I’ll just say it: I really like squid balls.

If you come to Tokyo, you need to order squid balls.  Then, you need to go to Osaka and order squid balls.  You will realise that Osaka squid balls are much better than Tokyo squid balls.  Then, you should go back to Tokyo and say to a random person, “Why are the squid balls in Osaka better than the squid balls in Tokyo?”.

Sorry, I should have prefaced that by saying I’m assuming you want to find out exactly what the Japanese limits on politeness actually are.

Takoyaki (squid balls) from Osaka are heavenly.  A small piece of squid encased in a warm, spongy globe of batter, fried and seasoned with various herbs and delicious miscellany.  Served on a foam tray with a toothpick for skewering, smothered in mayonnaise, BBQ sauce and chives, and it’s the perfect street snack.

Or at least, it was the perfect street snack, until I found something even better there: the takosen.  Three or so squid balls sandwiched between two savoury senbei crackers, with spring onion and sauces.  It’s $1.50 of portable delight, a Japanese version of the taco but maybe even better.

I should make it clear that I really like tacos, too.

When I got back to Tokyo after my trip, I desperately asked around the office where I could get tacosen in Tokyo, but of the few that even knew what they were (Osaka-ites all), no-one had any idea.  A regional specialty that seems to be a well-kept secret.

There’s a guy selling takoyaki out of a van near my train station in Tokyo.  He’s probably been doing it for twenty years or more.  If he doesn’t know what a takosen is, I am going to show him.  I will buy the ingredients for him.  National pride and dignity  be damned, this foreigner will show the Japanese guy making squid balls for decades how to do his job.

Next post (tentative title): How I Failed To Teach A Professional Squid Ball Maker How To Do His Job, Actually Insulting Him Quite Badly In The Process, Sorry About That Professional Squid Ball Maker.


All the cool kids are getting black lung

In Australia we’ve long been used to a lack of cigarette advertising.   The backs of glossy magazines in the 80’s usually featured a full-page cigarette ad set in a tropical paradise, made even better, of course, with the addition of smoking.  For some reason, they never seemed to feature pictures of smokers throwing their butts into the once pristine sand, to be consumed later by the local fauna.

In Japan, with cigarettes retailing at around $3.50 a pack and seemingly few restrictions on advertising, tobacco ads are everywhere. Although I’ve been here for a while, I still find it jarring to see something like this on the side of the road:

This one says “After you’ve savoured one, it will be hard to notice the smell”.   Apparently, I don’t know any smokers who use this brand.

Even better though: this. Black Impact.  Just what every smoker wants to be reminded of as they inhale.

There’s no question that this is a manly cigarette for manly men, as well as David Beckham impersonators wearing hats at jaunty angles.

Black Impact tells your lungs who’s boss.  They don’t co-operate, they know you’ll hit them with soothing, carcinogenic toxins wafting over from flavour country.  If they do co-operate… well, the outcome is the same really.

I get all my news from luggage

Do you like cats?

Do you REALLY like cats?

Do you enjoy reading English that is absolutely, charmingly quirky?

Do you need a new bag?

If you haven’t said no yet, I suggest you go to Mt. Rokko in Kobe and buy this.

Once I have run out of quirky English material, I will start making insightful comments about Japanese culture, I promise.

The billboards say no

Ah Osaka – I was there only six days ago but it feels like so long. At least we’ll always have pictures…

One of the hipper areas of Osaka is Amerika Mura (American Village), which is a bit like Tokyo’s Shibuya in that it’s trendy, crowded and anyone over 40 is banned from entering.

You’ve got lots of people against a street-scape so busy that it tears into your retinas:

You’ve got sharply dressed fellas like this:

…along with lots of billboards and shops lining a shady park:

Wait a second… Enhance! Contrast! Tint! Bright! Sleep mode! Vertical hold!

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C:

Hmm, THREE empty billboards in a high traffic, highly visible area of town, where the demographic with the highest disposable income hangs out. No matter what any of the more optimistic armchair economists say, I’m pretty sure the world economy is not out of the woods yet.

While you wait for Economic Armageddon Round 2, please distract yourself with this video of Amerika Mura entitled Amerika Mura.

Eating Kobe

Golden Week! It’s the last of the Golden Week holidays today, when Japan shuts down and everyone goes traveling. This year, it was time to venture west once more, this time to Kobe and Osaka.  Kobe and Osaka are in a region of Japan called Kansai, famous for its brilliant food, more relaxed pace of life, comedy, and regional dialect, Kansai-ben.  Both are great places for a holiday, but perhaps the best place to start is the food.  After all, Osaka is the home of kuidaore (literally, “eat until you drop”), a motto I tried hard to live up to.

At the top of my list of things to do in Kobe: eat Kobe beef. Kobe beef, you might remember, is that notoriously expensive cut of meat famous for the cows being massaged and fed beer. Despite the expense, I knew that I had to try it – and I guess Kobe is relying on tourists like me, because if all the locals ate like this every night, they’d be well-fed and living in refrigerator boxes.  The prices are something like this (rough rule of thumb to convert to Australian dollars – move the decimal point two places to the left, add on another 15 percent, and you’re about there):

Following a recommendation of a local, your humble scribe went to a lovely establishment called Steak Land. The name conjured up visions of sirloins dangling from trees, kids playfully splashing each other with meat sauce and mascots dressed as porterhouses annoying everyone.  While it didn’t have the mascots, it was definitely in the top 10 meals I’ve ever had.

Firstly: to settle the debate on how to BBQ a steak. When you’re dealing with a $60 slab of meat in a city famous for its beef, I’m going to assume these guys are going to know a thing or two. Watch how they do it for yourself:

He’s cooking on a teppan, which is a hotplate positioned right in front of the diner.

Now, maybe you’ve been to teppanyaki before, where a Japanese chef cooks food right in front of you before throwing it all over your clothes. Japanese people agree with me that this is a stupid idea. Most express utter bewilderment when I explain this popular perversion of their culture. In Japan, a teppan is just an indoor barbecue, nothing more, no floor show.

This particular establishment seemed to know that consuming a lovely steak in lovely surrounds helps too.  Warm, dark hardwood furniture, shiny stainless steel hotplates running the length of the room, numerous skilled chefs who bow very politely before beginning their work: no wonder the queue was out the door.

Of course, this being Japan, steaks are often eaten with chopsticks rather than a knife and fork. So, there’s no big slabs of beef set before customers here: not by the time the chef is done with them, anyway. Everything is bite-sized and cooked to perfection.

The golden flakes adorning the steak in the picture below are fried garlic – a lot of fried garlic.  Now, I’m a fan of garlic, but the couple of cloves I was served proved to be far above my threshold.

So, where is Steak Land?  In Kobe, near Sannomiya Station.  Just look for the dodgy alleyway packed with dodgy hostess clubs, dodgy girly bars and dodgy guys promoting both, and you’ll know you’re there.

Although I say that, it’s important to understand that the dodgiest parts of many Japanese cities are probably safer than the safest parts of many others.  The combination of police and local organised crime keep the peace very effectively.

So, to sum up: Kobe beef is everything it’s cracked up to be, and you should definitely try it sometime.  You’re looking at around $63 AUD a head for dinner, but lunchtime dining is up to half price.  Maybe it’s just my post-extravagant-meal-justification gland kicking in, but I don’t think I’ve had a better steak.  Each piece just melts in your mouth, and is worthy of a meditative contemplation as you eat.  Since everyone is sitting counter-style next to people you don’t know, this is probably one of the few meals where a lack of conversation is welcome as you worship at the Temple of Beef.