Saturday June 23, 2012
By LEONG SIOK HUI
Located in the Kansai region, Osaka is the place for great food and entertainment, while Kobe is much more than just a city famous for its beef.
OSAKA has always played second fiddle to Tokyo, the world’s largest megacity, but that doesn’t mean that Japan’s third largest city (based on population) is lacking in offerings of its own.
With its proximity to major attractions, Osaka makes perfect sense as a base from which to embark on an exploration of the Kansai region. After all, main tourist draws like Nara, Kyoto and Kobe all are within an hour’s commute from Osaka.
Osaka is big on dining, shopping and entertainment. Another plus point is that the locals come across as more candid, feistier and funnier than their uptight Tokyo counterparts.
Historically, this was a city of resourceful merchants. From around the 5th century to the 8th century, Osaka was once the nation’s capital and played a major role in trade and cultural exchanges. .
The city is also well known for its gastronomic delights. Osaka-style food is characterised by the heavy use of dashi (fish stock), be it for the simple udon, takoyaki (octopus dumpling), or the kaiseki, a traditional, multi-course meal. By the way, the okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) here is to die for!
The vibrant metropolis is also the proud birthplace of the bunraku puppet theatre founded 300 years ago, and it’s a place where people can enjoy traditional performing art forms like noh, kyogen and kamigata kabuki. Moreover, food and lodging prices are a fraction of what you would pay in Tokyo.
An Osaka icon
A must-see for visitors is the magnificent Osaka Castle, constructed during the 16th century by warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The main tower was razed to the ground after the Toyotomi clan was massacred in 1615 and rebuilt during the Tokugawa (Edo) period.
In 1665, the ill-fated castle was struck by lightning and again reduced to ashes. It remained in ruins for 266 years until 1931 when it was again rebuilt. Another project in 1995 restored the main tower to its former splendour.
Today the castle houses more than 8,000 important cultural assets including writings, folding screen paintings and weapons. Fans of samurai tales will get a kick out of the incredible display of battle scenes enacted with hundreds of life-like miniature warriors with horses and weapons.
After a good dose of culture, we head to one of Osaka’s most lively shopping and entertainment districts, Dotombori, in the Minami (south) area. Many of Osaka’s best eateries are tucked in this dizzying maze of flashing neon signs, giant billboards and shops.
Dotombori is the epitome of the kuidaore (eat ‘til you drop) culture, a phrase coined to describe Osakans’ love of good food. Amid the neon madness, we stumble upon old Osaka at a narrow, stone-paved alley – lined with traditional-style eateries and bars – called Hozenji-Yokocho.
In the same locale as Dotombori is the Shinsaibashi shopping street with about 180 shops peddling anything from tacky souvenirs, kimono and jewellery, to clothes and footwear. Cooking buffs will love the Doguyasuji shopping street where you can shop for kitchen utensils, takoyaki grill pan and replicas of food made from plastic.
For a quick bite, we steal into a cosy udon shop called Udon Miyoshiya (http:// www.facebook.com/ udon.miyoshiya/ info). Run by bubbly owner Hironobu Maeyama, the store specialises in homemade udon. Its best-seller is the scrumptious Doteyaki curry – thick, springy udon slathered with a rich curry broth and topped with tender miso beef slices.
A relaxing cruise on the Aqua Liner boat seems like a great idea after the draining jaunt to frenzied Dotombori. Visitors have the option of hopping on the boat at four different piers between the Osakajo Koen and Yodoyabashi port. Lasting an hour, the cruise navigates a web of canals and takes you under ornate bridges in such tourist hotspots as Osaka Castle and Nakanoshima Park.
As dusk falls, we traipse to the Floating Garden Observatory (skybldg.co.jp/garden/e/) in Umeda Sky Building for a 360° view of the lovely city skyline.
Kobe: smorgasbord of cultures
For folks outside of Japan, Kobe is famous for two things: Kobe beef and the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995. But there is so much more to this picturesque port city.
Nestled on a hillside framed by rolling peaks and the sea, Kobe – with its mellow vibes – is a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Osaka. A maritime gateway to Kansai since 1868, Kobe is one of Japan’s most cosmopolitan cities.
A 24-minute train ride from Osaka Station, Kobe is popular amongst the Japanese for its “exotic” look and worldly feels.
The earthquake 17 years took more than 6,000 lives, wiped out over 200,000 homes and racked up US$100 billion in economic losses, but today Kobe is back on its feet and thriving. Developments like Harborland, a massive shopping and entertainment spot, and the iconic, Tadao Ando-designed museum, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art at HAT Kobe (Kobe New Eastern City Centre), showcase the city’s remarkable recovery.
In Japan, Kobe is noted for its Western-style confectionery, fancy bakeries and bistros.
What better way to start our day here than by savouring cakes and pastries at Pâtisserie Mont Plus (montplus.com/) which specialises in classic French confectioneries.
“Though the culture of Western confectioneries has a long history in Japan, French confectioneries make up only a small percentage of what is out there,” says founder and pâtissier Shuhei Hayashi, 47, who honed his pastry skills in hotels and bakeries in Osaka and France.
“To me, French and Western confectioneries (in Japan) are starkly different,” he says. “French patisseries have layers of flavours that titillate your taste buds and gives you a wonderful after-taste because of the hodgepodge of ingredients.”
