Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Yakiniku Dinner at Showa Taishu Horumon in Dotonbori, Osaka

Osaka is famous for being a food lover's city -- much more so than Tokyo although I am sure that statement will not be well received by my colleagues at the Head Office.  
It is in Osaka where people use the term "kuidaore" or "eat oneself into ruin" or in more colloquial terms "eat till you drop".
My colleagues and friends in Osaka have told me that  "if you want to eat an expensive, fancy meal go to Tokyo but for a delicious meal, go to Osaka".
 After having been to both places many times, I lip-smackingly agree!
Even in terms of atmosphere, eating in Osaka is so much more easygoing, casual and fun.

At  the centre of this Osakan foodie culture is the famous eating street called Dotonbori.  
Situated in the Namba area and adjacent to the shopping arcades of Shinsaibashi and Ebisubashi, Dotonbori is a  street lined with restaurants and food stalls. 
You can eat practically any kind of Japanese food here from sushi and sashimi to wagyu, tempura ...

... to takoyaki, that iconic soul food of the city.

There  are specialty places like crab restaurants,  fugu or blowfish restaurants, gyoza restaurants, ramen restaurants ... you name your food craving and Dotonbori can satisfy each and every one.

You can eat, drink and make merry in Dotonbori.  Everything is  set in a such a crowded, raucous, colourful setting.  
Certainly, there is nothing as informal, unpretentious and friendly as Dotonbori in Tokyo.  
Even the izakayas in alleyways in Tokyo are not as comfortable or laid back ... populated as they are by office workers who seem to be stressed and uptight even as come together after office hours.

The action in Dotonbori begins as the day ends.  So it was perfect timing that right after our last business meeting, we hied off to Dotonbori for dinner.  
We couldn't quite make up our minds amidst the wide diversity of choices.  
We finally ended up deciding on yakiniku and chose this very popular Dotonbori branch of 
Showa Taishu Horumon.  The name is actually quite interesting when translated to english.
The Japanese use names to refer to a particular period of time.  Showa refers to the period from 1926 to 1989.   Taishu means a large group of ordinary people.  And horumon is the Japanese word for organ meats.
So if you literally translate the name of this restaurant, it means "organ meats for commoners, established in the Showa period".

Since it's for commoners the place is very unceremonious  -- the wooden benches and cubicles and the wood panelled walls remind me of the atmosphere of an old, well-worn inn.  It's not yet 6 pm so we are the first onaka ga suita (hungry) ones in the place.

You can choose an all-you-can-eat course but you have to finish ordering in 45 minutes.
Or you can go ala carte and choose from this dizzying selection of horumon or organ meats.
Thank goodness for an english menu to guide us and keep us from ordering a "heart crotch" whatever that is.
It seems that every organ and part of  a pig or cow is represented -- intestines both small and big and dainty (I wonder what a dainty intestine is?),  liver, kidneys, throat, cartilage, breast, heart, face, cheeks and yes, even a bull's penis can be ordered and grilled right at your table.

If you think we, as commoners,  ate organ meats Showa Taishu Horumon, let me disabuse you of that thought.  It was not high up on the cravings list for that dinner.
Happily, aside from horumon, the flip side of the menu listed the more normal cuts of beef and pork such as ribs, tongue, loin, belly and flank.

Since this is a yakiniku place,  a small charcoal grill is on top of the table so you can cook your own meal.  An exhaust fan conveniently located above the grill whisks the smoke away so you don't end up smelling like steak after you've just eaten one.

For an evening of yakiniku,  a tall cold glass of Asahi super dry beer was just the thing to further whet the appetite.

My friend ordered raw beef or beef sashimi which she mixed with onions, minced garlic  and a raw egg.  We also ordered a plate of beef tongue with scallions.

Aside from that, we had two different cuts of  beef very well marbled as the Japanese like it, skirt steak, pork belly and assorted spicy sausages.

Everything was grilled over glowing charcoal until the desired doneness.
In this case, the beef and the tongue were grilled to just medium rare while we let the pork belly cook a little longer till the fat was rendered and voila ... it was like eating the Japanese version of  inihaw na liempo!

Who can eat all this meat without a cup of rice?  We also asked for some Korean spicy paste or gochujang which came with some perilla leaves.
Perfect for wrapping around a just-grilled piece of juicy, tender meat!

