Hawaiian Acai Bowl

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

Instead of taking the subway from Umeda Sky Building, I decided to walk back to the hotel. This way I could explore different neighbourhoods in Osaka, and make it to my room before dark. The walk would take about 40 minutes, and I wondered if that was too long of a wait for dinner. Exploring would be more enjoyable if I wasn’t worried about getting hungry and then having to find food without wifi.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

The nearest place with vegan options was Mauloa Acai and Cafe. The cafe has great reviews, and it helps that I already love acai bowls. As I walked in, the beautifully decorated cafe transported me to Hawaii. Or at least how I pictured Hawaii looks and feels. The greeting was also as warm as I would imagine. There was so much to see, and take pictures of, that I almost forgot about ordering.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

After a quick look at the menu, I noticed a sign for their newest acai bowl called PB energy. It sounded great, and tasted even better. The cute mug shaped bowl was bigger than expected, and it kept me full with the addition of peanut butter. I also ordered a few extras to be sprinkled on top even though it already included granola, banana, blueberries, honey, cacao nibs, hemp seeds, and almonds.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

Acai bowls seem to look and taste better when made at a restaurant, but I can’t wait to buy some acai and add it to a smoothie at home.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

Umeda Sky Building and Sakura Mille Crepe Cake

Umeda Sky Building and Sakura Mille Crepe Cake

After having Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station, I walked over to Umeda Sky Building. Instead of heading directly to the top of the building, I first tried to find a Doutor. The cafe advertised their sakura flavoured desserts in celebration of the cherry blossom season, and I wanted to taste the Sakura Mille Crepe Cake. At the time, I was still making exceptions for desserts that weren’t plant-based.

I had looked up the directions for Doutor back at the hotel, and was convinced I knew the exact building and level. Then when I didn’t spot the cafe, I started to panic. I had found myself in an underground market with no Doutor in sight. Although it was a wonderful recreation of an old Osaka street from the early 20th century, I couldn’t focus on exploring it. I darted from one area to another, desperate to stick to my schedule. I felt lost without any internet, and once again forgot to keep an open mind while travelling. I reminded myself that I wasn’t actually lost or even alone, and that it wasn’t the end of the world if things didn’t go according to plan. Maybe I’d even find a better sakura dessert later on.

Just as I had thought of skipping dessert and heading to the rooftop, Francois had found the cafe. I finally ordered the Sakura Mille Crepe Cake, and noticed that the dessert set came with coffee at a discounted price. I tried to order a decaf soy latte, but it wasn’t going well. The soy latte part was understood, but not the decaf part. When I tried to paraphrase, the barista tried to suggest hot chocolate. This seemed like a weird suggestion at first, but then I realized that technically it was a warm drink without any caffeine. It seems that the barista did understand me after all, but was trying to be polite.

After reading between the lines that decaf coffee wasn’t available at that location, I ordered the soy latte and figured that at least it was discounted. Then the total price was different from the discounted set price. There was no one in line behind me, so I casually asked about it. The server kindly explained that since soy milk was extra, the set was only available with a dairy milk latte. Even though this all happened much quicker than it sounds, I still felt bad about bothering him with my complicated order. I reassured him it wasn’t a problem, thanked him for all of his help, and quickly paid.

Umeda Sky Building and Sakura Mille Crepe Cake

The Sakura Mille Crepe Cake was adorable and tasted like strawberry jam. I was mostly just happy to finally relax and enjoy my dessert. When I was done, I calmly made my way to the entrance of the Umeda Sky Building. First, I walked around the indoor observatory taking in the beautiful views of Osaka. Then I went to the rooftop to experience the Floating Garden Observatory. The open air observatory was absolutely terrifying. There was no glass hiding the city views, which makes it ideal for taking good pictures but terrible for someone with a fear of heights. It was so windy, I was convinced I would fly right off the building.

