Travel black book: Osaka a food paradise

Who: Mr Toby Koh, 45, group managing director of Ademco Security Group, which provides security and business management solutions to businesses and governments across Asia.

Favourite city: Osaka, Japan

Why: It is Japan's ultimate food paradise. Food can be found at every street corner, unlike in some other Japanese cities.

My first trip to Osaka was in April 2013. Since then, I have gone back four times, most recently in December last year.

My visits are generally work-related but I am fortunate to have been taken around Osaka by friends and business contacts to get an intimate feel of the place.

Best places to stay

The five-star Swissotel Nankai Osaka (5-1-60 Namba Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0076, tel: +81-6-6646-1111) is right in the heart of Minami, one of Osaka's two major city centres.

The hotel is connected to Namba train station, so you can get there directly from Kansai International Airport on a 40-minute express train ride.

It is super convenient and the train ride costs only about 1,100 yen (S$12.50). Room rates range between $280 and $400 a night.

The four-star Namba Oriental Hotel (2-8-17, Sennichi-Mae, Chuo-Ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka 542-0074, tel: +81-6-6647-8111) is nearby at Ebisubashi Suji Shopping Arcade. Room rates are between $130 and $150 a night.

It is a nice, affordable hotel in a great location, ideal for shoppers. I would encourage shoppers to stay here - the money you save on accommodation can go towards more shopping.

Namba Oriental is also a great choice for families as it offers rooms with three beds and you can add a roll-away bed.

Favourite places to eat

If you are in Osaka for only one night, you must head to Chanko Raikou (2-4-22 Hannancho, Abeno-ku, Osaka 545-0021, tel: +81-6-6623-0917). This restaurant is as local as you can get. Located in a residential part of town, it has been around since 1970 and is a popular place for home-style cooking.

The decor is simple but it's very cosy. From the bantering going on whenever I visit, it is evident that many of the customers are regulars.

My absolute favourite is the traditional hotpot. This is typical of what sumo wrestlers eat daily. The recipe for the broth has remained the same for more than 40 years.

The main reason the hotpot is done to perfection is because the owner, Asao Taketani-san, was a sumo apprentice for eight years. He had to quit as he was not growing big enough.

He has formulated his own broth, which is called Miso Chanko. It is made with home-blended garlic miso, bonito, kelp, pork and salmon.

The broth is extremely addictive and I recommend ordering an extra side dish of fresh crab to add to the hotpot if it is available. The hotpot costs about 4,000 yen a person and is a meal in itself.

Another must-try is Niku No Tataki (4,000 yen), which is seared Yamagata beef, a superior wagyu beef in Japan. It is served with Raikou's homemade ponzu sauce, which brings out the beef's flavour.

Also, order the Okara-tofu with vegetables (1,000 yen). Okara (soybean pulp) is a popular health food in Japan and it tends to crumble, but Raikou's okara is smooth and firm.

Another great place is Minato (1-15-25 Higashishinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0083, tel: +81-6-6253-2633), which serves quality traditional cuisine at a very decent price. It is a small restaurant that caters to locals, which means there is no English menu.

Here, you must try the Hakinton Shioyaki (3,000 yen), which is Hakinton pork grilled with salt. Hakinton is hard to come by and is considered top quality pork in Japan.

The chef prides himself on wielding perfect control over his grill and he has a secret supply of special salt that makes the dish so tasty. The pork is lightly charred and is lip-smackingly good.

I also suggest being brave and asking the chef for omakase, which literally means "it's up to you, chef". The average cost of a meal here is 8,000 yen a person.

Must-try street food

My Osaka friends are all extremely proud of their food culture and street food is a significant part of the Osaka culture.

Takoyaki (a flour and egg-based batter grilled with octopus slices) stalls can be seen at every corner along the covered walkways of Shinsaibashi Suji, one of Osaka's oldest and busiest shopping destinations.

It makes for a nice, piping hot snack, especially when the weather is cold. Prices range from 400 to 500 yen for six pieces.

Okonomiyaki, a flour-based pancake with squid or meat and cabbage, is also worth trying. It costs between 1,000 and 1,500 yen. Many of the stalls have long queues of people waiting patiently. Just follow your herd instinct and join a queue.

Best places to shop

Namba - you would need at least five days to cover the shopping within that area; Daimaru - a huge department store spread across three buildings; and Takashimaya's original store, which is connected to Namba train station.

Also connected to the station is Namba City, a huge mall with lots of stores and basement shopping. Across a walkway from Namba station is Namba Parks, a shopping complex housing speciality shops with various themes on each floor. For example, there is a floor dedicated to unique crafts and another level that features clothes by local designers.

If you like one-of-a-kind items that are not available in Singapore, Namba Parks is calling your name.

My favourite shopping destinations are the covered streets of Shinsaibashi Suji and Ebisubashi Suji.

These are pedestrian-only shopping belts, which are sheltered and perfect for when it rains or snows. The side streets are lined with shops and dining options too.

Must-see places

You must visit Osaka Castle (1-1 Osakajo, Chuo Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 540-0002, tel: +81-6-6941-3044) at least once. It is a majestic building with gardens and a moat. This was rebuilt as the original was burnt down.

When at the castle, go to the beautiful Nishinomaru Garden, a lovely place with hundreds of cherry blossom trees. If you are lucky enough to be in Osaka when they bloom, you must visit the garden.

Admission costs 600 yen for the Osaka Castle Museum and 200 yen for Nishinomaru Garden.

Even though we have a Universal Studios in Singapore, going to a theme park in Japan such as Osaka's Universal Studios is always very entertaining.

The Japanese really enjoy going to theme parks and they show it proudly with laughter and joy. Such excitement is highly infectious and adds to one's total experience.

Best place to people-watch

Around Shinsaibashi Suji and Ebisubashi Suji in Namba. The area is always buzzing, with shop assistants standing outside their stores shouting their special offers and urging customers to step in.

Best hidden find

Go to the basement of Takashimaya, where the massive food hall is. There is a counter named Baton d'or.

Baton d'or is the luxury category of Pocky, with top quality ingredients. They sell the most fabulous breadsticks with a buttery aroma that is simply out of this world.

My favourite flavour is strawberry for its fruity yet delicate fragrance. A box costs about $5 after the tourists' discount and tax rebate, which is pretty pricey but definitely worth every cent.

The queue is usually very long, so go early because they often sell out by 5pm.

Advice for travellers

Take along your appetite and don't be afraid to try everything. Also pack one or two extra bags for all the shopping you will do.

This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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