No Guide Book: A Culinary Adventure in Osaka’s Tennoji Neighborhood
By Erik Lebs
Osaka is called the kitchen of Japan for a reason. From the skinny alleys overflowing with domestic and international cuisine in the Tenma neighborhood, to the mountain of Korean food in Tsuruhashi, a food tour of Osaka is perhaps the best way to discover the city’s peculiarities.
Today marks the beginning of a new culinary series documenting this city, where I’ll be adventuring through neighborhoods both classy and not-so-classy to find the best that Osaka has to offer. To start off the tour, we’re going far south to Tennoji.
Tennoji station is a major transportation hub between Osaka, Nara, and Wakayama, and being adjacent to the grittier Shin Imamiya neighborhood (perhaps the only real slum in all of Japan) means this area plays host to both typical business people along with some of the seedier parts of Osaka city life. Many crime and yakuza manga plots unravel in the backstreets surrounding Tennoji.
Tennoji still maintains its old charm, and it’s there that the best food and experiences are to be had.
But with new skyscrapers like Abeno Harukas, now the tallest building in Japan, and several new shopping malls to boot, one gets a sense that Osaka’s trying to clean up this neighborhood’s gritty image. Nonetheless, as soon as one gets a few blocks away from the new developments, Tennoji still maintains its old charm, and it’s there that the best food and experiences are to be had.
The further south we go in Osaka, the deeper we get in the Osaka “soul food” scene. That means Tennoji’s a good place for takoyaki and okonomiyaki, of course, but it also means dozens of little tachinomi’s (translation: “stand’n’drink”), each of them filled with local characters and bright conversation. If you’re looking to deal with the locals, the tachinomi is the place to make it happen.
Tonight I’ll be patronizing both standard okonomiyaki fare, followed by a peek into a tachinomi. I venture out with a Japanese friend and we find ourselves wondering from JR Tennoji station up the street towards Shitennoji temple, the oldest temple in Japan. We’re not there for the temple though, about 500 meters from the temple’s main entrance is one my favorite okonomiyaki restaurants, Abeno Ichigen. My local friend agrees that it is, indeed, the best. (For those looking to get a taste, more extensive directions on locating the restaurant follow this article).
Abeno Ichigen is run by a friendly woman and her family. It’s classier than one might expect based on Tennoji’s deep, gritty image, but despite it’s refined exterior and polished tables, the prices the menu are cheaper than anywhere else in the city. What makes Abebo Ichigen stand out among the rest of Osaka’s okonomiyaki joints is the nuanced and subtle flavors contained within each of their dishes.
Their okonomiyaki is soft and gentle, and though abundantly sauced and mayonaissed, it’s light on the stomach. The eater never feels like they’re being burdened with too much pork or oil. It’s difficult to describe subtlety without using over-the-top metaphors. Yes, indeed, these are rare sensations for such a typically heavy cuisine, but that’s what makes this establishment so memorable.
Though our stomachs are mostly filled at this point, we’ve already put a tachinomi visit into our itinerary, and we’re not about to change our plans. Lucky for us, tachinomi’s serve ko-zara (small plates) exclusively, so we can temper our food intake in relation to our waning appetites. After all, tachinomi’s aren’t just about food, they’re about drinking alcohol and enjoying the charms of the local environment and its people.
We’re going to a special treasure I’m lucky enough to know that’s located back near JR Tennoji station. It’s called Taneyoshi, and it’s run by a little grandma, who, though small in her stature, is a fierce force to be reckoned with. Because I’ve been here so many times, she’s finally remembered my name.
Something I’m very proud of, considering members of pop idol group AKB48 have also been here. I’ve made it my policy to bring friends, both Japanese and international, through this little bar at every possible opportunity, and the reviews are unanimous: Taneyoshi is a wonder of old-school charm and good people. We order a small maguro and avocado dish, a moyashi itame dish, and some ice cold “frozen” beers. The food is always great, but what makes this place the best is the tipsy clientele and their easy-to-approach demeanor.
The night comes to a close. Our stomach’s satiated and spirits high, I bid my friend farewell at the station and I walk back to my apartment.
1-8-13 Taitou, Tennoji Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, 543-0052
Abeno Ichigen is located 600 meters from the JR station. Take the Park Exit (公園出口）and cross the street. Walk along the covered shopping arcade until the shopping arcade is no longer covered. Pass the convenience store and just a few more steps and look to your right.
15-13 Horikoshicho, Tennoji Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 543-0056
Taneyoshi is much closer to JR Tennoji station, though it’s located in a small maze of alleyways. Once again, walk out the Park Exit (公園出口), cross the street, walk along the shopping arcade for about 50 meters when you’ll notice a small alley on your right. Walk through that alley. Look for the establishment that is always bustling with happy people.