on a seven-hour red-eye flight from Jakarta.
With morning came our first view of the Japanese home islands. I looked down over the hills surrounding Kagoshima in the southernmost part of Kyushu, where I’d begun the first of four family holidays in Japan. I remember being told that the biggest radishes and smallest tangerines grew on the lower slopes of Sakurajima, that wide, smouldering volcano looming just across the bay from this city of roughly 600,000 people. In Kagoshima I admired the local Satsuma ware, particularly one minimalist earthen pot with a luminous, mustard-colored smudge brushed onto a black background of iron-rich clay. But my hands gave way and the small pot shattered into a multitude of pieces on the shop floor. I was a child then, and somehow the loss of such beauty from this act of carelessness brought tears running down my face. Mother ended up buying a replacement, although the painted smudge wasn’t quite as perfectly formed.
The plane tracked northeast, passing the rest of Kyushu before reaching the island of Shikoku. We saw power lines threading across a series of forested mountains, and a plain of paddy fields and villages came into view, bisected by an untamed river dotted with sandbanks. The final approach took us on a broad sweep over Osaka Bay, past the soaring suspension bridge spanning the Akashi Strait, the reclaimed islands off the port city of Kobe, and Osaka itself, a concrete sprawl of 19 million people that stretched far into the distance.
For me, Japan exists in a dimension that is both familiar and completely unknowable. I can read kanji, the Chinese characters that are widely used in the Japanese language, but neither of the two native scripts, hiragana and katakana. Although I’d been to Osaka twice, I’d long forgotten what it was like to encounter Japanese customs and social norms. Most of all, I hadn’t expected the humidity – especially not in the early days of autumn.
Emerging from the passageways at Shin-Imamiya station, I found our new surroundings immediately disorienting. The cityscape was a picture of urban conformity, an indistinct realm of multistory blocks punctuated by narrow lanes, elevated rail lines running in two directions, and a tram track threading across the avenue. At first glance the entire scene was devoid of landmarks, until Bama spotted the Tsutenkaku tower rising above the rooftops. Ever since he’d read the manga series Detective Conan as a child – of which one book sported a photo of the tower on its cover – Bama had associated the structure with Osaka itself. The 1912 original was modelled after Gustave Eiffel’s Parisian masterpiece, and demolished in World War II after being damaged in a bombing raid. We’d booked a room at a small hotel just down an arcade-lined street from its replacement – a utilitarian but beloved symbol of the city’s postwar reconstruction. “Indonesia!” A twenty-something at the front desk enthused, “I was in Bali once!”
Bama and I headed down into the nearest subway station, plotting a route to Osaka Castle. We soon stumbled across a food fair in the leafy grounds beyond the inner moat; a matcha soft serve ice cream and matcha-flavored mochi (sticky rice cakes) gave us temporary relief from the humidity. Rising above it all, the copper-roofed main keep – a 1930s concrete replica housing a museum and elevator – was just as stately as I’d remembered.
Although our time in Osaka was planned as a one-night stopover before going elsewhere, we couldn’t leave town without trying two local specialties. At the foot of Tsutenkaku tower, lunch was a platter of piping-hot takoyaki, octopus pieces in grilled balls of dashi-flavoured batter, dressed with a thicker, sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce, a heap of bonito flakes and copious amounts of spring onion. Dinner involved two kinds of okonomiyaki, a thick savoury pancake stuffed with a variety of ingredients: typically meat or seafood, carrot, and shredded cabbage. Bama and I were seated with an iron griddle (known as a teppan) between us, and soon the waiter set down two metallic bowls of assorted ingredients. One had egg and diced shrimp; the other contained pieces of beef tendon, leek, and spring onions. “Just mix,” he said. We dutifully followed his instructions, and soon I wondered if someone else would come our way to pour the batter onto the hot teppan. After all, the waiter had already coated the griddle in a thin film of oil and deposited two flat turners at one corner.
It was only when someone else gestured for us to start cooking that we realized our mistake. For making okonomiyaki is largely a do-it-yourself activity. Bama’s face was a mirror of my own confusion. “I’ve never had this before.” That was his signal for me to take charge of the griddle – in other words, going by instinct. I had eaten okonomiyaki several times, but in Hong Kong, it was always prepared in the restaurant kitchen. Pouring out the egg and shrimp concoction from its bowl, I patted and shaped the sizzling mixture with both turners into a rounded mass. In time I flipped over the pancake, letting it cook for a few minutes before spooning over a rich, dark sauce, adding delicate lines of bottled mayonnaise, and cutting the finished morsel into quadrants.
The informality of piling each slice onto too-small plates, the smell of barbecued meat that hung in the air and seeped into our clothes, and the brisk business around us all felt strangely comforting. This was the Osaka I’d barely observed as a teenager, and I couldn’t be happier to see it in a fresh, new light. ◊