Go-Karts and Gourmet in Japan’s Second City
On this day in the city I had a busy and adrenaline fuelled morning of go-kart racing followed by a wander around some of Osaka’s top restaurant areas to sample the best local comfort food.
Osaka is often described as the “Kitchen of Japan”, with people flocking to its many restaurant districts and markets to try the local specialties. As one of the main centres of trade, it is perhaps one of the most cosmopolitan parts of Japan and this is reflected in the friendly and colourful people.
It is a place where ancient and modern live side-by-side with giant UNESCO-registered imperial tombs and ancient temples surrounded by the sprawl of one of the largest cities in the country. And with mountain ranges and woods to the north, east and south of the city, there are plenty of opportunities to get back to nature and do a little hiking.
Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashi-Osaka is the spiritual home of rugby in Japan and where the increasingly popular high school rugby tournaments take place. The stadium sits in Hanazono Park just on the outskirts of Osaka City.
Go-Karting at Amazing Kart ISK
My first port of call was Amazing Kart ISK, a go-karting track on the island of Maishima, not far from Universal Studios Japan. It was my first time behind the wheel but my instructor, Ito-san, was able to explain well, in English, how to control the kart and what to do in case I crashed. He also ran through a map of the course and pointed out the best places to start breaking for each corner.
Out on the circuit, I was shown to my kart and the staff adjusted my pedals so that I could drive comfortably with my long legs. Since it was my first time, Ito-san also jumped in a kart and drove in front of me while I got a feel for the kart and the track.
The course was a nice balance between fast straights and tight, technical corners and it took me a few laps to get used to the kart. Being so low to the ground made it feel very fast even though my lap times were slow. The karts can do up to around 60–80 kph in skilled hands.
Before my next set of laps, Ito-san gave me a few more pointers about racing lines and keeping a good speed. With his great advice (he has won several kart racing championships in Japan), I managed to knock at least 30 seconds off my first times.
The Amazing Kart ISK centre can provide you with all the racing gear you need and they also have a cafe and space to relax in breaks between races. It also has a friendly community with casual, amateur and semi-professional racers all mixing together.
It was a great introduction to kart racing and since it takes place on a closed track, you don’t need a driving licence or indeed any prior driving experience.
Shinsekai – deep fried snacks in Osaka’s Old Town
Feeling hungry after a morning of racing, I made my way to Shinsekai, a colourful, rough and ready restaurant district centered around the large Tsutenkaku Tower. This area is especially famous for Kushikatsu: meat, seafood or vegetables, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried and served on skewers.
There are many long-standing, family-owned kushikatsu restaurants throughout the area and several of them have English menus, which is useful because of the almost endless variety!
When eating kushikatsu, you should first dip it in the bowl of special Tonkatsu sauce on the table. You must make sure to follow the golden rule though, DON’T DOUBLE DIP! Once you have taken a bite out of your kushikatsu, you shouldn’t put it back in the sauce since it is shared with everyone else at the table.
Since there has been little renovation in Shinsekai over the last few decades, the area has a dated and worn look, especially comapred to more affluent areas like nearby Namba. However, this really adds to its charm and the noise and smells coming from the many restaurants gives this place a unique atmosphere.
Dotonbori and Hozen-ji Yokocho – discovering the secrets of “Japan’s Kitchen”
My next stop was Dotonbori, the most popular and famous place to eat in Osaka. You can find almost any food you can imagine along this long promenade. It is the best place to try the Osaka specialties of Takoyaki (batter balls stuffed with diced octopus) and Okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes made with shredded cabbage and countless other ingredients).
While it is always buzzing during the day, it is at night that Dotonbori really comes alive, with its hundreds of illuminated, and sometimes bizarre signboards. Among them you can see giant pufferfish, squid, pieces of sushi and even a huge mechanical crab, giving you a good idea of what you can expect in each restaurant.
The Ebisubashi Bridge in the center of Dotonbori is a popular meeting spot where you can also find the Glico Man, a giant LED sign of a running athlete which is a hallmark of the Glico confectionary company and a must-have picture for many selfie galleries.
Duck down a narrow side-street however and you enter the alternate world of Hozen-ji Yokocho. This warren of alleyways is a far cry from Dotonbori; with the neon and noise repaced by simple wooden buildings and subdued atmosphere.
Throughout this area are plenty of trendy restaurants and cafes and the unusual little Hozen-ji temple that gives the district its name. Here you can find a mysterious statue of the Buddhist deity O-Fudo-sama. Thanks to generations of people throwing cupfulls of water over it as part of their prayer, a thick layer of moss has grown over the statue, a unique sight at odds with the bustle of Dotonbori just a few metres away.
Okonomiyaki, Osaka Soul Food
While in Hozen-ji Yokocho, I decided to try some of Osaka’s famous Okonomiyaki. This being a food perfect for sharing, Okonomiyaki restaurants often have a large grill or hotplate in the middle of the table and you help yourself by slicing off pieces and taking them to your plate.
We ordered Yakisoba (fried noodles), another popular comfort food, and two kinds of Okonomiyaki: one with shrimp and pork and another with cheese and mushrooms. The soft pancakes have a delicious savoury taste enhanced by a rich sauce and handfuls of smokey bonito flakes. This, accompanied by a cold nama-biru (draft beer) is the perfect end to a busy day.
The city of Osaka has something for everyone: amazing food, exciting activities, glitzy shopping streets, history and culture. And for people looking for something a little off the beaten path, simply wandering off the main routes and exploring the side-streets like Hozen-ji Yokocho opens up a whole world of secrets to discover.