I may have mentioned that I’m from Portland. Although we’re not quite what Portlandia makes us out to be, there is one rumor that is absolutely true: we love ourselves some craft beer. My husband—his love for beer surpassed only by his love for me—was interested in trying Japanese craft beers on the trip. Unfortunately, the scene in Japan is barely bigger than a grain of rye, big producers like Kirin and Sapporo muscling out the competition and flooding the country with their vapidly malty bubble water. I began to despair of finding a brewer at any of our stops when I ran across Beer Belly in Osaka, one of the few locations for local microbrew Minoh Beer. Perfect!
As far as I can tell, the Toyoko Inn hotel chain is the Marriot of Japan: reliably clean and well-kept, with a presence everywhere. During the Osaka leg of our trip, we stayed at a Toyoko Inn location: Osaka JR Noda Eki-mae.
You may have noticed a lack of castles on our trip: no Imperial Palace in Tokyo, no Nijo Castle in Kyoto, no Osaka-jo Castle in Osaka. It’s not that I have anything against castles per se, but rather that I can’t quite drum up the interest to visit such a crowded place if all I’ll get in return is a concrete-and-rebar replica or a flat-out ruin. True, not all of them are replicas or ruins, but a lot of them are crowded. With so much history lying about in Japan, why would I want to spend time on a reconstruction? Well, maybe one reason: a reconstructed castle with a lovely garden park can make a good place to have lunch. Enter the Ikeda Castle Ruin.
Here’s a recipe you can’t try at home (but trust me, it works): steep the Japanese people in efficiency for 800 years and combine the resulting brew with fear of European colonialism. The mixture will separate into equal parts “knack-for-speed” and “fascination-with-convenience.” Mix these with post-War food shortages, add a sprinkling of genius, and you’ll have invented instant ramen, beloved staple of the college dorm room and low-budget foodie kitchen alike. A survey conducted in 2000 found that Japanese people believe instant ramen to be their country’s greatest invention. Although it seems demented at first, look below the surface and it makes perfect sense: using instant ramen, starving post-War Japan was able to feed themselves, improve their economy, prop their middle class, and feed the world. Instant noodles became an important cultural ambassador and paved the way for other Japanese exports. One museum exists to share the love and history of instant ramen with the world: the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.
Osaka is supposed to be the LA to Tokyo’s New York: more relaxed and party-friendly, less cold and snobby. During the Edo Period, Osaka was the home of the merchant class, which the samurai class had a vested interest in keeping toward the bottom of the social order. They passed laws forbidding merchants from displaying their wealth through their clothes, homes, or other possessions, so the only outlet for all the money was eating, drinking, and partying, turning Osaka into the North Star of low-frills food and drink in Japan. One particularly beloved tradition is kuidaore, which means “eat till you drop,” and the supposed kuidaore capital of Osaka is Dotonbori. When I was researching places to visit in Japan, Dotonbori was my whole reason for visiting Osaka. Japanese food is some of the best in the world, and the idea of literally falling over from stuffing myself with it sounded like the kind of budget-friendly luxury I can get behind. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that it would be impossible not to have a good time in Dotonbori. No less than Anthony Bourdain said—while scarfing down kushikatsu, grilled crab legs, sushi, takoyaki, and okonomiyaki—“It’s easy to eat here. You just walk down the street [and] food’s everywhere.” Sign me up.
Note: You’ll notice a lack of photos in this post, and it’s because we weren’t allowed to take photos during the play. For professional photos from someone who was, and for some interesting commentary on bunraku theater from a bunraku shamisen player, check out this story from “PingMag.”
I think puppets freak most Westerns out. Maybe it’s the uncanny valley, maybe it’s too many Chuckie movies and “Twilight Zone” ventriloquist villains clogging our cultural colon. I honestly don’t know if Japanese feel the same way, but I do know that puppets are an important part of traditional Japanese culture, particularly the bunraku theater puppetry that was raised to the level of art by Chikamatsu Monzaemon 400 years ago. I’ve personally never been plagued by puppet-related heebie-jeebies, and am a huge fan of the elaborate bunraku plays that rival Shakespeare in terms of importance, intellectualism, and prodigious length. And so on our first day in Osaka, home of bunraku, I found myself literally running to the National Bunraku Theater to watch several acts of Igagoe Douchuu Sugoroku (Vendetta at Iga Pass). (Spoilers below, if you believe it’s possible to spoil a 230-year-old play.)