Diary of a Globetrotting Family
Takoyaki, sakura, local baseball, and a short update this week
I love sharing these Osaka diary updates with you. But, as I’ll explain soon, I recently had to deal with a slight medical issue. Plus, Jodie and I are hard at work on some behind-the-scenes business stuff, and we’re getting ready to go back to the US for a bit. So while I’m making this update a little shorter this week, I hope you find it fun, beautiful, and even a wee bit tasty.
The takoyaki is a bite-size sphere of savory-sweet, oil-fried perfection, drizzled in sweet mayo and dark umami sauce. Oh, it also contains a delectable, tender-chewy piece of octopus.
The sauce does much of the visual work, a dark drizzle over browned savory deliciousness. To have takoyaki is to have bite-sized satisfaction for life. There is chewiness. There is a near crispiness from the browned outside. The sauces add moisture and richness. Inside, the browned skin of the rice flour ball yields to tender, slightly gooey softness.
And in the middle, the prize.
The tender-chewy chunk of octopus, tasty, mild in flavor, yet this bit of substance. Much of takoyaki is lead up. But when you reach that feature presentation of the octopus, there is no doubt you have arrived. The sweetness, saltiness, and savoriness of the rest of the bite flows through your mouth. Then you bite into the octopus, and chew, and you realize just how brilliant people were when they realized that the bounty of the sea—in this case, octopus—and the bounty of the land—in this case, rice, turned into flour—can and should be brought together in luscious ways.
Takoyaki is one of the dishes Osaka considers its own. “The Kitchen of Japan” relishes takoyaki. If there’s a street cart, there’s a good chance someone has a pair of long cookware utensil chopsticks, delicately flipping the little doughy spheres so they brown on the outside yet remain soft inside. Takoyaki is in coolers at convenience stores, and many a corner eatery specializes in takoyaki—complete, sometimes, with a larger-than-life red octopus sculpture over the front facade.
The takoyaki is as prevalent in Osaka as tacos in Mexico, and they are every bit as tasty.
So, naturally, we needed to make a batch ourselves.
A little help from our rental
Our townhouse in the Sumiyoshi neighborhood is well appointed for a family. The children treat the rice cooker with a devotion that borders on a reverence they generally reserve only for media tech such as their e-readers and tablets. A yellow glass-doored cabinet contains beautiful plates and ceramic tea cups. On the bottom shelf, though, is a black-topped, red-bottomed circle of wonder:
A plugin takoyaki maker.
Like some of the best appliances, the takoyaki maker does one thing: make takoyaki. It’s either plugged in and working, or unplugged and wondering when you’re going to come to your senses and listen to your inner octopi craving.
Osaka provides any needed support, supplies, and infrastructure to the takoyaki DIYer. Takoyaki mix is as readily available in local stores as self-rising flour is in the US South. The fresh seafood section of our nearby supermarket has entire sections devoted to various sizes and varieties of octopus. Some, as far as we have ascertained, are sushi grade. Others are for takoyaki.
Well, it doesn’t have to be that traditional
That said though, our kids have not taken a full shine to octopus yet. The slightly chewy texture hasn’t been a sensation they’ve so far associated with desirable.
So instead of traditional takoyaki, we made three starter batches. The first contained shrimp. The second, a cubed mild gouda cheese. And the third, mushrooms.
When making takoyaki, you know you’re getting it right when the griddle looks like it’s going to overflow any moment now. It doesn’t, and that’s the magic.
As the takoyaki cook, the batter gradually all flows into place. Every now and again, with a chopstick, you turn the takoyaki, so every side has an opportunity to brown. Before the first turn, you lightly set your centerpiece into the battery middle, and then rotate the works.
The shrimp takoyaki barely had time to cool on the plate.
The gooeyness and slight give of the cheese melded beautifully with the soft texture of the dough.
But the evening’s true surprise? The mushrooms. While the kids dabbled in mushrooms during the adventurous eating of their infancies, fungi has not been fun for them these past many years. Tonight though, they devoured the mushroom cap takoyaki. Aster not only ate the takoyaki, but later she was pulling the caps off the mushrooms in the pack and eating them raw.
As you know, we build many of our experiences and memories around food. A warm smile and a full stomach form the foundation of our favorite souvenirs. But tonight, in our rental, making our own takoyaki as a family?
That’s the stuff that has made for one of our fondest memories for our entire time in Japan—indeed, on our entire travels, so far.
The white blossoms have not come to Osaka.
Here and there in Japan, they unfurl. Thin gray tendrils put out little brown buds that tremble in the cool days and chilly nights. They huddle through late winter rains, determined not to fall.
As for us? We wait.
Japan is home to over 100 varieties of cherry tree (and at least 600 known cultivars). Some bloom earlier in the season, some later. Some have proud clusters of white blossoms that rise toward the ever bluer, ever clearer sky. Others are more like weeping willows, leaning toward the ground as if wanting us mere humans to have an easier time getting a closer look.
All of them, at least in my limited yet confident experience, are beautiful.
Around the corner from our house, the playground is home to five cherry trees. Every day since we arrived in Osaka, whenever we walk by the park, we check the trees. When Aster and I go to the park to play, we check the trees. Anywhere we go in Osaka, we look up at the cherry trees we pass.
And we wait.
TimeOut has forecasted Mar. 23 for Osaka’s first flowering of 2023.
The first hint will be a lightening around the tips of the ready buds. The ends of those branches will look lighter, and it can be hard to notice at first. It’s a sort of blush in reverse, a paling of the branches. That first emergence, whenever the trees have decided it’s time, will then be a little more unveiling of white.
Then, suddenly, you look up, and the branches that the day before were brown and just a shade away from barren, are popping out in white.
In Japanese culture, the sakura season has a special, unparalleled hold, symbolism, and fascination.
The hold is that this is the one time of year you can experience something so brief. Sakura builds over a few days, peaks for a few days, and then just as quickly wanes. Before you know it, the merest puff of a breeze sends petals blowing like snow on a winter wind. Green leaves shuffle the blossoms off stage, as if to say sure, sure, that was a nice show, but can we please get back to photosynthesis now? This tree’s hungry after a long winter, after all.
The symbolism is that in the span of time, the universe, and existence, the cherry blossoms exist for such a short moment. So too do all the moments and happenings of our lives, and our lives as a whole. We are the world, the tree, and the blossom, all at once.
And as I heard someone say the other day, “The cherry blossoms remind us that life is short. And that it is beautiful.”
The fascination brings people out to parks and groves throughout Japan, in the cities and out of town. Most springs, people have haname, or the viewing of the sakura. This is where people bring out blankets, picnics, tents, tables, you name it. One park near us even had a dedicated BBQ area for people to bring their grills.
Yet years of pandemic restrictions had included no haname. Now, haname was back, and people were starving for it.
One morning, Aster dashed off to the park so she could start the day with a playground romp. She closed the sliding door, and I smiled as I heard her sandals smack on the dark pavement.
A few minutes later, the door slid open again.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Aster called. “Come with me now!”
“What is it?”
She locked her big blue eyes onto me, and her grin was as bright as the spring morning sun.
I ran over with her. Sure enough, on a tree at the entrance to the park, the first bunches gleamed with white petals.
It was Mar. 23, just like Timeout had said. All over the city, buds were fully opening. The haname was beginning. Sakura had come to Osaka. And we were getting to see its early moments, right in our neighborhood’s backyard.
Aster and I held hands and stared at the cherry blossoms. We said nothing that the white petals against the deep blue sky didn’t say for us.
Take me out to the
I don’t like baseball. I went to the game anyway.
Sports aren’t my thing, but they are a thing for many other people. I can respect that. Sports aren’t necessarily a thing for our family in general. However, ever since her girlhood, Jodie has enjoyed going to a ballgame with family. Her parents would take her and her sister. Now, with children of our own, sometimes Jodie has taken Connor and Aster to, say, a ballgame with our local team, the Eugene Ems (short for “Emeralds,” not “Emilies” or “em dashes”).
Jodie and the kids love these nights. We call them kids and Mama dates. I also call them a chance to have an evening to myself.
In Osaka, however, the local Orix Buffaloes are a town favorite.
So when it turned out that we could go to a sort of pre-season game, for about US$30 for all four of us, even I figured it’d be a fun afternoon.
Baseball in Japan is beloved. More than that though, Japanese players such as Ohtani are considered the best in the world. Ichiro, another name among the greats, even got his start right here in Osaka, at the Kyocera Dome. The kids and I walked by his signed jersey, as we sought out fries, fried chicken, and takoyaki (I’ll let you guess who each dish was for).
Some things are different from the American game. In the stadium, there are quiet, “non-cheering” sections. Even though it was raining outside, the fully enclosed Kyocera Dome was dry—even warm. The opposing team—the Chunichi Dragons, from Nagoya—made a sea of royal blue in their dedicated opposition section over left field. In the high seats above center field, we sat in the cheering section for the Buffaloes.
When in Osaka, after all.
In the central front row of the mezzanine seats, a fan leader called out different cheers. Large drums boomed, a sort of ball diamond taiko beat. All around us, people brought out pairs of miniature baseball bats, clacking them together in an X shape in time with the drum beat. Every call from the leader was its own chant, often with a player’s name when the Buffaloes were at bat, or some sort of encouragement when batting sides switched.
Now and again, a trumpet’s blasts ricocheted around the stands.
The entire game was a sort of polite exuberance. As far as we can tell, the cheering section wasn’t about jeering the other side, but simply about supporting their home team. Or if there was trash talk, it was the nicest sounding trash talk I’ve ever heard.
Other touches were similar to home. Ladies carried backpacks full of draft beer, or you could purchase canned beer or sodas. The food areas served up long hot dogs, as well as takoyaki.
Though my favorite touch came between innings. Guys carried signs, the sort of squares on sticks that look like protest signs, only these warned about the dangers of fly balls. I even managed to translate the Japanese characters on one sign into English, and I’m going to treasure the translation always.
In the stands, we did our best to cheer with the Buffaloes fans.
The Buffaloes pulled off what was pretty much an eighth inning victory, and after the Dragons got three outs at the top of the ninth, the game was considered won, with the Buffaloes taking home a 4–2 victory.
As for us? We wandered back out into the cool spring air. Did we have a good time? You bet. Ball park takoyaki was delicious. Our team won. And our family had a good time, together, at a baseball game in another country.
Heck, once we come back to the US later this spring, I just might want to take in a ballgame or two this summer. But do you think they’ll serve takoyaki?