Osaka – Stranger In A Strange Land

In early December ’07, I returned from a two week trip to Japan. It was my fourth trip to Japan in the past 6 years. I went to Osaka to visit my in-laws and to spend some time in, what is now, one of my favorite palces to travel. On this trip, I primarily stayed in Okasa, but made excursions to Koyasan and Kyoto.

This was my fouth trip to Japan in 6 years. Over the course of these excursions, I have traveled from Fukuoka to Tyoko, and many points in between. I never thought that I would enjoy Japan, but I now love being there. As a matter of fact, I previously had no interest in re-visiting Asia. I have done my share of globetrotting, mostly in Europe and Africa. My only trip to Asia was a week long journey to Singapore and Maylasia about 15 years ago, and although I had a good time, I was not impressed enough to return to Asia. Through the fateful, and fortunate, accident of marriage, Japan has become my favorite place to journey.

Kyoto 2007

I particularly love to visit Japan in the Fall…

The crowds are thin, the air is crisp, the leaves are changing, the sake unforgetable; and the food is outstanding. I have never had a bad meal in Japan, and I have had many memorable meals in Osaka. The food is fresh, unexpected, unpretentious, inexpensive, and above all good. I’ve eaten fugu (blowfish) in Osaka…whale sashimi in Yamaguchi…udon noodles on Shikoku Island…ramen in Fukuoka…vegitarian at a Shingon Buddist ryokan/monastary in Kyosan…okonomiyaki in Tokyo…Italian in Kyoto…excellent sake everywhere.

I’ve travelled all over the world and without question, San Francisco is my favorite city for food and wine. Osaka, is my second favorite city for food. I’m serious…the food in Osaka is good! But Osaka ain’t beautiful. It’s congested, frantic, and difficult to navagate if you do not speak Japanese. It’s friendly, but not tourist friendly. Osaka is a city that has to be explored, over time and on foot. I’ve had many unexpected moments. There is an unexpected and sizable population of homeless people. On my first trip to Osaka in 2001, I was walking past a homeless emcampment near the zoo and I witnessed a homeless middle-aged Japanese Elvis, (light blue suit, shades, side burns, etc.) singing karaoke! Osaka is a city that will change your stereotypes of Japan and that is why I like it. And one more thing…the food in Osaka is good!


Several seasons ago, on his show “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain featured well done episode on the food and culture of Osaka. Check it out. The two photos below are from Koyo-shi, a sushi spot (too small to call a resturaunt) near the Umeda station. This couple has been making sushi for 40 years! It was featured in the “Osaka” episode…was the best sushi I’ve ever had (and the fugu/blowfish was well worth the risk).

Koyoshi Sushi

Koyoshi Sushi #2

I am a big sake fan and whenever I travel to Japan…drinking sake is always a priority. Like most Americans, my first experience with sake was the warm stuff a served at a sushi joint. I began to appreciate sake when I went to a local sushi resturant in San Francisco, with a friend from Japan who’s family owns a sake brewery in Nara. She ordered a bottle of Tenzan Sake and I have been a fan of sake ever since. Tenzan, and the best sake imported to the U.S., can be found at True Sake in San Francisco.

I’ve found, however, that the sake I buy and drink in Japan is significantly better than what you can find anywhere is the U.S. Obviously, the sake in Japan is fresher, inexpensive, and there is more variety. It’s my opinion, but unlike wine, sake does not travel well, it’s best produced and consumed in Japan. In addition, it seems that the vast majority of sake produced in Japan is not exported, so when I’m in Japan I drink sake.

The pics below are a well hidden sake store/izakaya in Osaka called Yamanaka sake-no-mise.  I usually bring back several large format (1.8L) bottles to the U.S.  The premium sake goes for around $40/1.8L bottle!   That price is for exceptional sake that is unavailable in the U.S.  It’s like getting a magnum of Chateau LaTour for the price of Yellowtail.  You don’t have to seek out Yamanaka, however, you can find fantastic, inexpensive sake anywhere in Japan.  FYI…most sake does not age well and should be consumed within a year.

Yamanaka Sake-no-mise

Yamanaka Sake-no-mise storage room

To oversimplify, sake is made from fermented rice and water. The best sake, comes from regions that have the best rice and best water. Like wine, sake has terrior. Specific Japanese food pairs better with certain sake better than others. I’ve often wondered if regional Japanese cusine pairs better with specific regional sake.

Is sake wine? Definitely not. Sake should not be described as “rice wine.” Sake is sake. Wine is not called “grape sake,” so why refer to sake as “rice wine.” The term “rice wine” is a Euro-centric definition of sake. Although it is true that sake and wine are fermented, and not distilled like liquor, they have little in common. Viva la difference!

I am not a proponent of pairing wine with Japanese food, or sake with anything but Japanese food.  Sushi and chardonnay? No thanks.  Japan was a closed society for more than two centuries and this is well reflected in their culture and food.   In most circumstances, regional foods pair better with regional wine varietals.  Although I did accidentally have a Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zin that went very well sukiyaki, I would have rather had Tenzen sake.   Why even bother trying to pair wine with Japanese food.  What is the point of this futile exercise?  Explore the world of sake and Japanese food.

Sake is simple. Sake is complex. Sake is Sake.


Have a Peaceful and Happy New Year!


Published by Reg

I am a vinophile. I was born and raised in San Francisco. I graduated from Morehouse College in 1986 and received my M.D. from UCSF in 1991. I am a happily married, living and working in San Francisco.

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  1. Reg:
    I really enjoyed clicking around Vinoyo this morning. I love the concept — though I cried when I read about your pouring out six bottles of the Robert Mondavi Oakville down your drain. True, 1997 wasn’t my favorite vintage of that wine, but I would have struggled to figure out something to eat it with or someone to waste it on before I sent it off to the fish in the bay. But anyway my reading inspired a lot of thinking (about your site and mine, since I’m trying to do something similar) and I’d love to get your personal email so we can exchange ideas.
    Thank you,

  2. Heather,
    Thank you for the feedback. I really hated to dump the Mondavi Oakville, but I refuse to sacrafice my liver for bad wine. I also would not cook with any wine I cannot drink. Lastly, I would be embarassed to give it away as a gift. There are just too many good wines available.
    Will be in touch soon.

  3. A point of order after randomly stumbling upon your blog, using the word “sake” to describe Nihonshu is equally Orientalist as “rice wine”.

  4. The previous comment is, of course, no way invalidating your knowledge or love of Nihonshu, but as a resident of Osaka who often entertains foreign guests, the overuse of the term sake (especially by those who use it in reference to shochu) is a source of great consternation.

  5. Thanks for the comment. I reviewed my post and did not find a reference to Nihonshu or shochu, or a comment to describe Nihonshu or shochu as sake.

    If I am in error, I apologize. As a resident of Osaka, please use this opportunity to enlighten us OBFGs (Orientalist Barbarian Foreign Guests) and explain the difference between Nihonshu and sake.

  6. I spent a year as an exchange student in Kyoto Japan, and I have to say I probably wouldnt have gotten by if it wasnt for a delicious bowl of udon a couple of times a week! There is even one shop where you can eat for free if you do 30 minutes of washing after! Anyway, I found a load more tasty looking ideas at this udon recipe site.

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