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Osaka’s Hidden Gems

A gourmand tour of Osaka’s lesser-known nightlife spots

Osaka's wealth of famous attractions in addition to its proximity to the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara make the metropolis a great place to stay when traveling through Japan. What many visitors to this stellar city don't realize however is that Osaka can offer so much more to those who tread off the beaten path and explore the city's districts that are traditionally less visited by tourists.

Osaka has for centuries been celebrated as the country's kitchen, catering to the local kuidore culture (kuidore literally means 'eat until you drop'). With such an enduring identity intertwined with indulgence and enjoyment, Osaka has for many years stood as one of Japan's premier nightlife centers and contains uncountable nooks and crannies that are ripe for exploration. For this visit to Osaka, I was going to eat and drink my way around some of the city's hidden nightlife spots, and naturally I was excited for my gourmand tour of the city to begin.

Upon arrival in Osaka, I made my way south from Osaka Station via the area's vast network of underground corridors. After walking for around ten minutes, I arrived at my first target for the day, the Osaka Ekimae Buildings. These four interconnected buildings' basement levels are home to a maze of hole-in-the-wall bars and eateries that offer something to satisfy a wide range of palettes.

A great aspect of many of the establishments in these buildings is their 'one coin' menus, on which drinks and snacks are only 500 yen. With so many delights available for so cheap, the Osaka Ekimae Buildings have naturally become a popular spot for barhopping, especially in the early evenings when they are typically graced by the after work crowd.

Exploring the extensive and delicious-smelling catacombs I came across various kinds of establishments, from sophisticated restaurants purveying European cuisine to laid-back izakaya, emanating the sounds of laughter and smells of fried food and cigarette smoke from behind their doors. After wandering around for a little while, I decided to begin the day's indulgence at Taishu Sakaba Maruriki, a lively izakaya in the basement of Osaka Ekimae Building 2, roughly in the middle of the morass.

I sat down and took in the izakaya's casual atmosphere before getting stuck into a dish of seafood in a rich oyster sauce and a plate of tuna sashimi, all washed down with a cold beer. A great way to start any day of epicurean exploration, I left Taishu Sakaba Maruriki and began the challenge of finding my way out of this place.

After eventually emerging back up on street level, I made my way back to Osaka Station and took the city's loop line one stop to Tenma. The area just north of JR Tenma Station has emerged in recent years as one of the true food and drink hotbeds of the city and today is packed with eateries and bars that purvey a variety of different cuisines. I made my way straight to the area's epicenter, Vinyl Street (named after the vinyl covers that many of the cozy bars have drawn at their exposed entrances to protect against the cold during winter) and came to Kakigoya Fever 1111.

The first thing that struck me about this renowned oyster bar was its ambience. With stripped down wooden walls, rustic furniture and a gray concrete floor, this place gives customers the feel of eating at a fish market right by the sea. If the decor says no-frills, then the food itself stands in sharp contrast, which I discovered upon ordering from their English menu a course of huge, succulent oysters cooked to perfection on the table-top grill. A decadent experience, this place is a must for oyster-loving explorers finding themselves in this part of town.

The sun was now dropping, and long shadows began to seep through Tenma's vibrant alleys. I finished up at Kakigoya Fever 1111 and made the short walk over to Dengeki Horumon Tsugie, a hole-in-the-wall standing barbecue place where patrons get to grill tender slices of meat on their own counter-top charcoal stove.

The atmosphere in this place, as well as being a little smoky, was lively and bohemian, and as the place filled up towards dinner time I found myself rubbing shoulders with many different types of people, all tempted inside no doubt by the mouthwatering aroma of meat that wafted out onto the street. While here, I enjoyed some dangerously delicious rib meat with a side of kimchi (a fermented vegetable dish of Korean origin). Perfection.

Full of oysters, meat and beer, I walked from Tenma's epicenter to Tenjinbashisuji 6-chome Station and took the Sakaisuji subway line ten minutes south to Nipponbashi Station. The Nipponbashi area is nestled in the eastern part of Osaka's Minami (southern downtown) area and is known by day for its electronics town that consists of a plethora of hardware, video game and hobby shops and stands as Osaka's equivalent to Akihabara in Tokyo.

After sundown however, Nipponbashi's many bars and restaurants open, and the area comes into its own as a nightlife hub. Leaving the station, I wandered to Nipponbashi Beer Hall, a cozy bar that purveys a porky range of Germanic dishes, including steaks, burgers and sausages, to go along with its Bavarian beer hall-esque decor. Foregoing food for this stop on my gourmand tour, I opted for a glass of Edelpils, a German Pilsner-style beer produced by Japanese beer giant Sapporo. The beer was full of flavor and embodied a Japanese take on European tradition, much like the establishment itself.

Wandering west from Nipponbashi I found myself at Osaka Yakiton Center, another establishment specializing in pork but delivered in more traditionally Japanese forms. As well as various kinds of pork skewer, the place also serves a mean braised pork stew, which I ordered after the server imparted their recommendations.

Food aside, this place had an electric atmosphere on my visit, with the after work crowd just starting to filter in to enjoy an evening of merriment. The extensive selection of sake at Osaka Yakiton Center is self-service, meaning that patrons retrieve the sake (which is cost graded from high to low) from the fridge and pour it themselves.

The night was now drawing on, and it was time to head further west, deep into the morass of streets and alleys that make up the southern corner of Osaka's Namba district. Namba as a whole is regarded as Osaka's premier entertainment and tourist district and boasts a string of famous attractions including the iconic Dotonbori street and the flashy, shop-lined Midosuji Boulevard. Tucked away in the lesser-known southern section of the district, however, exists a neighborhood of hidden nooks that represents a paradise for food and drink lovers.

The area, which is referred to as Ura Namba, consists of a grid of narrow streets and alleys between Doguyasuji Shotengai and Namba Station. Sennichi Jizoson-dori street at the neighborhood's epicenter boasts an eclectic array of places feast on various different cuisines from Okinawan to Chinese, and of course there are more than enough bars around here to keep punters entertained. After strolling around the area and taking in its unique buzz, it was time for my fun-filled food and drink adventure to come to an end.