We rolled out of Showa Taishu Horumon with full bellies -- ready to wade through the crowds lining Dotonbori and start our frenzied shopping spree at Shinsaibashi!

But first, a quick visit to this beloved and well known icon of Dotonbori -- Kuidaore Ningyo.
This clown beating a drum used to stand inside a large restaurant building along Dotonbori, which has since closed down.
I don't know why he's called Kuidaore when he is a rather thin figure but he continues to stand along the street, beckoning everyone to "eat till you are ruined".
And there are certainly many opportunities to do so along Dotonbori ...  this unique, amazing, mouthwatering food street of Osaka.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Midnight Snack at Kasuga Sushi Bar in Dojimahama Osaka

On the first day of our annual business meeting in Osaka, our colleagues treated everyone to a welcome dinner.  I was crossing my fingers that dinner would be a good Japanese meal but ....

As in previous years, we ended up being taken to a western restaurant.  
Don't get me wrong, I am not as ungrateful as I seem to be.   
The restaurant was very nice, the pasta was good but when in Osaka, where they say "kuidaore" or "eat till you drop" (Osakans are my kind of people!), I certainly was not planning to feast on Italian food.  
But there it was -- a fun evening with warm hearted and hospitable colleagues albeit with pasta, prosciutto and tiramisu.

Since I did not liberally partake of  the dinner (save for the excellent beer), I found myself feeling hungry towards midnight.  
Fortunately, there was a small sushi place right across the hotel -- which basically does a lot of take out business but has counter seating for a few diners.  
So, the hungry pig crossed the road!  Why?  To get to Kasuga Sushi Bar!

 The chef was busy with the take out orders so I took my time reading the menu.  At Kasuga, the sushi is sold by the piece so you can choose exactly what you want to eat.

Would I "kuidaore"?  I ordered anago or salt water eel - lightly seared by the chef before he wrapped it around the sushi rice.  I also had my favourites -- uni and shime saba sushi.  
Of course, the uni and shime saba were so good that I had to order a few more.

 A tall cold glass of beer gave me the courage to speak Japanese with the chef as I ate and as he continued to prepare more sushi.
It was a most convivial evening with a lot of hearty laughter and checking with a pocket translator.
I think we understood each other pretty well!
Food and drink are part of the universal language that everyone understands.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pigging out on Pablo Cheesecake in Osaka

Pablo Cheesecake is considered Osaka's best and most popular. The lines around its stores can sometimes extend around the block.  I always recommend it to friends traveling to Osaka and so far, I've heard nothing but raves.

On this last business trip to Osaka, I made sure to fit in some Pablo Cheesecake in my betsubara (what the Japanese call the "second" stomach that most ladies have, usually reserved for dessert or sweets).
One night,  I was walking back to the hotel through Osaka Station when wonder of wonders, I found a Pablo kiosk where the line was just two ladies deep!   I was not about to miss out on this stroke of luck.

It's amazing that cheesecake of such high quality is sold for only 741 yen (tax included).
One cheesecake is about 6 inches in diameter but because it is so rich, it can be cut into small slices and shared by as many people.

Pablo Cheesecake comes in two variants -- raw or medium. Should you choose "raw",  the cheese is really wet and runny.  If you prefer a more solid consistency, then the medium version is right for you.

Two  evenings later,  after a whole day of meetings, I headed off to Shinsaibashi for some shopping.
I found that Pablo had opened a cafe right in the heart of this area.  And only in this cafe do they sell smaller, single portion cheesecakes, good for one (or two)  which you can enjoy, along with coffee and other specialty drinks, in the very comfortable and spacious restaurant on the second floor.
These solo cheesecakes though are for dine-in customers only and cannot be taken out.
It's a good way to protect the main product and best seller, the regular 6 inch cake.

There were a lot of kawaii images and statues of cows -- to further reference the fresh milk that goes into the making of Pablo's cheesecake.

Even the overhead lamps came in an adorable cow print!

As I sat and waited for my cheesecake, I couldn't help but smile at this view.  A huge cheesecake hangs on the window, surrounded by old fashioned milk cans and yes, those adorable cows.

