“It's said that the people
of Osaka are happy and openhearted because they eat good food.”
— Official Guide, City of Osaka Recreation & Tourism Bureau
He works quickly — nimble fingers, furrowed
brow, eyes gliding carefully over the hot iron plate. The wooden
pick turns, shapes, molds glutinous lumps of dough, sea life and
vegetable into something … more.
“The trick,” the man says, “is
to turn the takoyaki quickly. To get the air inside. This way, they
Hideki Tsujino has been making culinary delights
at Namba's Takoyaki Ya food stand for little over eight months now,
though he's been in practice for quite a bit longer than that. “It
takes time to learn,” Tsujino says, now clearing the pan's
edges of excess dough and coaxing the small brown balls into existence.
“Lots of practice. I practiced making takoyaki for two years
before I really got started.”
And if it seems excessive to practice on any food
for years until feeling adept at it, consider the stunning amount
of food shows on TV right now, where pop stars and actors greet
the oddest of culinary concoctions with howls of delight. (However,
there've been few sights as sublime this year as a visibly-uncomfortable
Richard Gere grimacing his way through a multi-course dinner on
variety show SMAPXSMAP).
Consider still the amusing (if somewhat oddly
disturbing) Osakan concept of kuidaore — eating until you
drop; or the astonishing number of restaurants in Osaka —
once pegged at one restaurant for every 81 citizens. Eating —
the concept, the action itself — is taken seriously here,
and the sharp-minded restau-rateur, if he or she wants to get ahead,
must be very, very talented. Or, at least, able to keep the overhead
Enter, then, the yatai — those ever-present,
lantern-bedecked, open-air food stands that give the peripatetic
Kansai populace something to snack on during the course of the workday,
and sustenance to festival-goers at various summer events (fireworks
displays, obon odori neighborhood parties, etc.).
The origins of yatai in Japan are misty at best,
though most denote the Edo era as the earliest starting point. (Open-air
food stalls are continually pictured in ukiyoe artist Hiroshige
Ando's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido series, first displayed
in 1833.) The small, easy-to-put-up-and-easy-to-break-down carts
were a cheap financial lifeboat for many following the Second World
War, and are today rickety bundles of nostalgia and culture that
neither time nor progress nor bad weather can seem to get rid of
“The customers in my old restaurant were
the ones that gave me the idea [to open a yatai],” says Shin-Osaka
food stall owner Hemen Dave.
“They'd come to my restaurant in Midori
for dinner, but they'd always say things like 'I wish I could come
here for lunch-time! There are no good restaurants like this in
Shin-Osaka!' That's where the idea came from. And no one back then
was selling Indian obento, so it seemed like a pretty good idea.”
Dave, who has been running his self-titled yatai
on wheels for two and a half years, lame-nts the loss of the Indian
restaurant he owned for a decade — “Don't open a restaurant.
It's very expensive; very hard” — but explains that
times are much, much better now.
“I have a lot of faithful customers and
very long queues every day,” Dave says. “I can sell
70 or 80 bentos on good days, and make more selling food outside
for two hours than I ever could inside a restaurant. It's nice for
Dave's lunch sets — ¥500 to ¥600
boxes including such fare as curry, shish kebab, soup and a “very
nice” naan bread — indicate the ever-changing nature
of the yatai itself. While once strictly 'Japanese' fare was offered
at the stalls, the cuisine has adjusted, evolved and expanded to
include such continental food- stuffs as crepes, French fries, grilled
hot dogs and no small amount of delicacies from other Asian countries.
Including, of course, Korea.
“Lots of people come here to get 'fake'
stuff from Korea,” says Obasan no Kimchi chef Mitsunori Kado.
“The 'original Korean food' in Tsuruhashi is usually less-authentic
stuff made specifically for Japanese people. “But our shop,”
Kado says proudly, “our shop sells the real thing.”
Kado's been a part of Obasan no Kimchi for “about
two years”, shuttling off packs of kimchi and plates of chijimi
to customers from nearby Tsuruhashi station with a perpetual grin
that makes him look considerably younger than his 38 years.
“When customers come back and say how much
they enjoy my food, how delicious it is — I enjoy that best.
The weekends, there are always queues; it's packed here,”
Kado says. “The weekdays”— now looking down the
sparsely-filled alleyway — “the weekdays, not as much.
