The Story Of Your Intercontinental Life
Arrange your own itinerary in a strange land without any fuss.
BY Wayne Cheong | Mar 9, 2017 | Travel
It’s an invite that’s hard to refuse: a stay at the InterContinental hotel in Osaka. I’ve never been to that part of Japan. Then the voice on the other end of the line says that I should also “live the InterContinental Life”. Like any good pitch, the voice lets the suggestion hang in the air, just enough for that ember to stoke to a glow, before continuing, “As InterContinental Hotels & Resorts celebrated its 70th anniversary [in 2016], guests get to discover more to the city that they are in.”
In short, a bespoke itinerary. If you have the coin and a list of things to do in that area, InterContinental will try its damnedest to arrange it for you, barring short of being illegal, mind.
“So what do you want to do in Osaka, Japan?”
I’m given the Club InterContinental treatment. A car picks me up from the airport, and for the next 20 minutes, I’m privy to the sea to one side of me and, in the distance, the sleepy city of Osaka, as towns slowly grow into municipals before emerging as skyscrapers. InterContinental Osaka is one such giant: gleaming like a silver sentinel in the morning sun, the car eases into the lobby, where I am brought up to the 27th floor of the hotel.
As the concierge checks me in at the front desk of the Club InterContinental, which doubles as a lounge area for Club InterContinental guests, I sit down for a quick breakfast. A TV plays in the background, but I’m distracted by the view through the window—the skyline riddled with mid-level buildings and the Yodo River that cuts through the city.
The InterContinental Osaka is part of the Grand Front Osaka, a shopping mall that covers 3HA of the business district. While this behemoth is made up of the usual shops, restaurants and bars, it also has a Knowledge Capital, situated in the North Building. This area is supposed to be a hub for “the creation of new values by combining human creativity and technology”. While I don’t see a think tank of scientists and innovators congregating over chess and Darwinian erotica (“And through binary fission, the amoeba splits itself. Sexily.”), the Knowledge Capital hopes to attract likeminded individuals with its facilities and exhibitions like Louvre Museum Exhibition: Louvre No. 9—Manga, the 9th Art, featuring comic strips and graphic novels that the Louvre has previously shown.
Later that evening, I have dinner at Pierre, a one Michelin-starred restaurant located on the 20th floor of the InterContinental Osaka. It is fronted by Head Chef Susumu Okubo and Executive Chef Tobias Gensheimer who, together with their team, fix up modern French cuisine in an open kitchen. The interior is a mix of glass and wood, with wood flooring and heavy timber tables, accented with leather placemats; the ceilings, by default, are high, which lends an inviting feel, sort of like dining in a womb. All of these touches are the masterstroke of designer, Yukio Hashimoto, who often infuses nature in an urban setting. The food is no slouch either. Not only is the menu seasonal, the plating of each dish is at the whim of the chef, so don’t expect to see the same presentation twice. It’s not bad, downing champagne and eating wagyu as you look out on to a starspeckled skyline.
Have a cuppa
The statue of Momofuku Ando is a shade of green, probably from the oxidation of the copper that it’s made from. He looks almost proud as he holds out a packet of ramen noodles in his right hand. It reminds me of the propaganda posters of a smiling factory worker, holding out Mao’s Little Red Book. It’s revolutionary in a way, seeing that Ando invented one of the largest culinary innovations of all time: instant noodles.
Yes, the ubiquitous CUPNOODLES that we—especially impoverished college students—are familiar with. I’m at the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum that’s dedicated to the rich history of how instant noodles came to be and the life of its inventor. Located in the suburbs of Ikeda, the museum sits across the road from where Ando once lived. You’d possibly think to yourself: how much can one expound on instant noodles in a four-story building? Plenty, it seems. Lo, enter the faithful replica of Ando’s work shed where he toiled away, trying to perfect chicken-flavoured instant noodles. Proceed to the next wing, where you’re greeted by interactive dioramas like the cross-section of a CUPNOODLES container or at the development of instant noodles for Japanese astronauts.
When you’re finished with the history, there is still more to do, for what is a food museum without an eatery? At the Tasting Room, you can sample some of the products (dispensed by a vending machine) that aren’t usually sold in Osaka. Or you can make your own ramen on the second floor. Or you can create your own CUPNOODLES: draw and colour the cup’s exterior, choose your ingredients and watch the museum staff package your CUPNOODLES for you to bring home.
