A Tale of Two Okonomiyaki (and Where to Find Them in Japan)

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Osaka-style okonomiyaki is rightfully world-famous, but there is another style of okonomiyaki that isn’t commonly seen outside of Hiroshima. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. I grew up eating okonomiyaki cooked by family members from Osaka and Nara, but never knew that I needed to distinguish it as “Osaka-style” until a trip to Hiroshima during the year I lived in Tokyo.

Japanese restaurants all over the world serve plates and plates of the Osaka-style okonomiyaki that I love (pictured above). It is a chubby pancake, stuffed with cabbage and scallions and griddled in hot pork fat. This basic mixture can be gussied up with mochi, cheese, kimchi, and any number of other fillings, before being doused in an addictively salty-sweet brown sauce and showered with bonito flakes that dance in the pancake’s heat. A latticed scrawl of Kewpie mayonnaise is optional, but encouraged. Japan is a country addicted to Kewpie mayonnaise, and you’ll find it in sushi rolls with lettuce (the “salad roll”) and on top of pizza (along with piles of canned corn). The Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is completely different in composition, with two thin crepes enveloping a mountain of soft yakisoba noodles in addition to cabbage and other fillings that rapidly wilt from the griddle’s heat.

That Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki is so different from Osaka’s is not surprising. Japan is homogeneous at first glance, but is composed of many distinct regions. This is most obviously reflected in gift shops: a gift shop in Aoyama will be stuffed with apple baumkuchens, apple chips, and apple ciders, while products in Nara are adorned with deer motifs. Osaka and Hiroshima are each synonymous with okonomiyaki, and yes, you can buy okonomiyaki memorabilia in both cities (I have a pair of socks).

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In order to really experience each city’s okonomiyaki at its best, I would recommend a “rail trip” that includes stops in both Osaka and Hiroshima. Don’t skip over Osaka, even if you’ve eaten its okonomiyaki elsewhere; it’s an experience to visit the source and experience the fervor and enthusiasm that a bite of food can elicit. There is little that can rile up an Osaka native more than a photo of an okonomiyaki served ready-made in a dainty cast iron skillet. I would even argue that the JR rail pass that many visitors to Japan use for unlimited travel on the JR trains facilitates such an okonomiyaki-eating itinerary, because a trip to Hiroshima from Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train necessitates a change of trains in Osaka.

Neon-Powered Osaka

Osaka is brash, colorful, and stylish, with an oversized reputation for humor. It’s no coincidence that Osaka’s Yoshimoto entertainment company is responsible for launching many of the country’s comedians, and that Taro Okamoto’s famously kooky Tower of the Sun was built for Osaka’s turn at hosting the World Exposition. I actually recommend visiting the Tower of the Sun, even though you will need to take several trains to get there. It’s a hoot. While the reconstructed Osaka Castle is in every guide book, Osaka also has its own Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. In short, you could spend days exploring the Osaka sprawl and work up the appetite for many, many okonomiyaki.

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Okonomiyaki and its orb-shaped cousin, takoyaki (octopus balls), are not hard to find in the city. For a taste of the neon lights for which Osaka is famous, hit up the overly-neoned streets of the Dotonbori and seek out an eatery. The Internet is full of recommendations for “the best” okonomiyaki in Osaka, but your best bet is to find a no-name shop and chance it. There is nothing more appetizing than watching a professional griddle your pancake in front of you before lacing it with a pattern of salty-sweet brown sauce, Kewpie mayonnaise, and dancing bonito flakes.

You’ll have to wind back to the Umeda neighborhood to catch the bullet train that will whisk you down to Hiroshima, but before you do, take a moment to wander around the nearby neighborhood of Nakazakicho. Nakazakicho is a maze of darkly hued wooden buildings housing tiny art galleries and Alice in Wonderland tea parlors. It is a stark contrast to bustling Umeda and its fancy department stores, boutiques, and theaters. Don’t forget to pick up a package of hojicha (roasted green tea) flavored Kit Kats at the station before moving westward to Hiroshima. They are delicious.

Hiroshima—and a Ferry to Miyajima

Maybe it’s because of Osaka’s oversized reputation in the Japanese psyche, as well as Hiroshima’s dark history, that the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki seems to be slighted in comparison. While it would be remiss to neglect the monuments that honor Hiroshima’s past, it is clear that the city is more than a World War II museum. When you step out of the shinkansen and actually see the city, however, it is immediately apparent that the city is distinctly itself. Trams run through the streets and “arcades” (roofed shopping streets) are filled with old-school sweets and memorabilia. As an added bonus, Miyajima, with the Itsukishima shrine that seems to float in the water, is only a short ferry ride away.

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The ferry trip is worth it for Itsukushima’s red gates alone, but there are many other monuments, like the Daisho-in, to explore. Don’t be too focused on an itinerary though: Take a moment to take photos with the wild deer and to enjoy the freshly shucked (and grilled) oysters for sale along the ferry. I would also pick up some of the justifiably famous momiji manjus: maple-leaf shaped cakes filled with sweetened azuki paste.

In addition to all that the city has to offer, you will realize that Hiroshima is serious about okonomiyaki and even has a designated “okonomiyaki town” (Okonomimura): a three-story building crammed with small eateries that specialize in Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.

If you visit any of the okonomiyaki shops, you will be amazed at the dish’s height. Unlike the Osaka-style version, for which all of the ingredients are pre-mixed before griddling, a cook in Hiroshima will pour out two thin ladlefuls of crepe-like batter, top one of them with a large handful of cabbage and noodles, and then top it with the other thin crepe.

It seems improbable that any of that could cook down to a manageable amount, and yet it does. All that remains is to ladle on the sweet brown okonomiyaki sauce and to scatter green scallions generously on top. Whatever your choice of toppings, don’t forget to pick up the regional citrus-flavored Kit Kat for dessert.

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