Takoyaki

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We love takoyaki (Japanese octopus duplings), and the best ones we’ve encountered are in Osaka, of course, given that Osaka is known as ‘The kitchen of Japan’ with its people’s passion for food, and thus chefs in even the simplist of restaurants, izakayas (Japanese gastro pubs) and home kitchens alike put a lot of effort into producing top quality mouthfuls.

One of our favourite date-night destinations in Osaka is a restaurant called Tako Tako King (picture below).

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Typically for Osaka bars and izakayas, they have friendly and rather loud staff, good sake and umeshu (plum wine), kind of drinkable white wine (white wine in a Japanese izakaya is as good as sake would be in an English pub, but at least in Tako Tako King they serve wine!) and really good takoyaki.

 

 

And last night, when one of my old students babysat for the evening, Tako Tako King  was where my husband and I headed, and ordered a whopping 10 takoyaki balls with barbeque-type takoyaki sauce and 10 with just salt.  Many people have a preference for one or the other, or for vinegar/ponzu takoyaki. I think bbq sauce and salt are equally delicious, but would not necessarily go for vinegar takoyaki – as my white wine was already vinegary enough! (I need to remember to order umeshu).

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Takoyaki with salt at the back and takyoaki with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and dried tuna flakes in the front (and some sake and rather vinegary white wine).

 

But outside date nights, Dotonbori restaurant street is probably the best known place in Osaka for having takoyaki with its a multitude of takoyaki vendors and their expert takoyaki makers (see video below).

 

 

The guys in the video above make the use of those sticks look so easy, but I can tell you for free that it’s not! The first day back in Osaka, we went to a Japanese friends’ house for a takoyaki party and got to try turning the dumplings around with the sticks in the takoyaki pan.

I don’t know if it was the jetlag that made our fine motor movements and thus dumpling turning look as elegant as Donald Trump giving an intellectual speech or whether it really is very tricky to roll little balls of dough around with a long toothpick. Furthermore, I don’t know if it was the jetlag or the exhaustion from turning his takoyaki balls around, but my husband had to take a little nap halfway through the afternoon.

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We love takoyaki so much that for the past couple of weeks, we’ve been searching for an electric takoyaki pan in several stores in Osaka, but haven’t found one. Not because there aren’t any takoyaki pans around – there are hundreds! – but they all are for the Japanese voltage (110V) which is different from England (240V). This difference in the electric voltage already resulted in our Japanese rice cooker suffering fatal injuries on arrival to England (read about it here), so, we are now careful not to repeat our non-electrician (or common sense!) mistake with a takoyaki pan. I assume what we have to do is to get a cast iron takoyaki frying pan and make our takoyaki back home the traditional way.

In any case, I have already bought several bags of takoyaki batter mix, tempura pieces, pickled ginger, seaweed, katsuobushi (dried tuna flakes) and takoyaki sauce to throw our own little takoyaki party/parties in England – anyone up for it?

Second trip to Okinawa (sort of)

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We visited a small island called Yoron essentially in Okinawa (but which is actually just over in the neighbouring Kagoshima prefecture) a couple of years ago when we lived in Japan (you can read about that trip here, here, and here) and loved the sun and amazing, pretty much tourist-free beaches there and thought that now that we are on holiday in Japan, we should visit the Okinawan islands again.

So here we are in Zumami Island, about 1 hour from the Okinawan main island by catamaran.  At least partly due to the ease of access, Zumami it is one of the most popular Okinawan islands for tourists – having said that, there is hardly anyone here! See the photo below of the busiest day on the beach that has been voted the best in Japan. In fact, I’m not sure who voted given that there are more people at any given beach in England in torrential rain than on the beaches of Zumami in warm April weather.

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When we told our Japanese friends in Osaka (some of whom are from Okinawa) that we were going to Zumami for 5 days, they all were a bit surprised and said that 5 days was a long holiday for Zumami as there was practically nothing on the island to do – and they were right. The island is tiny, there is one ‘supermarket’ (a small shop really), a couple of local restaurants that are open between noon and 2pm for lunch and apparently 1 policeman (whom you can call by using one phone in the village centre). In fact, to illustrate how small it is, my husband set himself a challenge to run every bit of road whilst we were there – which he did!

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A two-table strong eatery on the island, serving only Okinawan noodles, pot noodles, crisps, ice cream and beer in a rather rustic environment.

