Like Japan itself, the country's Keihanshin region (made up of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe) is renowned for its cuisine, including Kobe beef and sashimi. But there are also some lesser-known local delicacies that are worth a taste. If you're looking to experience the gourmet side of Keihanshin's culture, here are five must-try dishes and the best cities in which to sample them.
Kushikatsu: Even the Japanese aren't impervious to food on a stick, and kuskikatsu (kushi means stick, and katsu cutlet) is one of their finest examples. These battered, deep-fried kebabs of pork, chicken, cheese, or vegetables like pumpkin or asparagus come served on bamboo skewers, typically with a side of tonkatsu – a type of sweet and spicy sauce. Kushikatsu is a staple in the old-style wooden restaurants of Osaka's burgeoning Shinsekai neighborhood, which has seen a resurgence in recent years.
Okonamayaki: Often referred to as "Japanese pizza," this Osaka original is basically a flat, pancake-like cake made of grated nagaimo, or yam, eggs, and shredded cabbage, fried on both sides and topped with otafuku sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise. Aonori (seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito) flakes are also added – the heat of the dish actually causes the bonito flakes to curl and move, as if they're dancing. Most of Osaka's okonamayaki restaurants have iron griddles built into their tables so you can cook your own.
Shabu-shabu: Thin slices of raw meat dipped in a boiling broth fondue-style, shabu shabu is similar to China's hot pot – a centuries-old dish thought to have been originally inspired by Mongol warriors who boiled water in their helmets to cook food. Japan's first shabu-shabu restaurant opened in Osaka in the 20th century and today the dish is often included as part of a kaiseki, or a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner that's especially popular in Kyoto.
Hourai soba: Though soba or buckwheat noodles aren't unique to Keihanshin, one Kyoto eatery has a celebrated way of serving them. Honke Owariya (http://www.honke-owariya.co.jp/english/), the city's oldest noodle house, offers hourai soba as an entrée. Stacked trays of cold soba noodles are accompanied by broth and eight toppings, including shredded tomago or egg omelet, green onions, shrimp tempura, and sesame seed; guests prepare their own tray with as much broth and toppings as they like to create a unique meal.
Takoyaki: The king of Osaka street food, takoyaki is a golf-ball-sized dumpling made of flour, eggs, and grated yam, stuffed with diced octopus, pickled ginger, and green onion, brushed with a Worcestershire-like sauce and drizzled with mayonnaise. Made in a special takoyaki pan – the likes of which are sold in stores throughout the city – it's absolutely divine. Some of the region's best takoyaki is found in Osaka's Entertainment District. Just look for either the giant fiberglass squids advertising stands or the inevitable long (but oh-so-worth-it) lines.