And one of the biggest problems with spicy food is that's it difficult
to maintain freshness, especially in summer months. You keep spicy
food out a long time, it turns sour quickly.”
Health concerns being what they are, some people,
of course, are touchy about eating food prepared, cooked and left
out in the open. Suffice to say that although Japanese food laws
are slightly different from the ones back home, several important
ones — no serving of raw food outside, no serving of hot food
that's been left out for more than one hour — are in effect.
(Suffice to say as well that the incentive not to scare away customers
by giving them tainted food is fairly big; word of mouth spreads
quickly, after all.)
Staying on the right side of health laws, however,
is not the only concern of yatai owners.
“The yakuza can be a problem some-times,”
Dave says. “I wasn't the only bento seller in the area when
I started. In the beginning, the other yatai owners would come to
me and say 'You're a newcomer, you're a newcomer; you can't sell
here.' I'd say to them, 'I have my license from the city; I can
sell anywhere I want to.' Then they'd call the yakuza on me. And
then the yakuza would come and demand 'rent money' from me.”
Far from the wild-eyed, violence-crazed thugs
of pulp cinema like Black Rain or Battles Without Honor & Humanity,
however, Dave describes the yakuza as “just talk, all talk.”
“They really don't scare me. I mean, I've
been here for two years now; I'd say they're probably not all that
dangerous. I call the police and they always leave right away,”
Dave says. “A really big policeman once came and stood next
to my shop for me to keep the yakuza away. It's really not a big
deal for me.
“Of course, sometimes the police will come
to hassle me, too,” Dave laughs. “Luckily, it's no problem
for me to pack up
for awhile and relocate somewhere else for 15 minutes — and
then just come back when the police leave.”
While licenses to sell food in the street are
easy enough to obtain, Dave says, “complaints” can still
be filed against yatai owners by anyone and for anything.
“Sometimes, the police will come and chase
me away for a little while — tell me I can't sell at a particular
location,” Dave says.
“Most of the time, though — honestly,
a lot of them are actually my friends — most of the time,
they'll come to me and say 'Oh, Hemen, we got some complaint about
you. It's just
a formality, but we have to come.' So they'll stick around for awhile
and ask me a few questions, and then leave.
“I actually think the Daily Yamazaki store
close to me calls in some of the 'complaints',” Dave laughs.
Perhaps no threat is as dire to stall owners as
that from the konbini; after all, what's to compel customers to
keep coming to the neighborhood yatai when bento boxes, yakitori
kebabs or oden sets are increasingly available at convenience stores
like Lawson or Mini Stop for a comparable price? Though the immediacy
and authenticity of street-bought food are, of course, big selling
points, some yatai owners point out that it's their ability to innovate
that truly separate them from the corporate machines.
If they're worried, they don't show it.
a lot of competition out here — a lot,” Tsujino says.
“To be honest, our tako-yaki isn't that different from the
people's up the street, but we have special cours- es, and we try
new things, and that brings people in. For instance, we've got something
called a takodog; it's takoyaki wrapped up in naan, kind of like
a hot dog. I just thought of it one day. It tast-ed nice, so I started
selling it to people. It's by far the most popular item here.
“Luckily,” Tsujino adds, “No
one's stolen [the idea] yet.”
“No one else has the food I have,”
Dave also says. “But, I really wish the government would set
down some rules and regulations about how and when people can sell
— so the police couldn't just come and make us move, you know?
It'd be so much easier for many yatai owners if we could rent space
inside places like office buildings, or in the ¥100 parking
lots. There are no real laws or regulations right now for that kind
“And that makes things a little bit tough
sometimes,” Dave adds. “Sometimes it's the police, some-times
the mafia, sometimes rain. Still, I love what I do, and people love
my yatai. What I sell makes them very happy.”
• Obasan no Kimchi (06-6972-2188)
is a five-minute walk from JR Tsuruhashi station.
• Takoyaki Ya (06-6644-0086)
is a three-minute walk from Namba Station, across
the corner from Wendy's and The Hub.
• Hemen Dave (06-6301-2545)
can be found on the west side of Nissay Building — a two-minute
walk from Shin-Osaka Midosuji station (exit #4)