Discover Hidden Back Alley Restaurants in Osaka and Kyoto

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Tips for Discovering Hidden Gems

If you're looking for a unique dining experience in Osaka and Kyoto, venturing into the hidden back alley restaurants can be a rewarding adventure. Having lived in Osaka for three years, I've had the privilege of exploring some of these places, and they are great experiences.

Here are some tips and suggestions for discovering these hidden gems:

  • Local Recommendations: The best way to discover these hidden restaurants is by asking locals for recommendations. Strike up a conversation with locals or use translation apps to communicate your interest.
  • Yokocho Alleys: Both Osaka and Kyoto have yokocho alleys, which are narrow, atmospheric lanes filled with small eateries and bars.
  • Izakayas and Yakitori Stands: Look for small izakayas (Japanese pubs) and yakitori stands in less touristy areas.
  • OpenTable and Reservations: Some hidden gems accept reservations through platforms like OpenTable.
  • Food Tours: Joining a local food tour can be a great way to explore hidden culinary treasures.
  • Social Media and Food Blogs: Search for food blogs, Instagram accounts, or YouTube channels dedicated to exploring off-the-beaten-path restaurants in Osaka and Kyoto.
  • Trust Your Senses: Sometimes, the best places are the ones you stumble upon while wandering. Follow your nose and intuition as you explore the streets.
  • Learn Basic Japanese Phrases: Even a few basic Japanese phrases can go a long way in making you more approachable and building rapport with the locals.

Remember to be respectful when you visit these hidden restaurants. Many of them are quite small and may not have English menus or staff who speak English. Learning a few basic Japanese phrases and respecting local customs and traditions will go a long way in ensuring a positive dining experience.

Also, please keep in mind that the restaurant scene in both Osaka and Kyoto can change quite rapidly, so it's a good idea to check for recent recommendations or updates online or from locals when you visit.

Hidden Gems in Osaka

Here are some local areas in Osaka where you can find a lot of hidden gems:

  • Tachinomi (Standing Bars): Look for small tachinomi bars in areas like Shinsekai or Ura-Namba. These bars are often tiny and known for serving excellent drinks and small dishes. They are typically frequented by locals.
  • Kushikatsu Spots: Try unassuming kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers) restaurants in Shinsekai or Tennoji. These places are beloved by locals and serve a variety of crispy skewered delights.
  • Okonomiyaki Joints: Seek out local okonomiyaki restaurants, especially in the quieter streets around Dotonbori. Some may not have English menus but offer delicious savory pancakes.
  • Izakayas in Shinsaibashi: Explore the alleys around Shinsaibashi for cozy izakayas that cater primarily to Japanese patrons. These spots are ideal for trying a wide range of Japanese dishes.
  • Ramen Shops in Kuromon Ichiba: Venture into the back alleys of Kuromon Ichiba Market for lesser-known ramen joints. The market is a hotspot for fresh produce, but hidden ramen shops can be found.
  • Yakitori Stands in Tsuruhashi: Tsuruhashi is known for its Korean community, but it also boasts some local yakitori stands in the area's narrow lanes.
  • Kappo-style Restaurants: Search for traditional kappo-style dining establishments in upscale neighborhoods like Kitashinchi. These intimate restaurants serve seasonal dishes.
  • Local Tempura Spots: In the older districts of Osaka, such as Uemachi, you can find small, family-run tempura restaurants hidden in alleys.
  • Soba Noodle Shops in Abeno: Abeno is a district less frequented by tourists, making it an ideal place to discover hidden soba noodle shops loved by locals.
  • Local Curry Houses: Explore neighborhoods like Nipponbashi and Horie for small curry houses that offer unique regional variations of curry dishes.

Remember to be respectful when exploring these hidden gems. While they may not be accustomed to foreign visitors, a friendly attitude and willingness to try local customs can lead to memorable dining experiences. Additionally, it's a good idea to have a translation app or some basic Japanese phrases on hand to facilitate communication if English isn't spoken.

Specific Places in Osaka

Here are some more specific places you can visit in Osaka to ensure a nice experience without depending on luck:

  • Udon Sanki: This small udon shop in Fukushima Ward is known for its delicious udon noodles made from scratch. The shop has limited seating and a local following.
  • Tachinomi Sumiya: Located in a back alley near Nipponbashi, Tachinomi Sumiya is a standing bar where you can enjoy a variety of grilled skewers and local sake.
  • Ajihisa: Situated in the Nakazakicho area, Ajihisa specializes in okonomiyaki, a savory pancake. It's a cozy spot with an intimate atmosphere.
  • Miyoshi: Miyoshi, found in the Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai area, is famous for its kushikatsu, which are deep-fried skewers of various ingredients.
  • Issen Yoshoku: Located in the Shinsekai area, this restaurant serves a local specialty called "kushikatsu-don," which is a bowl of rice topped with kushikatsu and a special sauce.
  • Kisoji: Kisoji is a yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) restaurant hidden in the back streets of Umeda. It's a great place to try high-quality Japanese beef.
  • Izakaya Kikuchi: This traditional izakaya is tucked away in a narrow alley in Umeda. It's a cozy spot to enjoy local dishes and drinks.
  • Horumon Iwami: A yakiniku restaurant in the Amemura (America-mura) area known for its delicious beef and offal dishes.
  • Sobakiri Gen: Gen specializes in handmade soba noodles and is hidden in the back streets of Shinsaibashi. It's a popular spot for soba enthusiasts.
  • Katsudon Hanakatsu: This small restaurant in the Kuromon Ichiba Market area is renowned for its katsudon, a Japanese rice bowl dish with breaded and fried pork cutlet.
  • Kitarosushi Americamura: Located in the trendy Americamura area, Kitarosushi is known for its sushi. Please note that they only have handwritten Japanese menus.
  • Horumon Nakachan (Nishinari): Nestled in the vibrant Nishinari area, Horumon Nakachan offers a truly unique dining experience. Nishinari is a district brimming with local charm and street food stalls, making it a fascinating destination to explore. While it had a reputation as one of Japan's more challenging areas a couple of decades ago, it has since evolved into a budget-friendly hub for foreigners, especially near Shinsekai. Deeper into the district, you'll encounter a tight-knit community of elderly Japanese residents, adding to the area's distinct character.

Hidden Gems in Kyoto

Finding truly hidden gems in Kyoto can be a bit more challenging, as Kyoto is a highly visited city, but there are still some local favorites tucked away in back alleys that may not be widely known to tourists. Here are 10 such examples:

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  • Izusen: Located in the Daitokuji Temple complex, this vegetarian restaurant serves shojin ryori, a traditional Buddhist cuisine. It's hidden within the temple's serene surroundings.
  • Katsukura Arashiyama: While Katsukura is known for its tonkatsu, this branch in Arashiyama is a bit off the beaten path compared to the main locations in the city, making it a quieter spot for crispy pork cutlets.
  • Okariba: A cozy and traditional izakaya tucked away in the Pontocho area, serving an array of small dishes and sake. It's popular with locals for its relaxed atmosphere.
  • Omen Kodai-ji: Omen is a hidden gem in the Higashiyama district, nestled near the Kodai-ji Temple. They specialize in udon noodles and offer a beautiful garden setting.
  • Kyoto Saryo: Located in the Gion area, this tea house offers a serene and authentic Japanese tea experience, including matcha and wagashi (traditional sweets).
  • Kanamean Nishitomiya: This traditional ryokan (inn) in the Gion area has a hidden restaurant known for its kaiseki (multi-course) meals. While it's not entirely unknown, it's less frequented by tourists.
  • Menya Inoichi: A tiny ramen shop hidden in a back alley near Kyoto Station, it's popular among locals for its rich and flavorful ramen.
  • Kichisen: This Michelin-starred restaurant is renowned for its kaiseki cuisine. While it's not entirely hidden, it's not as widely known to tourists as some other Michelin-starred places in Kyoto.
  • Sojiki Nakahigashi: Located near Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), this kaiseki restaurant offers a seasonal menu and a serene atmosphere away from the crowds.
  • Giro Giro Hitoshina: This modern kaiseki restaurant is hidden in the historic Gion district and offers a unique, contemporary take on traditional Japanese cuisine.