Umeda Sky Building and Sakura Mille Crepe Cake

As I clutched my bag, I began to panic for the second time that day. While changing course had caused me stressed earlier, this time it brought me comfort to know that I could simply go back down. I knew my fear was irrational since other people were walking around happily. Not to mention that the rooftop wouldn’t be open if it was dangerous. However, I decided that I shouldn’t feel pressured to walk around if I wouldn’t enjoy it. I was brave enough to check out the top level, and didn’t need a picture to prove it. Besides, Francois would fill me in and show me his photos. I went back down to the enclosed observatory area, where I could enjoy the view more peacefully.

Umeda Sky Building and Sakura Mille Crepe Cake

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

After a busy afternoon tasting hojicha and matcha in Uji, I spent the following morning relaxing among the cherry blossoms at Osaka Castle Park. The area was beautiful with plenty to see. Last time I visited the park, I went straight to the castle. However, this time I wanted to explore the quieter spots by the river.

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

As part of the Japanese tradition of hanami, everyone was quietly adoring the blooms. Then as soon as it got windy, people rushed to capture the petals falling to the ground known as hanafubuki.

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

At lunch time I made my way to Umeda district. The giant station and surrounding malls offered a variety of food options. Even with the wide selection, it was tough to find something plant-based. Since I was craving noodles, I came up with the idea of ordering Kitsune Udon without the dashi broth. I explained the reason to ensure they wouldn’t worry about my enjoyment of the dish and they kindly accommodated me. The Kitsune Udon came with udon noodles topped with flavourful deep-fried tofu, a sprinkle of seaweed shreds, and sliced green onion. Even though I’m sure other people thought it was crazy to be eating noodles without the broth, the noodles tasted amazing with a drizzle of soy sauce.

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

Just to be sure I wouldn’t leave hungry, I also ordered the Inari sushi. This type of sushi is usually vegan by default as it is simply rice stuffed in the same deep-fried sushi pocket that comes with Kitsune Udon. After this filling and delicious lunch, I was ready to go looking for dessert.

If you’re interested in tasting my favourite hojicha from Japan, join the Hōjicha Co. newsletter to receive a subscriber exclusive discount this Friday! 

This Lunch Looks Better Than it Tastes

Lunch Looks Better Than it Tastes

After a bad experience at a restaurant I always wonder if I should even write about it. There is enough negativity in the world as is, and so many other great spots I could write about instead. My lunch wasn’t even that bad, the meal was just surprisingly bland. But the interesting part is that all of the factors that usually make a place great are the reasons it went poorly.

Positive Reviews

When a restaurant has tons of highly positive reviews, it’s usually a good sign. The downside though is that positive reviews elevate expectations. Since my meal was one of the more popular options on the menu, there were complementary reviews about this specific meal. Maybe my lunch had no chance against my high expectations.

Atmosphere

When a restaurant has beautiful decor and friendly staff, it usually means they are successful enough to afford investing in their atmosphere. After tasting my meal though it became clear that the resources spent on the vibe should’ve been spent on the food.

Lunch Set

A lunch set makes it easy for people to order, and can be a great way to showcase the most popular dish. Sometimes though a daily special means the restaurant is trying to get rid of leftovers and ingredients that are about to expire. I mostly ordered the lunch set because I like dishes with lots of variety. I hoped that the long wait was an indication that everything was being prepared fresh. While I couldn’t tell if anything was premade or borderline stale, I was surprised that not one thing on the plate was properly heated or seasoned.

Niche Menu

When everything on the menu is plant-based, and even organic, it’s much easier to place an order without the stress of substitutions. Since this is pretty rare to find, especially in some cities, people tend to be more forgiving about the food itself. As much as people can’t help but being honest about any grievances, they usually feel the need to give a place 5 stars when it caters to their specific dietary needs. This is exactly why I don’t plan on naming this restaurant. I’m just grateful they exist, and hope they either had an off day or will get better.

 

Espresso Soda at Public in Osaka

Espresso Soda at Public in Osaka

On my way to lunch at Green Earth for the second time, I stopped by Public for a drink. I noticed the cute cafe when I first walked by, and planned to pop in if I returned to the area.

The cafe was beautifully decorated with various seating options. After picking a spot, I browsed the english drink menu on the table. The chalk menu by the counter was in Japanese, so I walked over to translate it. I was curious about the daily specials, and discovered they offered lunch and baked goods.

Espresso Soda at Public in Osaka

I ordered an espresso soda and their freshly baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. I had never heard of an espresso soda before, but should’ve known to stick with a latte as I don’t usually enjoy carbonated drinks. On the plus side, the sweetener was served on side making it easy to add as little at a time. The oatmeal chocolate chip cookie was huge and delicious. While breaking off a piece, I noticed the table had a “made in Canada” stamp. The strange coincidence reminded me of home, but the brief moment passed as I excitedly returned to mapping out my trip to Uji.  

Ordering Ceremonial Matcha in Kyoto

Ordering ceremonial matcha in Kyoto

The good thing about arriving in a surprisingly busy area of Kyoto, was the amble choice of teahouses. In an attempt to be open to new experiences, I embraced under-planning and walked into the first teahouse I came across. After drinking matcha in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, I wanted to try a matcha flavoured food. The menu had a variety of matcha noodle dishes, and appetizing desserts. Since matcha is an acquired taste, flavoured ice cream, tiramisu, and parfaits are a great alternative for those who don’t yet appreciate ceremonial matcha.

There were many food items, but unfortunately no vegan options. Instead, I ordered a ceremonial matcha and hoped it would be served with a sweet treat. In Japanese teahouses, the most expensive matcha on the menu is the highest grade ceremonial matcha and is served with sencha and wagashi. Wagashi is a small Japanese confection, often made from sugar and rice flour. It is typically plant-based, even when it includes a filling.

The order did end up including a delicious pink wagashi. The matcha itself didn’t have that distinct umami flavour, however, it was still extremely fresh and skillfully prepared. I also ordered an iced matcha, which was smooth but much sweeter than expected as they added a generous amount of syrup.

Sometimes it’s nice to stroll around, and visit a place without looking at reviews. Though, I have extremely high expectations for my next matcha tasting as it would be in the highly regarded teahouses of Uji.

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

One of the first restaurants on my list was Chabuton in Osaka. Mostly because both their website and reviews confirmed they had vegan options. Chabuton was also more likely to be open, as well as easily accessible, as it was located at Yodobashi-Umeda. The incredibly busy department store was on the subway line, making it the perfect lunch spot on the way to drinking tea in Kyoto.

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

When the plant-based ramen arrived, it was reassuringly similar to all of the pictures I’ve seen online. Unfortunately, it turns out the reviews also accurately described its flavour. It was great as a vegetable soup, but far from a traditional tasting ramen. Now of course I’m no expert, especially since I’ve only ever had vegetarian ramen. However, ramen broth is usually much thicker and has a deep complex flavour. This dish tasted more like a light soup with fresh vegetables and noodles. While I’m grateful they had a vegan option at all, I’d love to taste V2.

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

Since I was still hungry, I ordered the green veggie gyoza. I had to triple check the nutritional info, and rejoiced every time I saw the veggie gyoza were in fact vegan. The gyoza were pan fried and perfectly crisp. There was even a gyoza and rice set, which I planned on getting if I returned.

Two things to keep in mind when ordering a dish that comes with a dipping sauce in Japan. One, never assume the dipping sauce of any dish is free of fish-based dashi. Two, if all else fails there’s usually plain soy sauce nearby.

Soy Chai Latte at Yodoyabashi Odona in Osaka

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 1

After a very early breakfast of convenience store goodies, I started to get peckish. Since it was only 10 am, I stopped at a Starbucks to refuel.

The Starbucks at Yodoyabashi Odona was quiet and classy. The glass display case was full of the usual items and some extra decadent treats. I skipped those as I figured my drink would have plenty of sugar already.

The friendly barista greeted me, and I placed an order for a medium soy chai latte. My go-to size is a small, but in Japan I get a medium. This isn’t because of the minuscule difference between Canada’s mL sizes and Japan’s cc sizes. It’s because a small is interpreted as a Tall in Canada, and a Short in Japan. Yes, I’m the annoying customer that forgets to use Starbucks’ official size names. I get flustered enough trying to remember my order and to ask for soy milk. While waiting in line, I always wonder if I should say soy latte or latte with soy milk. The first sounds better, but the second emphasized the soy more and might be more in line with the register process.

