Quality not quantity

In the markets and restaurants of Osaka, snack food has been elevated to an art form

Learning how to accept a business card is all part of the experience in Japan, where conforming to a complicated social code is almost an art form. A bit like preparing for an interview, you have to run through the rules in your head a few times before they stick: take the card with both hands, maintain eye contact with the giver for several seconds and then earnestly scan the name and make a few cooing noises about that, or the design. It also helps to be able to return the favour, which is tricky when the nearest thing you've got to cards of your own is a few crinkled scraps of paper with your email address hastily scribbled down in smudged ink.

Learning how to accept a business card is all part of the experience in Japan, where conforming to a complicated social code is almost an art form. A bit like preparing for an interview, you have to run through the rules in your head a few times before they stick: take the card with both hands, maintain eye contact with the giver for several seconds and then earnestly scan the name and make a few cooing noises about that, or the design. It also helps to be able to return the favour, which is tricky when the nearest thing you've got to cards of your own is a few crinkled scraps of paper with your email address hastily scribbled down in smudged ink.

But if the idea of playing by such a strict set of rules threatens to have you scarpering back to the airport, head instead to Osaka, Japan's second- biggest city. Osaka's lack of surface glitz is compensated for by an underlying authenticity. The locals are so proud of their heritage that, when they visit Tokyo, they famously exaggerate their Osakan accents rather than hide them. The Osakans tell it like it is. And, what they tell you most is that they are just as fun-loving, rebellious and downright ordinary as anyone anywhere else in the world.

Stroll beneath the city's gold-leafed ginkgo trees or take a ride on the Toy Town-like subway, Besides the squadrons of businessmen you will find a mass of punky-haired students plugged into their mobile phones, bunches of school children in flamboyantly customised uniforms or, like my guide for the day, the dapper, cravat-wearing Mr Haga, people who are as au fait with the Italian Renaissance as they are with their own city's history.

As Mr Haga explains, however, there is one rule that must be followed in Osaka. While you're in town, you have to eat takoyaki, the little dough balls filled with ginger, spring onion and octopus that are sold on nearly every city street corner.

Osaka, it turns out, is the snack food capital of the country. When it comes to nibbles, the surrounding region, Kansai, is Japan's fertile crescent. The locals take their pick from whatever the local sea, mountains and pastures can turn out to produce such culinary wonders as okonomiyaki ("cook what you like" pancakes, topped with meat, fish and vegetables), udon noodles cooked in a delicate kelp and soy broth, and nabe ryori, a local "hot pot" dish, where you cook at your own table. The city is so renowned for its gourmands, or kuidaore, that it even has its own motto: ordinary people like their food cheap and delicious.

Most cheap and delicious of all are said to be takoyaki, so I volunteered for a specialist cooking class in a quiet part of Osaka. Run by 75-year-old Yukiko Satake and her daughter Sachiko, the Wakatake Cooking School runs the most prestigious takoyaki courses in the city; of Osaka's 4,000 or so takoyaki chefs, over 1,000 have trained here.

Keeping a keen eye on me through her purple-tinted glasses, Yukiko ran me through the basics while Sachiko brought out glasses of iced green tea. First we were to mix the flour, water and egg to make a batter. Then you drop the mixture neatly into the heated up takoyaki machine, with its rows of little circular hollows. Sprinkle a tiny pile of octopus, ginger and onion in the centre of each circle and then wait for them to cook. Finally, just at the moment when the outside turns crispy, you tease each ball out with a skewer, flip it over and slot it back in upside down so that the other half of the mixture fills out into the hollow and forms the other half of a perfect circle. Simple, chuckled Yukiko mischievously. That might have been an understatement for her, with over 35 years of takoyaki-making experience, but it wasn't so easy for a first-timer. If you take your eye off one ball for a moment it will overcook, turning your takoyaki into a hot, scorched, gooey mess in an instant. Still, Yukiko was also a master of tact. "Aren't they sweet?" she said, surveying my stack of what looked more like soggy golf balls than the glittering mound of Ferrero Rocher-style spheres she had managed to produce. As for the taste - cheap I could agree with, delicious only if you like the idea of chewing phlegm.

If you think it's safer to be cooked for, make for Dotonbori instead. An urban Japanese wonderland of noisy pachinko parlours, giant hydraulic crabs strapped to the front of restaurants, puffed up paper fugu fish dangling from the relevant doorways and signs advertising all-you-can-eat sushi for a bargain £6 a head, this is the heart of Osaka's downtown entertainment district. In its centre is something to make even the stomachs of Osaka's most hardened kuidaore skip - an enormous fifth, sixth and seventh floor theme park based around food: Dotonbori Gokuraku Syotengai.

The park opened last summer, and the concept has proved so popular that they're already getting up to 6,000 visitors a day. As weird as it sounds, you step out of the elevator and into a 1920s style street system, complete with costumed fortune tellers, a small theatre and a rowdy village square. You get used to seeing fake food as you travel round Japan - instead of written menus, restaurants will often set out plastic replicas of each of their dishes by the entrance so you know what to expect (much of it is bought from a single street in Osaka, Doguya-Suji). Here, the idea is taken to the extreme. So authentic did the park's designers attempt to make it, that as you wander around the streets you see pretend water running down pretend drainpipes, pretend tennis balls stuck in pretend gutters, pretend weeds growing from pretend stone walls and so on.

Fortunately, besides the hi-tech charge-card system on which diners run up their tabs, one thing that really is genuine is the food. The 40-odd restaurants all specialise in local dishes, from noodles and okonomiyaki to sake and castera, the little sweet cakes the locals got a taste for after being introduced to them by visiting Portuguese traders. The food's not to be scoffed at, either - one of the noodle bars was recently voted best in Japan. And, yes, you can get takoyaki here, in myriad different ways. I couldn't tell you if it's the best in Osaka, though. Some rules are meant to be broken.

English-speaking guides can be arranged through Osaka Goodwill Guides (00 81 6 6635 3143). The Wakatake cooking school can be contacted on 00 81 6 4807 9202. Dotonbori Gokuraku Syotengai is at the Sammy Ebisu Plaza building in Dotonbori, open 11am-11pm daily, admission costs Y315 (£1.60). For more information call 00 81 6 6212 5515

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
News
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised question-and-answer session
peopleBizarre TV claim
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
life
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit