When many think of Japan, they probably think of Tokyo, a buzzing metropolis of technology and culture. Tokyo does account for a large part of the Kantō region in eastern Japan, considered to be the economic and political center of the country, but in the west of Japan, there is another region with a very different reputation. That region is Kansai.
Kansai is made up of six prefectures*: Osaka, Kyoto, Wakayama, Shiga, Nara and Hyogo, and is considered to be the cultural and spiritual center of Japan. It’s home to many historical sites, ancient temples, and two of Japan’s ancient capitals: Kyoto and Nara.
Another distinctive characteristic about the Kansai region is its love for food. In fact, it is home to what many call “the nation’s kitchen” - Osaka. There’s even a phrase used to describe Osaka’s love for food:kuidaore or eating oneself to ruin. When visiting Osaka, you’ll immediately see why. Food stalls and restaurants line the sprawlingshōtengai, or shopping streets, with the Kuromon market at its center.
However, Osaka isn’t the only place to find uniquely Kansai food. Kyoto and Wakayama both have deep culinary histories related to their connection to Buddhism. You can find refined temple cuisine in Koyasan in Wakayama and seasonalkaiseki ryōriin Kyoto. And not to mention the world-renowned Kobe beef, made from the Tajima breed of cow raised in Hyogo prefecture.
Here are a few Kansai dishes that are famous throughout the region:
Considered Osaka’s soul food,okonomiyakican most easily be described as a savory pancake containing anything you’d like inside. In fact, the name comes from the wordsokonomi, meaning “how or what you like,” andyaki, meaning “cooked or fried”. As such, the fillings vary, but some standards include green onions and thin slices of pork .
The batter itself is unique in that it combines typical Western-style pancake ingredients: wheat flour and eggs, with gratednagaimo (mountain yam), shredded cabbage,dashi,tenkasu(tempura scraps), and sometimes pickled ginger.
Another signature characteristic ofokonomiyaki are the toppings. Typically a specialokonomiyaki sauce, which is like a Worcestershire but thicker and tangier, is slathered over the top along with Japanese mayo,aonori (seaweed flakes), andkatsuobushi(bonito flakes).
Similar in many respects tookonomiyaki,takoyaki is another staple street food from Osaka. One of the main fillings of these doughy balls, and the reason behind the name of the dish, is octopus ortako, and the word for cooked, grilled, or fried:yaki. This is why you may see the name translated as “octopus balls.”
Likeokonomiyaki, the base oftakoyakiis a batter made oftenkasu(tempura crumbs), with green onions, and pickled ginger. They’re also typically covered in a similar sauce, aptly namedtakoyakisauce, as well as mayo,aonoriand, katsuobushi.
With the introduction of Western ingredients, there are a variety of other sauces, fillings, and toppings available at most street stalls and restaurants, which are easily spotted by their distinctive griddles with their hemispherical molds lined up outside (you may have seen the dough being poured and then flipped using long picks at Japanese festivals).
With its proximity to Buddhist heritage sites, Kansai is also known for many vegetarian dishes, like Kyoto’s famoustsukemono (pickles), Koya’s namesakekoyadōfu(freeze-dried tofu), and other tofu-based dishes likeyudōfu (boiled tofu). One of the most unique and popular, however, isyuba.
Often translated as dried tofu skin,yubais a byproduct of soymilk production. As the soymilk is boiled, a thin film forms on the surface which is skimmed off and dried to makeyuba.Yuba can be eaten raw like sashimi, boiled, added to soups or stews, and even fried. Out of the six prefectures in Kansai, Kyoto is particularly known for itsyubaproduction, with many shops dedicated to the unique ingredient.
Udon is popular throughout Japan, and different regions are famous for different preparations of this famous thick noodle. In Kansai, however,kitsune udon is the go-to dish.
It is considered another one of Osaka’s soul foods, the birthplace of the dish, and is now sold throughout the country, even in instant-noodle form. What setskitsune udon apart from otherudondishes is the main topping, a seasoned slice of fried tofu known asaburaageorinariage. It compliments the rich, golden broth made from akonbu(kelp) dashi stock, and the characteristic slices ofnarutomaki, a swirling white and pink fish cake.
As one can see, Kansai is a must-visit for any food lover. From Kobe beef to Buddhist cuisine, there’s a lot to experience and even more to eat. Just try to remember not to eat yourself into debt walking the streets of Dōtonbori!
*Kinki is another name for the Kansai region which is used in more official and government situations. It includes Mie prefecture for a total of 7 prefectures.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!