I was extra nervous about asking for soy milk in Osaka. When I previously asked other restaurants in Japan if they had soy milk, they would only catch the word milk and excitedly say yes. Even though I made a mental note to say ‘soy’ instead of ‘soy milk’, I accidentally blurted out chai latte with soy milk.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 1

Turns out I was worried for nothing. The barista clearly understood my request, and even handed me a cute soy milk card to ensure I was given the right drink. I quickly snapped a picture of the card before my drink was ready. Then I snapped another of the condiments bar. There were multiple sugar options (which I skipped), including: white & brown sugar, liquid sugar, and even orange vanilla sugar. There was also something called coffee powder, which looked like finely ground coffee that may or may not have been sweetened.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 2

I enjoyed my soy chai latte on a gorgeous red velvet chair, and got to planning the rest of the day.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 4

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

Prior to travelling to Japan, I had done some research into the best places to buy and sip on ceremonial grade matcha in Uji and Osaka.

The first place I visited was Uji-en (Uji Garden) in Shinsaibashi. The tea shop is located near the end of a covered street in the shopping district, which feels like a large yet crowded hallway. Since there were two tea shops on the same area, I checked out the merchandise to try and figure out if I was in the right place. Taking the time to look around, also helped me spot the tea drinking area. Even though I knew Noren were traditionally draped at the entrance of restaurants, I thought the fabric might be concealing a stock room. Luckily, I got a brief glimpse into the back of the tea shop as another customer exited. It felt impolite to walk in, and so I asked another shopkeeper if I could enter while miming drinking matcha by holding my two hands up and tilting an imaginary matcha bowl to my mouth. The shopkeeper understood I wanted to drink matcha, not just buy a tin of tea, and enthusiastically invited me in.

There were plenty of seats, but I decided to sit by the counter to get a better view of the matcha preparation. Before placing my order, I was given a small cup with a deep caramel liquid. The drink was cold, and had a rich earthy aroma and subtle sweetness. It didn’t have the strong bitter aftertaste of green or black tea. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first taste of roasted green tea also known as Hojicha.

When my matcha was served, it came with yet another small cup. This time the small cup contained a hot bright green liquid. After enjoying the hojicha, I bravely took a sip of the unknown tea. As soon as I caught a whiff of the tea, I knew I wouldn’t like the flavour. It smelled and tasted exactly like vegetable broth. I was convinced it was vegetable soup, but later found out it was sencha. Apparently most people preferred the taste of sencha over matcha, and so it is served to clear the palate.    

After tasting one of the best and worst teas I’ve ever had, it was time for the main event. I won’t leave you in suspense any longer, except to say that this trip has completely changed the way I drink matcha. The first sip was so exceptional that I had to pause in appreciation before taking another. The matcha tasted incredible, and was obviously very fresh and of high quality. However, the skilled preparation took it to the next level. The delicate foam, the fully dissolved powder, and the perfectly warm water were all signs of an expertly made matcha.

Paying attention to details not only pays off in terms of flavour, but it also makes you appreciate matcha more than you would if you had in a plastic to-go cup while rushing to a meeting. It reminds me of a quote by the monk Jeong Kwan, who said on Chef’s Table: “I make food as a meditation.” Both the quote and this tea experience have had a huge impact on the way I prepare matcha and food in general.

If you are curious, here’s how I prepare my matcha.

  1. Boil filtered water and let stand overnight. Japanese tea tastes best in soft water.
  2. Boil water again once you are ready to drink matcha.
  3. Pour the boiling water into your matcha bowl, and let stand for a minute or so.
  4. Transfer the water into another vessel. This helps warm the bowl, and then cools down the water to 80°C to avoid burning the matcha.
  5. Sift two scoops of matcha into the bowl to prevent clumps.
  6. Add a little bit of the warm water into the matcha bowl.
  7. Whisk quickly in a zig-zag shape for approximately 30 seconds. Once foam appears, slow down and get rid of any air bubbles.
  8. Add the rest of the water. If you’d like to prepare a latte instead, then add half of the remaining warm water along with non-dairy milk.