April 9 – 11, 2015
At first glance, it is not easy to figure out what’s there to do in Osaka. Not when its defining attractions are a rebuilt castle or some retro neon light displays. But arriving with no expectations can often breed surprises – after spending a few days in Osaka, I have to concede that Osaka is not without its charm. Despite the town’s modern outlook, it has a blue-collar vibe when compared to Tokyo.
More than anything else, Osaka is defined by commerce and food, and it might not even be in that order. As the famous Japanese saying “Kyo no Kidaore, Osaka no Kuidaore” (People in Kyoto ruin themselves by spending on clothes while Osaka people on food) shows, you can literally eat yourself to your financial demise in Osaka. Luckily there are plenty of cheap eating options in Japan’s second city to lighten the burden on your wallet (if not your waistline).
Note: The grading is benchmarked to meals of what could reasonably be had at around ¥1,000. There will be no mentions of takoyaki or okonomiyaki because I don’t care for either.
Again, ¥100 = 6.5 HKD; ¥100 = 0.84 USD
Kura Sushi くら寿司
A nation-wide conveyor belt sushi chain? I know what you are thinking. Hear me out first: It is impossible to mention cheap eats without bringing up ¥100 sushi, and Osaka-based Kura Sushi, one of Japan’s biggest cheap sushi chains, deserves to be the representative in this category.
I visited the Kura Sushi in Naniwa next to Richmond Hotel Namba Daikokucho (which I highly recommend). The only moment of human interaction is at the cashier where you will receive a number for your assigned seat, and from then on everything is automated. You get to your seat, pour yourself some tea and focus on the conveyor belt where sushi is constantly being refilled out of sight. If what’s available isn’t to your liking you can place your order on a touch screen; a few minutes later your food will whirl right in front of you through a special tube on top of the belt. Simply slide your finished plates into a chute under the belt and your sushi tally will be counted. The next time you will see the presence of a human is when you are ready to pay your check back at the cashier.
Look at the menu – the sushi, most of them two a plate, really cost only ¥100. That’s cheaper than a can of Coke. Don’t expect fancy ingredients like tuna belly or sea urchin, but the seafood is generally fresh. Cooked dishes like ramen and donburi are also available from ¥300 – ¥700.
Address: Multiple locations
Opening hours: Generally 11:00 – 23:00
Kanae Sushi かなえ寿司
A main reason why I like to stay in Naniwa, besides being right next to Namba, is because it is home to Osaka Kizu Wholesale Market (大阪木津卸売市場). You can think of it like a very poor man’s Tsukiji Market; beginning at 4 am every morning the market is already in full operation mode where buyers from restaurants and retailers across Osaka are busy making purchases.
If you fancy having sushi for breakfast, you might consider Kanae Sushi. Opened in 1900, this unassuming shop is now manned by a father-son tag team. I walked in at 5:30 before my early morning flight and caught them by surprise – they clearly weren’t expecting a tourist at this hour.
I ordered the ¥1,500 set, with cooked prawn, squid, freshwater eel, scallop, yellowtail, mackerel and sea bream snapper. I don’t know if it was because of the early hour or I was a tourist, the quality was uneven. The sushi were laid out in a very casual manner. Worse, the rice was loose – I have never seen that before in Japan, not even at supermarket. The quality of the seafood was fine but not tellingly better than Kura Sushi’s.
With more than a century under its belt, Kanae Sushi deserves some benefit of the doubt, but there is a much better breakfast option nearby for me to endorse it.
Address: 2-2-8 Shikitsuhigashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: Generally 4:30 – 13:30
Not satisfied with the lazily assembled sushi at Kanae, I walked to the other side of Osaka Kizu Wholesale Market and found Kawakami, a unagi (freshwater eel) shop bustling with customers. Remarkably, this eatery has served its signature dish at the same location for over 200 years.
I ordered the ¥1,500 unadon (eel rice bowl). A middle-aged woman attentively reheat three pieces of unagi on a grill for a few minutes before the dish was served. The eel was crisp on the outside and tender inside. For the same price as the sushi set, this bowl of rice was much more gratifying.
Address: 2-2-8 Shikitsuhigashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 5:00 – 13:00
If you are in need of a quick bite during your Shinsaibashi-suji shopping spree, Ajiman is not a terrible option – as long as you stick with katsudon (rice bowl with deep fried pork cutlet and egg). A katsudon set (¥950) came with miso soup and pickled vegetables. The batter was crispy while the pork remained tender.
We also ordered a bowl of soba and a plate of tenmusu (rice ball with shrimp tempura) – the noodle was soggy and the rice balls cold.
Address: 3-6-12 Kitakyuhojimachi, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: Generally 11:00 – 19:00
Hokkyokusei (Shinsaibashi Original) 北極星 心斎橋本店
The concept of omurice (omelette with fried rice) has always intrigued me. A combination of two of my favorites, this seemingly easy to make dish is actually quite hard to master. I have yet had a decent one in Hong Kong – the egg is usually too thin and the rice too dry, so I made it a priority to visit Hokkyokusei, Osaka’s most renowned omurice shop.
Founded in 1950, Hokkyokusei is housed in one of the very few traditional Japanese style buildings remaining in Shinsaibashi, Osaka’s main shopping district. After removing our shoes at the entrance, we walked through a narrow corridor, passing a small garden, and were led to our seat at the edge of a large dining hall. Hokkyokusei’s fame evidently has transcended beyond Japan; on this night the clientele consisted visitors from all over East Asia.
We ordered the two most popular items on the menu – hashed beef omurice (¥1,050) and mentaiko omurice (¥930). Puffy and moist, the omurice looked really promising when they were brought to our table. It all went downhill when I cut mine in half – the egg was just as thin as the ones I had. The taste was forgettable; the hashed beef too salty, the mentaiko tasteless, and the rice was dry.
My quest for a good plate of omurice continues.
Address: 2-7-27 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 11:30 – 21:30
Wakasaya (Namba) 若狭家 難波店
Thanks to persistent deflation, it is generally not hard to eat well with a tight budget in Japan. Now, I am not suggesting you should dine at ¥100 sushi or gyudon chains for every meal – this is the country with the most Michelin three-star restaurants after all – but with so many cheap and reliable options around, how much are you willing to pay for a very minor upgrade in quality?
Wakasaya presents such a case study. It specializes in chirashizushi, which is raw seafood scattered on rice. It offers most types of seafood, including popular ones like sea urchin, scallop, salmon roe, spot prawn and tuna. The quality of the ingredients are acceptable – not as fresh as Kura Sushi’s – but given its wider range Wakasaya charges about double the price. The size is also comparable. To have a filling meal it will cost more than ¥2,000.
I personally would rather pay less for a more basic alternative or trade up and have a proper sushi meal at an established shop.
Address: 1-7-5 Dōtonbori, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 11:00 – 23:00
Jiyuuken (Namba Original) 自由軒 難波本店
Whenever I think about food in Osaka, Jiyuuken always comes to my mind. To me, this place is the prototype of eatery in Osaka; a small, time-tested eatery run by an old lady that oversees an even older staff. Walking into Jiyuuken feels like being time warped back to the sixties.
The signature dish of Jiyuuken is curry rice with minced pork and raw egg. The old lady who served us advised me to mix some tonkatsu sauce with the rice. The texture was both watery and sticky, but it was not unpleasant. I couldn’t really differentiate the ingredients as the tastes overlapped. Every spoonful was thick, hearty and comforting.
Address: 3-1-34 Namba, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 11:20 – 21:20