 

There is not that much to do on the island other than enjoy the amazing beaches (and, like my husband, run up and down the handful of roads if you are that way inclined). But the beaches and the sea at Zumami is pretty amazing! One of the beaches on the island homes turtles (Ama beach) and the other one has a tropical fish filled coral reef (Furuzamami beach), and we’ve spend much of the past days on one or the other, even though my husband struggles with the fact that the nearest beach to our hotel (Furuzamami beach) lacks some pretty essential services for British holiday makers, more specifically, the café on the beach does not serve any alcohol!

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And so, we’ve just spent 5 days on the beach without a single glass of wine – which led to my husband contemplating running to the ‘supermarket’ (2km away) emptying its liquor shelf and bringing some sake and wine for us to sip while resting our eyes on the clear blue sea (but we refrained from doing that when we then noticed the safety warnings telling swimmers not to drink and dive). But after an alcohol-free day on the beach, in the evenings when back at the hotel, we had a little stroll on the beach next to our hotel and had some sake and plum wine there.

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One-cup of plum wine on the not-snorkelling-beach.

 

So we’ve done a fair amount of sober snorkelling for the past days, which has been wonderful.

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The reef starts literally 5 metres from the beach and snorkelling there feels like you are in a fish tank filled with Nemo and Dory from Finding Nemo, puffer fish, angel fish and lots of other types of colourful fish that I don’t recognise and I felt I was smiling every time I dove into the water (regardless of the fact that it was a rather ungraceful entry with flippers which felt like boots that were too big for me). But what wiped the smile off my face pretty quickly and demonstrated that the boots were in fact too big for me (for snorkeling in tropical waters) was a close encounter with a large venomous sea snake! It was about 1 metre from me, but luckily heading from the surface to the reef and was not paying much attention to me. Nevertheless, you’ve never seen me scurry back to the shore as quickly as then. Once on dry land, I went to the lifeguards to tell that I had seen a large specimen of the snake whose photo hung by the beach telling people that if bitten to immediately squeeze the venom out of the bite and to go directly to the hospital, but they seemed rather relaxed about it and said that it would be safe to return to the water. For some reason I felt like snorkelling was done for the day (and we had fun and games outside the water).

 

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But if you think that you want to visit Zumami island, a word of warning might be in order. The island really is very quiet and the accommodation very basic. You would be disappointed if you arrived there expecting a high-end, state of the art resort and found Kerama beach hotel with its interior and exterior having peaked maybe 30 years ago and instead of all inclusive buffet tables catering for all diets, you’ll get a tray of Japanese food for breakfast and dinner (which we found super delicious but which nevertheless gives little choice for those who are picky eaters).

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French Riviera style luxurious hotel complexes simply do not exist on this island. But what compensates for the rustic lodgings is the staff’s customer service. In true Japanese style they bent over backwards for us, driving us around the island like a personal taxi service (as there are no taxis on the island and no public transport to speak of), offered us ice and sake glasses when they noticed that my husband had emptied the liquor shelf at the village shop (maybe so that we would return the plastic cups back to our bathroom) and spontaneously made us vegetarian tempura for dinner when they noticed that my husband (who is vegetarian) was eating mine and the children’s rice while we were having his grilled chicken.

But if you are after a relaxing beach holiday in a rustic environment, appreciate that sea snakes live in the reef for the same reason you want to swim there (i.e. for the fish) and can cope with the lack of access to alcohol on the beach, Zamami island should be on your bucket list!

 

 

The biggest change we’ve noticed in Osaka

 

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It’s been 2 ½ years since we lived in Osaka and the city is pretty similar to what it was when we moved back to England. For instance, it seems not to have aged like me and my husband have (it certainly hasn’t acquired the wrinkles we have in the past  2 1/2 years) and it is still as much fun as it ever was! But there is one important thing that has changed – a thing that would have made our life much less difficult when we lived in Osaka as Westerners who did not speak Japanese beyond the absolute necessities, like ‘Plum wine with ice, please’. You see, there is much more English around in Osaka now than there was 3 years ago, probably (at least partly) because Japan is gearing up for the 2020 Summer Olympics and needs to be more accessible for the sport-loving tourists – even the parts of the country (e.g. Osaka) that without the pressure from pleasing the international crowds (or the Olympic officials) would be happy to do its own thing and ignore any need for the use of English (unlike cities like Tokyo and Kyoto that have been more tourist-friendly for years).