Take his best-selling cake, Valancia, for example. An orange sponge cake envelops the zesty, velvety orange mousse with a core made of orange extract and a touch of Grand Marnier. A delicate film of meringue is spread over the cake and sprinkled with orange peel and baked. When you bite into the light, crispy meringue, it feels like an explosion of orange with soft and silky textures.
Another to-die-for Hayashi creation is the Mousseline de Melon, whereby thick melon puree mousse is sandwiched in a springy, pistachio-almond sponge cake. On an average day, Hayashi and his team of bakers whip up close to 1,000 pieces of confections including macarons, madeleines and éclairs.
After indulging our sweet tooth, we take a stroll to Harborland and hop on a cruise around Kobe port. Visitors also have the options of taking romantic dinner cruises that sail along the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Here’s the beef
You can’t be in Kobe and not try Kobe beef, right? It’d be sacrilegious! So we drop in at Kobe Plaisir restaurant (kobe-plaisir.jp). Frankly, I am not much of a red meat eater, but yes, the beef is tender and sweet.
To do it justice, I ask my fellow diner, a beef connoisseur for feedback: “It is like savouring buttered velvet. The meat is so delicate, and the fat slides down your throat, yet it’s not cloying or oily... the best I’ve tried so far.”
Gourmands worldwide gush about Kobe beef’s perfect harmony between sweet, flavourful lean meat and melt-in-your-mouth fat. The secret behind the meat’s succulence is its shimofuri or fat marbling: the fatty content of the meat that dissolves easily at low temperatures.
To be certified as Kobe beef, the cow has to come from the Tajima-gyu (Tajima cow), a pure-bred lineage that dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), and must be born at farms in Hyogo Prefecture. Even so, not all Tajima cows are given the “Kobe Beef” certification. Only Tajima bullocks that meet the specification, including marbling index, firmness and texture of meat, colour and carcass weight, get the nod.
Each Tajima cow is tagged with a 10-digit ID number, and you can key in the number online at kobe-niku.jp to find out if the meat you’re chomping on is certified Kobe beef. You can also look up the cow’s history, family lineage and diet.
Today, Kobe beef accounts for only 0.06% of total beef consumption in Japan. It’s rare and pricey. By the way, did you know that Kobe beef was not available outside of Japan until February 2012 when it was exported to Macau, China, for the first time in its history?
Continuing our epicurean journey, we head over to the Nada district of Kobe, the largest sake (rice wine) producing area in Japan.
Tucked between Kobe and Osaka, Nada produces premium sake, thanks to the mineral-rich spring water flowing from Mt Rokko and the top-quality Yamada Nishiki rice.
Established in 1743, Hakutsuru Sake Brewery (hakutsuru-sake.com/) is one of the largest sake producers in Japan and it has converted one of its old breweries, built in the 1900s, into a museum.
Visitors get a step-by-step look at the brewing process enacted with life-sized mannequins and original tools and utensils. Though there is no guided tour in English, you can grab an informative English pamphlet and explore the museum on your own. The highlight is definitely the free sake-tasting sessions where we tossed back glasses of delicious sake.
Short on time, we do a quick stopover at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art. With a total floor area of 27,461 sqm, the museum is one of the largest in Japan and has a permanent collection of about 7,000 works by Japanese and international artists. It also houses an extensive library, art information centre and holds regular talks, concerts, drama and dance events. (www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp/eng/home.html)
As dusk descends on Kobe, we saunter around the Kitano-Ijinkan (Kita Foreigners’ Residences) area where Western-style architecture dominates. In early 1900s, foreign settlers built their mansions and quaint houses on slopes overlooking the sea. Cafes, vintage shops, clothing boutiques, restaurants and live jazz bars are scattered around this laid-back neighbourhood.
Kobe is also regarded as the birthplace of jazz in Japan. It seems fitting that we should end our day in this beautiful port city with a live jazz act at Kobe’s oldest jazz bar, Restaurant and Live Jazz Sone (kobe-sone.com/).
Dark wood panelling and black-and-white pictures of performers on the walls create the ambience of a typical jazz bar. Sone holds nightly live performances featuring a piano trio and vocals starting from 6.30pm. Being the jazz snobs we are, though, photographer Watanabe and I aren’t too impressed with the night’s performance. Pandering to the mainstream crowd, the band seems too rehearsed and “safe” and, to our dismay, there is no improvisation – the essence of jazz.
Well, it was a good thing we had our fill of kick-ass jazz in Osaka the night before. Yes, Osaka’s nightlife rocks!
Four cities in four days (including Sakai and Kyoto earlier) seem like a lot to digest. But it is a great sampler plate of what Kansai has to offer. It definitely makes me want to come back for more.
* Getting There
AirAsiaX flies four times a week from Kuala Lumpur to Osaka (Kansai International Airport) with a round-trip ticket starting from RM729.
The KL-Kansai route offers Premium FlatBed option. The seats feature universal power sockets, adjustable headrests, foldaway table, reading light and privacy screen. Other perks include priority check-in and boarding, free baggage allowance up to 20kg, complimentary meal, pillow and blanket, and flight changes minus penalty. Premium seat starts from RM1,649/one-way. For more info, you can go to airasia.com