II walked around Osaka Castle, doused pretty shrines with water, and gazed at pink cherry blossoms, but this is the time I treasure the most. In front of me is a huge bowl of udon – lengths of thick, chewy noodles in a tub of steaming broth, with two giant tempura shrimp tucked into the back. Next to me, an 80-something-year-old man in a leather jacket takes a photo of his meal on his phone, before sipping his noodles to a Belinda Carlisle soundtrack.

It’s Pekopeko, a tiny joint where savvy locals gather for lunchtime feasts. Here in Osaka, Japan’s second largest city and “the nation’s cuisine,” food is not a function, it is a way of life. For a long time, it’s a destination that’s been overshadowed by its neighbors – it doesn’t have Kyoto’s high-impact shrines and temples nearby, or the vastness of Tokyo and its wacky cafes. And yet, it is an increasingly popular outsider. Over the past two years, it has been the fastest growing tourist destination in the world. In 2009, 1.7 million tourists visited; in 2018, it stood at 11.4 million.

What Osaka has, however, is access – a new direct British Airways flight launched earlier this year from London – and restaurants. Thousands of them. Micro-bars are tucked away in the alleys, and Michelin-starred restaurants hide behind richly sculpted lattice screens. In fact, Osaka is so obsessed with food that its unofficial slogan is kuiadaore, which means ‘eat until you fall’. I will clearly fit in.

My three-day food odyssey begins in little Pekopeko. It’s not the kind of place you stumble over – its location, just below a flyover, helps. I find its oiled walls and its elderly owner, who shoves five lollipops in my hands for dessert, on the recommendation of Yoko Inagaki, who runs food tours and cooking classes through his company Osaka Foodie.

I meet Yoko the next day and we made it our mission to have the best of the city’s iconic snacks, takoyaki, golden octopus, fried and dough balls with a crispy shell and melted center, okonomiyaki, a pancake-esque concoction of eggs and shredded cabbage topped with whips of sauce and bonito.

Street food is taken seriously in Osaka

Credit: iStock

We start in Dotonbori, where sparkling neon lights alongside plastic two-story models of crabs, sushi, and ramen – or whatever the restaurant sells.

The city, for all its culinary accolades, isn’t the prettiest place you’ll visit – despite its other nickname “the Venice of the Orient”. Gleaming skyscrapers replaced houses razed to the ground during WWII, but the Shochikuza Theater, built in 1923, is still there. Today, locals come to watch kabuki performances, grabbing a bento box to eat in the meantime at a nearby store, Hirajyu, as well as a lottery ticket, which has shoppers entered into a raffle. to win a slice of expensive wagyu beef. London, take note.

We pass Genroku, the restaurant that introduced the concept of conveyor belt sushi to the country, making the previously expensive raw fish and rice combo accessible to the general public, and settle into Kamukura, Yoko’s favorite ramen restaurant.

She places our order using the ticket machine inside, and we slip into a counter seat before a plate of ramen oishi is placed in front of us. Then Yoko teaches me the basics of Osakan’s food etiquette. “Slurp loudly,” she said, “to make sure the chefs feel good. And most importantly: “No double dipping – it’s very rude.”

We set out on foot, negotiating the cobbled streets of the city, making a stop at the small Hozenji temple which has been here since 1637, and was one of the few temples to survive the bombing raids. I am the old lady next to me, throwing coins into a wooden box and throwing water on a moss-covered statue of Buddhist spirit Fudo Myo-o, followed by a wish of my choosing . “I always ask for a good shift at my friend’s restaurant, Unkaku,” Yoko tells me, “that I don’t drop their old plates and break them. Osakis take their dishes seriously, she explains.

Pufferfish – an Osakan delight

Credit: iStock

We stroll to Kuromon Market, where dozens of food stalls are full of boxes of ultra-fresh sushi and giant strawberry trays, some bright red, some sparkling white, others dusty pinks. At Hamafuji, we stop for a serving of another Osakan delicacy: the pufferfish. It’s prepared in front of me, the poisonous entrails of the fish removed, the rest grilled. I temporarily take a bite; it’s meaty, salty and surprisingly delicious – really.