Please note that while these restaurants are not necessarily unknown to foreigners, they tend to be popular among Japanese locals and may offer a more authentic and less touristy dining experience compared to some of the more well-known spots in Kyoto. Reservations are often necessary for many of these places, so be sure to plan ahead.

Japanese Restaurant Vocabulary

Here are 20 essential Japanese words and phrases that can help you easily order different foods at Japanese restaurants:

いただきます (Itadakimasu) - A polite phrase said before starting a meal, expressing gratitude for the food.
ごちそうさまでした (Gochisousama deshita) - Said after finishing a meal to thank the chef or host for the meal.
メニュー (Menyuu) - Menu
注文 (Chuumon) - Order
おすすめ (Osusume) - Recommendation
お水 (Omizu) - Water
お茶 (Ocha) - Tea
生ビール (Nama Biru) - Draft beer
冷たい (Tsumetai) - Cold
温かい (Atatakai) - Hot
前菜 (Zensai) - Appetizer
メイン料理 (Mein Ryouri) - Main dish
お刺身 (O-sashimi) - Sashimi (sliced raw fish)
寿司 (Sushi) - Sushi
ラーメン (Raamen) - Ramen
うどん (Udon) - Udon noodles
そば (Soba) - Soba noodles
丼物 (Donburi Mono) - Rice bowl dish
甘味 (Kanmi) - Dessert
お会計 (O-kaikei) - Bill/Check

If you want to prepare some Food order Cards maybe you can use these phrases:

  • おすすめは何ですか? (Osusume wa nan desu ka?) - "What do you recommend?"
  • 季節のおすすめは何ですか? (Kisetsu no osusume wa nan desu ka?) - "What is the seasonal recommendation?"
  • この料理は辛いですか? (Kono ryouri wa karai desu ka?) - "Is this dish spicy?"
  • お子様メニューはありますか? (Okosama menyuu wa arimasu ka?) - "Do you have a kids' menu?"
  • 英語のメニューはありますか? (Eigo no menyuu wa arimasu ka?) - "Do you have an English menu?"

  • ヴィーガンメニューはありますか?それは動物性の食材を含まない食べ物です。(Viigan menyuu wa arimasu ka? Sore wa doubutsusei no shokuzai o fumanai tabemono desu.) - "Do you have a Vegan menu? That means food without animal ingredients."

  • ハラールフードを提供していますか? (Haraaru fuudo o teikyou shiteimasu ka?) - "Do you offer Halal Food?"

  • 私はアレルギーです。「1. ピーナッツ」、「2. 貝類」、「3. 卵」、「4. 小麦」、「5. 魚」。この料理は食べられますか? (Watashi wa arerugii desu. "1. Piinattsu", "2. Kaizai", "3. Tamago", "4. Komugi", "5. Sakana". Kono ryouri wa taberaremasu ka?) - "I am Allergic to '1. Peanuts' '2. Shellfish' '3. Egg' '4. Wheat' '5. Fish'. Can I eat this dish?"

  • 「1. 寿司」、「2. ラーメン」、「3. 串カツ」、「4. 刺身」、「5. 天ぷら」が食べたいです。 (「1. Sushi」、「2. Raamen」、「3. Kushikatsu」、「4. Sashimi」、「5. Tempura」 ga tabetai desu.) - "I would like to eat '1. sushi' '2. Ramen' '3. Kushikatsu' '4. sashimi' '5. Tempura'."

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