But one can’t live on CUPNOODLES alone. Out there in the Dōtonbori area, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Even in the afternoon, Dōtonbori swells with the masses: goggle-eyed tourists trail a tour guide, who looks like someone has claimed him by sticking a flag in him; students hang about the Ebisubashi bridge, while taking selfies and playing the pick-up game with the opposite sex; salarymen and office ladies prowl the streets, filled from a lunch meeting and on their way to another appointment over food. In daylight, Dōtonbori is an agoraphobe’s nightmare, but wait for nightfall. When darkness blankets the city, it turns into a lightshow, LED lighting from the buildings radiates a spectrum of colours, and none more recognisable than that of the Glico Running Man that has occupied the same spot since 1935.
It was in 1612 when Yasui Dōton hit upon the idea of expanding the Umezu River in order to increase commerce in the area. With the added contribution of careful urban planning by the Tokugawa Shogunate by 1662, there were six kabuki (classical dance-drama) theatres, five bunraku (traditional puppetry) theatres and the Takeda karakuri (mechanical puppets) theatre. The joint was jumpin’, yo. However, interest in these forms of entertainment dwindled over the centuries, and World War II proved to be the final nail when bombings eradicated the remaining theatres.
The soul might languish from the lack of entertainment, but the body must still be fed; the food culture in Dōtonbori flourished. So much so that a popular saying is associated with the place: kuidaore no machi meaning “the city where you eat yourself to bankruptcy”. There are hundreds of restaurants to choose from, but you should start with the fare more associated with Osaka, such as okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), kitsune udon (udon noodles with a large piece of fried tofu) and takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings).
There’s a giant octopus in front of the establishment called Takoya Dōtonbori Kukuru. My guide points to some Japanese words: “bikkuri takoyaki,” or “surprising octopus”. Kukuru uses octopus pieces that are so large the batter cannot contain them. A picture next to it shows a tentacle breaking out of a takoyaki ball. We enter the place.
In Singapore, we’re familiar with the stalls overseen by harried cooks turning over takoyaki on a griddle. In Dōtonbori, there is a dedicated restaurant for takoyaki. You’re seated at a table where you’re served your takoyaki. There are two kinds of takoyaki: there’s the perennial favourite, where the takoyaki is slathered in mayo and takoyaki sauce, and akashiyaki, (originated in Akashi), where the takoyaki took its inspiration from. We choose the latter, which is softer and has an eggier texture and it’s dipped in dashi before it is consumed.
When we’re done, we avoid the main shopping strip and explore the winding alleyways of Dōtonbori, where we ended up at Hozenji Temple, tucked away in a corner. It is dedicated to Fudō Myōō, the kami (spirit) of fury. This blackened figure is usually depicted with a sword in his right hand and a rope in the other, as the divine fires of his wrath swirl about him. But at this particular house of worship, the statue of Fudō Myōō is moss-covered due to the customary pouring of water on a kami after prayer.
For sake’s sake
It’s quiet here in Katano, about a 30-minute drive northeast of Osaka city. There’s an air of solemnity of the neighbouring houses connected together like the haphazard juts of a child’s lower teeth. We walk through the meandering streets before arriving at the main entrance of Daimon Shuzo, where I’m a little early for a scheduled pairing of its sake. Yasutaka Daimon emerges from his house across from the brewery. He is willowy with small eyes and eyebrows that seem to have only two settings—raised in surprise and levelled in inscrutability. He wears a simple black jacket over a blue shirt and khaki pants. He apologises for keeping me waiting, and I apologise for arriving early, as he opens the door and ushers me in.
Yasutaka is the Director of Daimon Shuzo. He is also the six-generation Daimon to inherit the weight of business. When Daimon Shuzo started in 1826, it was to meet the rising demand of sake. Now, the number of breweries has shrunk to only a handful in Osaka. To survive, Yasutaka sought to demystify the perception of sake in the western world. His hard work paid off, after his sake DAIMON35 took the gold at last year’s London Sake Challenge. “We’re blessed with the natural spring waters of Mukune village in our sake production,” Yasutaka says. “Even our rice (a Yamada Nishiki strain) is of a certain quality.”
He tells me this—the history of his brewery and the meticulous preparation of sake—with the tempered zeal of a preacher. It is early afternoon and we just missed the morning’s prepping for the latest batch of sake. I espy two kurabito (brewery people) washing up as Yasutaka takes me on a tour of his brewery before we end up at Mukune-Tei, its restaurant wing.
