We’re back on the road, folks. Today we head to Osaka, the street food capital of Japan. Before we say farewell to Kyoto, however, we were told that we had to make a stop at one of Kyoto’s must-see sites: Nijo Castle. We agreed that a little history might be the perfect precursor to a whole lot of eating.
Originally built in 1603, the castle was the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu. Today it’s one of the best examples of architecture/design from the era, with a history to match: it was completed in 1626, returned to the Emperor in 1876, renamed the “Nijo Detached Palace” in 1884, before finally being donated to the City of Kyoto in 1939. In 1994 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
History aside, we’re starting to get a little tired of packing and unpacking, but if that’s our biggest complaint so far then our trip is going really, really well… Next, we made our way over to the train station and hopped a ride to Osaka. Staying true to our classically one-track minds, we headed straight to Kuromon Market and the surrounding Namba area, famous for its street food, blowfish, and takoyaki (which, you might remember, we first tried in Shibuya). The area’s known as a dealers’ town, which makes for–hallelujah–awesome prices. The quality was on par with Tokyo, but around 40% cheaper.
The best part of our time at the market, however, was our fresh, blowfish sashimi. Chao selected it, our helpful chef sliced it up and prepped it, and we inhaled it, seasoned with just a bit of soy sauce and a good deal of zeal on our part.
We made our way back to the hotel for a quick shower, changed, and went to check out Takochaya, a recommendation from a friend. For a spot “known for its octopus” (one of Osaka’s signature dishes), it was relatively unknown to the concierge and cab driver. Thankfully, we had the Japanese translation and a phone number handy, so the driver was able to work it out.
Okay, so, by this point, we’re running a bit late, but we’re happy the place is fairly unknown. In fact, it’s so unknown, there’s no signage. The driver directed us to the fairly discreet entrance, up to the sixth floor, and that’s when we arrived at one of the greatest surprises of the trip.
It took about two seconds for us to realize that we’d reached a new level–incredibly quaint, remarkably high quality, with a giant tank of baby octopus greeting us as we found our table. Doesn’t get much fresher than that. This next part – not for the faint of heart. Freshness takes on a whole new meaning when your dinner is clinging to your chopsticks. Once we finally managed to pick up the octopus, it was… delicious. Were we nervous, watching it dance a bit on our dishes? Yes, as most human beings would be. But after that first bite/kill, we were all about it.
We were also told to ask for Philip Harper sake, a British-born sake brewer in Japan and the only immigrant to have earned the title of toji or master sake brewer. He’s also a close friend of John Gauntner and the Master Brewer at Kinoshita Brewery, home of Tamagawa Sake. The chef knew exactly who we were talking about and within a few moments handed us his cell phone: Philip was on the phone. I mean, you really can’t plan that kind of thing.
Philip told us a little bit about the sake list at Takochaya (which just so happens to be one of the best around), made some recommendations, then spoke with the chef for a few moments.
While debating between hitting the hay and hitting the town, the chef told us to wait a moment. Philip Harper had arranged for us to make a stop nearby.
Moments later, a mysterious lady down the bar motioned for us to follow her (in Japanese). We looked to the chef for approval, mildly convinced we were in the beginning of a mystery novel, but the chef nodded. We got up to follow her, thanking the chef for his hospitality, only to notice the lady was sprint-walking ahead of us, disappearing out onto the street and weaving like a guided missile, through back alleys and around tight corners.
Once again, no signs, no indication of the bar within, nothing. Once we hit the fifth floor, the mysterious lady nodded and took off. We floated into the bar, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. When we came to, we were sitting in the middle of Shukoujin.
The people sitting nearby filled us in: Shukoujin is a fairly famous mixology/sake bar, home to one of Japan’s most famous mixologists who originally worked at Takochaya (above). From there, everything melts into a shower of crazy-delicious drinks–a sake/brandy cocktail that had been aged in a barrel, was 40% alcohol, and could get even the most exhausted of travelers up and at ’em. After that, another crazy sake-infused cocktail, equally killer, equally intoxicating.