But things have changed.

Many of the restaurants in Osaka now have signs outside telling customers in Japanese and in English what type of restaurant they are and dishes they serve – 3 years ago this was not the case and we felt like Livingstone exploring the unknown and unpredictable territory when trying to avoid any hostess clubs (read about those here) or restaurants specialising in serving (deadly) puffer fish (read about those here) in a quest for finding some more suitable establishments for families with small children, i.e. places where waiting staff (not hostesses) would serve things like fried noodles, octopus dumplings or even cow’s large intestines. On a positive note, we never found ourselves in a hostess club and as far as we are aware never fed the children puffer fish – but given that most of the time we did not know what we ate, I can’t be 100% sure.

In addition to restaurants being more tourist- and non-Japanese speaking resident-friendly, convenience stores have also changed many of their food labels so that less guesswork is needed than 3 years ago. For example, onigiri (rice balls) and maki rolls (rolls of rice and seaweed) labels now have English translations telling what you’ll find inside the rice ball/roll. When we moved to Japan in 2014, buying a onigiri was like buying a scratchcard, i.e. you hoping that you’ll get something that would make your day (i.e. tuna mayo, prawn mayo or pickled plum) or at least something that wouldn’t ruin it (i.e. sea bream or seaweed) as long as it wasn’t fish roe, or even worse, natto (i.e. rather slimy and stinky fermented beans). To go off on a tangent, my son tried natto this morning at our hotel breakfast (first time ever), earned a family bravery medal in the process and said, quote, ‘How can they give children this stuff?’ (which pretty much every Japanese parent does!). With due initiative he went and told the hotel staff that from hereafter he would prefer a Continental to a Japanese breakfast.

 

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Onigiri with Japanese and English labels

 

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Not only does onigiri now have English translations, but so do crisps – hooray! In a previous life many a evenings were ruined when I walked home (blissfully unaware) that I was carrying a bag of seaweed or scallop flavoured crisps instead of ready salted.

 

Lastly, convenience store and department store staff nowadays have much better English skills than they did 3 years ago and many of them spontaneously interact with foreign customers in English. And even if I want to practice my poor Japanese by telling the cashier that I don’t want a carrier bag, fork and chopsticks with my noodle salad, they now respond in English!

 

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To round off, Osaka is pretty similar as it was in 2017 when we moved back to England, except for the annoyance of any Japanese language enthusiasts who would like to reap the rewards of their hard work of learning Japanese or a non-Japanese speaker Livingstone wannabe.

Kawaii

 

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Not Shinsaibashi shopping street with its eateries and drinkeries but a temple and its cherry blossom not 800m away

Before our trip to Osaka, our daughter could not remember that much about our life in Osaka – only some images of her favourite park and restaurants, her school and school friends, and some key Osaka landmarks – after all she was 2 ½ years old when we moved to Osaka and 5 when we moved back to England.

But one additional thing that she does remember is many people calling her Kawaii (‘cute’) when she with her blond hair but somewhat Asian facial features frolicked around the busy Osaka streets.

Before we arrived in Osaka this time, she was a bit worried that now that she is 7, she would no longer be called kawaii. In my eyes, this would not be the end of the world really. I mean, her passion in life is not beauty pageants, but gymnastics, reading and pugs and she wants to become a vet or an archaeologist and in the case of the latter find something super old and exciting, which she says she wants to bury with me when I die (to which I say that there is no point in burying it with me if she’s just dug it up, but the idea is rather sweet in the context of a 7 year old already worrying about her mother dying one day). But because her vivid memories of people smiling at her, calling her kawaii, taking her photo and talking to her in Japanese on a daily basis, and those memories being one of the only handful of things that she does remember, for her, kawaii is an important association with Osaka.

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But she didn’t need to worry. The first night back in Osaka, when we walked through the busy Shinsaibashi area with party goers traipsing around finding their way to their alcohol filled destination while the yakuza (Japanese mafia) men in their black suits, earpieces and stern faces stood on every street corner keeping an eye on the people coming and going to make sure there wasn’t any drunken monkeying around going on (and that hostesses were bringing enough men into hostess clubs and other yakuza business was taking place as per protocol) we walked past the yakuza bouncers, they looked at her and with great big smiles on their faces exclaimed kawaii and high-fived her.

When we come back to Osaka next time, maybe the thing my daughter will remember is the high fives from the yakuza!