For my tasting, Yasutaka presents five Western dishes and five sake pairings (UMAMI, CRISP, CLEAR, MELLOW and DAIMON35). The UMAMI complements the pasta dish by breaking through the heaviness of the sauce; CRISP works with the beef dish by balancing it with a slightly biting flavour; DAIMON35 has a nice fruitiness and robustness to it that… then everything is a blur. I’m not a drinker, but Yasutaka’s geniality pressures me to
savour each sip. I remember asking a lot of questions, as though the lulls in our conversation were anathema. He must have picked up on my crap tolerance for alcohol (maybe it’s my flushed cheeks that give it away).
View from a high castle
If it were springtime, Nishinomaru Garden would be awash in cherry blossoms. It’d be picturesque, Instagramworthy, but the garden still retains its verdant beauty in Osaka Castle Park during winter. This is also a prime spot, upon my guide’s insistence, to capture the main keep of Osaka Castle.
According to architectural typology, the main tower of Osaka Castle is known as a tenshukaku; that is, the highest tower that embodies authority. You have Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s ego to thank for that. Inspired by Azuchi Castle (which was Oda Nobunaga’s HQ), Hideyoshi wanted Osaka Castle to be grander and more fortified. In “pimpin’ his crib”, Hideyoshi built the five-story tower upon a raised stone foundation with gold leaves on the exterior. Hideyoshi continued with its expansion, and by 1597, 14 years after construction began, the castle was completed.
Like the Babel Tower, hubris must be reckoned. At this point, the history of Osaka Castle becomes an example of tenacity. In 1615, the castle was overtaken by Tokugawa Hidetada’s forces, and after reconstruction, lightning struck a gunpowder warehouse, which set the place on fire. And if you think lightning doesn’t strike twice, five years later, another stray bolt burnt down the main tower. 1868 would see the castle fall to anti-bakufu imperial loyalists during the Meiji Restoration. The main tower was restored in 1928 before World War II saw the southwest area of the castle destroyed by enemy bombers. Eventually, in 1995, the Osaka government was like, screw this, and approved another restoration project to return the tenshukaku to its Edo-era splendour.
On our way to the main tower, my guide and I see an actor in a red surcoat and a helmet affixed with antlers.
Sensing my interest, my guide chimes in, “He is playing Yukimura Sanada. He and his army defended the castle from its enemies.”
“So, he’s a mascot for Osaka Castle?” I imagine Windsor Castle having a corpulent King Henry VIII, dragging an ulcerated leg as he barks at tourists, asking if they want to marry him.
“He is a character from Sanada Maru, a historical drama that is showing on NHK (a Japanese broadcasting corporation) channel.”
Further reading reveals that Sanada Maru is NHK’s taiga drama, an annual year-long historical fiction series, for 2016. Named after the fortification that Sanada built to repel the Tokugawa army during the Siege of Osaka, Sanada Maru casts the spotlight on the Sanada clan, particularly on Yukimura.
The actor playing Yukimura Sanada in the series is Masato Sakai. Posing with star-struck fans and excitable tourists is someone else under the red surcoat. Not that anybody really cares. All they are concerned with is getting that picture with a figure from history. The dim rays of the early afternoon sun imbue his carapace in a rich lobster hue—aposematism—the antlers protruding like drawn spears from his helmet bowl add to the warning.
Up close, though, as I pass him by, the surcoat looks cheap; the man underneath it, drenched in his own sweat.
If you’re expecting to haul ass up several floors to the observation deck of Osaka Castle, you’re in luck. The tower has an elevator, where visitors can take the car up, and then descend down the stairs to visit each floor of the building, which doubles up as a museum wing.
At the observation deck, you sort of understand why Hideyoshi risked everything to erect this structure. The view is gorgeous. To the east, you see buildings peppered against Mount Ikoma in the distance; the west offers a vantage of the stately Osaka Prefectural Government Office; northwards are Osaka-jō Hall and the familiar diamond of a baseball field, as well as the waters that run through the city; to the south, you see the panoramic view of Osaka. The main tower was built to symbolise a unified Japan and if Hideyoshi were alive today, what he would make of it as he surveys the sun-drenched city with all its modern trappings.
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, March 2017.