Here's what I ordered!  The cheesecake order comes with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream and a little pot of orange infused honey.  The ice cream and honey definitely enhanced my enjoyment and helped lessen some of the richness of the cheesecake.
But, gomen nasai, my betsubara and I could not finish this solo portion, much as we tried.

 Thank you Pablo!  What better way to cap off an evening of shopping than a late night date with the best cheesecake in Osaka.

My Pilgrim's Lunch at O Shokujidokoro Yamada along the Okage-yokocho Arcade

The power spots at Ise Jingu are truly potent... I had left Osaka at 6 a.m. without breakfast and had felt no hunger pangs at all, even as I walked around both shrines in the hot and humid morning.
By the time I left Naiku, it was almost noon but I still felt completely up to walking on and on
and on.

But perhaps the benevolent kami had other plans for me.
As I exited Naiku, I caught a glimpse of this bustling and very interesting street.  
Okage-yokocho street is on your left as you cross Ujibashi Bridge and it is where most pilgrims end up in, after their visit to the shrine.
Though relatively new, Okage-yokocho is built in the style of the Edo period.
Buildings that were seen along the old pilgrimage road to Ise Jingu have been relocated or rebuilt and reconstructed for modern day pilgrims like us to see.

 Now the buildings house commercial establishments such as restaurants, food shops, souvenir stands and yes -- even Family Mart has managed to blend in completely.  It's heartening to see that even modern convenience stores can let go of their standard look in order to be part of the environment.

Okage in Japanese means "thankful".  I'm glad that I decided to walk through this street instead of heading straight back to Iseshi Station.  What an interesting and picturesque place this was.
There were a lot of food kiosks that were quite tempting -- this one sold cold pickled cucumber for just 200 yen!

This barbecue stand gave off such mouthwatering smells of grilled meat.  Aside from the usual chicken, pork or beef skewers, you could also choose organ meats such as liver, intestines, sweetbreads or even tripe.

The food aromas were too much for me to handle and I finally realised I should stop for lunch before I took the train back to Osaka.  Most of the restaurants had long lines in front so I walked until I found one that didn't.
O Shokujidokoro Yamada looked quaint and inviting and just right  for a quiet lunch.

I suppose we were all hungry pilgrims inside Yamada. The air conditioner was on high cool mode -- it was such a relief to come in out of the heat and the humidity.

Aside from the front of the house where there were about just eight tables, Yamada also has a small section for those who wish to dine Japanese style.   The kitchen is just to the back -- it's a very compact and neat little operation.

The menu is conveniently placed on the table top so there's no need to worry about how to order.  Even if it's in Japanese, the pictures and yes the price, removes all the guesswork.
The restaurants along Okage-yokocho serve simple meals, usually udon and donburi.
Perhaps pilgrims of old ate even more simple meals or brought their own bento boxes.  
Restaurant Yamada was no exception.  The choices offered were inexpensive udon bowls which started for as low as just 450 yen while the lunch setto of gyudon (beef topping on rice) with udon on the side was priciest at 1050 yen.

Yes, I was greedy.  True to the name of this blog, my porky self rose to the occasion and I ordered the  udon AND the gyudon setto.  The waitress asked if I wanted my udon hot or cold and of course I chose cold udon.  It came  piled with bonito flakes, chopped spring onions and a few ice cubes.
The gyudon was a good generous serving of tender thinly sliced beef, onions and my favourite garnish of bright red pickled ginger.

I poured some udon sauce on  these fat and chewy noodles. Each bite was delightfully refreshing.  Yamada sells the udon and the sauce in the shop so I bought a small pack to take back with me to Manila.

After lunch, I cut through this small alley way that leads directly to the bus stop.  There are quite a  number of trains from Iseshi station to Osaka every hour so I wasn't so concerned about missing my train.

Just before I got to the bus stop, I came upon this store selling bean filled rice cakes.
I had been told that sticky rice cakes were the omiyage (present) of choice from Ise.
This shop even had photos of the Royal Family prominently displayed so I suppose their products have the royal stamp of approval.
If it's good enough for the Royal Family of Japan, it's good enough for me!
After buying a couple of boxes, it was time to head for the bus stop.
Okage-yokocho lived up to its name.
I was truly thankful that I took the time to walk through this fascinating glimpse into the culture and traditions of the pilgrim route to Ise Jingu.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Pilgrimage to Ise-jingu. Part 2 - Naiku, the Inner Shrine

After spending the early morning hours at Ise Jingu's outer shrine Geku, it was time to head on to the inner shrine,  the Kotaijingu or Naiku -- and thus complete my pilgrimage.  