That evening, I want a more chic setting. Eating on the streets is a relatively new thing in Osaka, something that has only taken hold over the past five years, so you’ll find great options to sit down around every turn. I go to President Chibo, a restaurant that has served okonomiyaki to his customers since 1973. I watch the chef make a luxurious version of the simple pancake, but it’s just an appetizer for the main event – a large chunk of silky miyazaki beef, a type of wagyu that has won awards as one of the best beef in the country for three consecutive years.

If there’s one thing Osakis love as much as their food, it’s their alcohol. And for that you have to go to the alleys. Here you can take your pick from tiny little izakaya (Japanese pubs), holes in the wall, and “snack bars” – fancy places where you can drink sake and try out karaoke.

My favorite is Kendanka, which is accessed by an elevator in an office-style building. Taiji Nakamura, the 80-year-old owner and Japanese equivalent of Paul McCartney, is there when I visit, banging a tambourine while I sing Celine Dion and Cher.
The next day I need some peace and quiet. I find it at Keitakuen Garden, the most glorious, peopleless park surrounded by skyscrapers and the tallest building in town. Some people sit under the cherry blossoms with bento boxes, others just enjoy the serenity and the sun. It’s only a short walk to Shinsekai, home to the Tsutenkaku Tower, the urban version of the Eiffel Tower.

I bypass it in favor of Tower Knives, where hundreds of beautiful kitchen knives are on display. I try a few, cutting carrots and comparing the blades – the more expensive the knife, the more it retains the flavor of the fish or vegetable. Some customers have been known to slap £ 7,000 on a credit card during a visit; instead, I choose a modest but perfectly respectable 6.7-inch Santoku knife – the Ford Fiesta of the kitchen knife world, and a relative theft for £ 110.

It would be rude to leave the neighborhood without trying your signature dish, kushikatsu. I settle into an unnamed restaurant next door to some retro arcades, and try fried potatoes topped with spicy cod roe, lotus root, eggplant, and a few yakitori – chicken thigh, liver. and heart. A table sign reminds me of Yoko’s previous tip. “If you double the plunge, you die”, we read. Of course, the warning works.

A mid-afternoon lull is a given on any city break, especially the one where you eat, eat, and dine. Osaka is full of trendy cafes and was even the birthplace of the tea ceremony, but for a real dose of caffeine you have to go to the old-fashioned cafes. My favorite is Mazuru, which takes me back to the 70s in a spaceship-style space. Inside, people of all ages sit on tan leather armchairs and velor seats, drinking the city’s cheapest coffee (under £ 1 a cup) in a haze of smoke. Oddly, but quite commonly here, it’s located in the basement of an office building, and worth a visit if only to meet the 99-year-old owner, who stands at the entrance to greet every guest who comes and goes.

It’s time for one last session. While I could easily spend two weeks splashing around downtown Osaka, I want to see more. I enlist the help of Koh, a young man who runs food tours in his neighborhood through Airbnb Experiences, and we meet in his neighborhood of Juso, a 10-minute drive from Umeda station. We start at Tokuichi, a large bar filled with hundreds of punters celebrating the end of the week with whiskey highballs, a refreshing mix of whiskey and soda, and snacks including red ginger tempura, pickled plums with jellyfish (a sauce sour, crunchy but quite flat addicting) and toasted ginkgo nuts.

My favorite, however, is tucked away in a shopping arcade – one I would never have ventured into on my own – where a small door opens to a bar filled with standing tables, with smoke-stained walls and hundreds of bottles. of sake. shelves that haven’t been dusted in decades. We try a few snacks, including roasted eihire or stingray fin – ethically questionable but a Japanese delicacy and surprisingly delicious – followed by wasabi leaves. I exchange my beer for a shorchu liqueur, a concoction of pickled plums and water, then a plum wine and a soda, and finally sake. The bartender pours the liquid over the rim and Koh shows me how to drink it, bringing my lips to the edge of the glass instead of using my hands.
“Another?” Koh asks me.

In Osaka, the answer is always yes.

How to do

  • British Airways, in partnership with Japan Airlines, flies four times a week between Heathrow and Osaka Kansai; returns from £ 779 in World Traveler. Visit ba.com or jal.com.
  • Abercrombie & Kent (01242 386 483; abercrombie kent.co.uk) offers a 14-night trip to Japan from £ 4,445 per person on a two-share basis, including international flights to Osaka with British Airways, l accommodation, transfers and some guides.
  • Book food tours and cooking classes through Osaka Kitchen.
  • Consult Telegraph Travel’s expert guide for where to stay in Osaka.