Naiku is 3.5 kilometres away from Geku.  I suppose as a henro or pilgrim, one can walk all the way. But for most of us, the bus stop is conveniently located right across the road.

While I enjoyed the peace and tranquility, not to mention the early morning cool air at Geku, it was nearly mid morning when I arrived in Naiku.  There was quite a crowd at the entrance and the air had turned hot and humid.

Naiku is separated by a river, the Isuzugawa which runs clear and clean -- as with most waterways in Japan.  I felt the river acted like a moat, protecting the shrine from the outside world.

This is the Ujibashi bridge that spans the Isuzugawa and leads one to the torii that marks the entrance to the Inner Shrine.  It is a very traditional wooden Japanese bridge and is over 100 meters long.  Something interesting to note about Ise Jingu -- this bridge and ALL the structures inside both shrines are  rebuilt every 20 years.  This is because of a tradition which entails the periodic transfer of the divine symbol to a new divine palace each time.
My Japanese colleague told me that there is also a  practical reason for this constant and continuous rebuilding -- that is so that the tradition and knowledge of constructing the shrine is handed down to each generation and therefore not lost through the ages.

 Naiku, being the more important shrine as it is where the chief deity Amaterasu is,  is more expansive and bigger than Geku.  The gravel path to the inner portions are wide and lined with meticulously maintained lawns and trees.

These Japanese pine trees are gorgeous and I can only surmise how old these are.  Their fresh pine scent wafts through the air.

As in Geku, there are many giant unpainted torii that you pass through as you go from the entrance to deeper into the shrine.  In a pure Shinto shrine, the torii are never painted and are left in their natural state.

This is Mitarashi, a site for ablution in the shallow waters of the Isuzugawa.  Wide stone steps lead down to the river and many pilgrims perform their ritual acts of cleansing.

More giant torii line the way to the main sanctuary where Amaterasu Omikami is enshrined.  Of course this is completely hidden from view and you can only peek through wooden fences that hide the sanctuary within.

This peaceful and lovely bridge and torii leads to Kazahinomi-no-miya, a jinja dedicated to the kami of wind and rain, which is necessary for the growth of grains and other crops.

This is the Kaguraden where pilgrims can enter and pray.  If one has a personal petition or favour to ask for, one can dedicate a kagura, a ceremonial music or dance to the kami.  Beside this is the obligatory gift shop which had a long queue of pilgrims buying amulets, books, etc.

Despite the thick crowds of pilgrims, there are pockets of seclusion within the shrine.  I chanced upon this pond of koi where there was no one to interrupt my solitude.

On my way out, I stopped by the Sanshuden or the rest house for pilgrims.  There is free cold and hot tea on the counter and for those wishing more commercial types of refreshment, several vending machines selling all sorts of non alcoholic beverages are also on hand.
And yes, the rest rooms were  very clean and well maintained.

I saw my favourite bottled cherry drink -- tart and cold, it was the perfect way to rehydrate before I continued on my way.

It was lunchtime and more and more people were just arriving at Naiku.  It is a tradition for the Japanese to visit Ise Jingu at least once in their lives. Most of them come via tour groups so there were dozens of tour buses which were parked across the entrance.

I caught the Japanese flag waving in the breeze as I crossed the Ujibashi bridge.  Ise Jingu, as the most important shrine,  is considered as the spiritual home of Shinto and therefore of Japan and the Japanese people.

These bronze ornaments are found on the bridge at both ends.  As pilgrims passed, they stopped and touched these ornaments as part of their ritual of farewell.

And here to commemorate my pilgrimage is the stamp of Naiku on my shuincho.  
Coming to Ise Jingu was a  gratifying and fulfilling experience.  
I found the two shrines to be different but complementary to each other.  I felt the raw and primitive power of the kami in the Outer Shrine, Geku.  
And in Naiku, I saw the high degree of reverence and esteem the Japanese people had for their beliefs. 
Ise Jingu is the heart of their way of life.