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Downtown Osaka’s faded replica of Korea’s kaleidoscopic markets

by

Special To The Japan Times

There’s something suspicious about the way Japan and Korea differ so much in the taste and presentation of their foods, as if a kind of sibling rivalry were going on, some struggle for distinction and specialization.

“I like it spicy!” the Korean sibling seems to say. “I like it subtle!” retorts Japan. Korea announces: “I like my food all mashed together in a sizzling stoneware bowl!” Japan shakes its head: “Strictly compartmentalized in an array of delicate lukewarm plates for me!” Korea clinks her metal chopsticks, Japan clacks wooden ones.

But look beyond the stereotypes and you’ll find overlap between the cuisines. Osaka has its okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage-filled pancake, Seoul serves ojingeo jeon, a squid-filled pancake.

I’m chomping on one right now, in fact, in the dark arcades below Osaka’s Tsuruhashi Station. This ojingeo jeon is a rubbery crepe filled with spring onions and flattened seafood, and I’m able to bite the pancake from the packet as I wander around this warren of rundown arcades. You couldn’t eat okonomiyaki this way, but here, the center of Japan’s biggest Korean community — almost 120,000 people at the last count — it’s not a problem.

Although they’re mostly of Korean origin, not all of the stall-owners here are speaking Korean, some are also speaking Japanese. But the ladies at the hottoku (a filled pancake) stall act as if they’re fresh off the Kyushu-Busan ferry — they even have Korean soda adverts on their wall. I order a honey-drenched hottoku filled with sunflower seeds, peanuts and sesame. Like a lot of Korean food it’s a little too sweet for my palate but delightfully warming on a chilly January day. I meander through the arcades, gazing in wonder at metal dishes of pickles probably hot enough to blow my head off, heaps of pigs’ trotters, wall-charts proposing “research whale,” crabs with elastic-banded pincers squashed against glass, dried seaweed presented as medicine, flattened squid in transparent polyethylene. It’s a Japanizied (and slightly de-vitalized) version of the covered Korean street markets I spent the New Year holiday visiting — Busan’s Gukje Market, Seoul’s Gwangjang.

I duck into a Korean restaurant called Ant House and order my standard Korean “dish of reference,” bibimbap. The lady who serves it is speaking Japanese in her kitchen, I notice. I ask for the minimum of gochujang hot-pepper paste, but still get a big dollop. The ingredients of the sizzling ceramic dish taste more fermented than I’m used to in Korean bibimbap — because of the doenjang soybean paste, perhaps, or because the Japanese palate is more at home with the lugubrious subtlety of umami (the savory “fifth taste”) than the fire of chili.

Accompanying the main dish is a spread of accessories: a bowl of delicious ginger-spicy broth containing chunks of turnip and squid, a cabbage salad in too-sweet sauce, orange blocks of pumpkin, a dish of candy-like dried infant sardines interspersed with okra, pickled radish. Separated like that, the meal becomes more Japanese, and only the universal touch of chili pepper reminds me that I’m in an immigrant enclave.

I pay my ¥1,000 and leave. The weather is cold, but not as brutally icy as it is currently on the Korean peninsula. The arcades are cleaner here, but I miss seeing colorfully dressed ajumma women (the universal Korean “aunt” figure with her tightly permed black hair and brashly clashing garment patterns) sitting on newspapers on the ground chopping vegetables, and I miss Korea’s younger population, with its louder vitality. Like the Korean cuisine here, the Zainichi (ethnic Korean residents of Japan) in Osaka seems a touch cleaned up and toned down. But they still spice up Japan.

  • John Hurt

    Always a pleasure to imbibe Momus’ take on East Asian culture; in this case, Korean food seems to be far and away worth checking out for a
    Westerner obsessed with chilli-spiced food

  • Andre Leonard

    Melding and appreciation of cultures like this is good. A taste of diversity for all.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Go to KIX. A lot of low cost carriers fly to and from Korea, including Gimpo. It is really cheap to get from Incheon to downtown Seoul, even easier and cheaper from Gimpo. Eat and experience Korea directly.

    I have been to Tsuruhashi and find it to be mostly run down, centered on a fish market and an old station. Ghetto-izing the zainichi is the impression I have. I speak Korean and Japanese, and the reason the shop keepers speak Japanese is because a lot of their clientele is Japanese. Umasa is a curse insofar as Korean food is concerned.

    Similar situation in Yokohama and Kobe Chinatowns. Eat in China instead, if you dare. Better to go to Seoul or Busan. Incidentally, there are good pockets of good Korean food in Kyushu. Fukuoka is closer to Seoul geographically than to Tokyo.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Go to KIX. A lot of low cost carriers fly to and from Korea, including Gimpo. It is really cheap to get from Incheon to downtown Seoul, even easier and cheaper from Gimpo. Eat and experience Korea directly.

    I have been to Tsuruhashi and find it to be mostly run down, centered on a fish market and an old station. Ghetto-izing the zainichi is the impression I have. I speak Korean and Japanese, and the reason the shop keepers speak Japanese is because a lot of their clientele is Japanese. Umasa is a curse insofar as Korean food is concerned.

    Similar situation in Yokohama and Kobe Chinatowns. Eat in China instead, if you dare. Better to go to Seoul or Busan. Incidentally, there are good pockets of good Korean food in Kyushu. Fukuoka is closer to Seoul geographically than to Tokyo.

  • wangkon936

    Korean food is a bit more extreme than Japanese food with a near overload of flavors on certain dishes because Korea has had a more difficult history than Japan. The desire for comfort foods was greater in Korea than in Japan.

  • wangkon936

    Korean food can use a bit of refinement but Japanese food could use a bit of boldness too. The two cooking traditions compliment each other.

    • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

      Agree, not only about cooking tradition.
      Hope you remember me, however, I came here as there’s some shy Korean man in Japan, who are struggling with nutted reality in trying to make a better future for their next generation, as I posted about his activity on MM before.
      I have some feeling that you two may hit it off, not sure, so far he looks too shy to get an interaction with an oversea Korean.
      If only you are interested in, get in touch with him at Twitter @koreanpower317 or his personal web site on Ameba http://ameblo.jp/lee-protester/ when you have time.
      I am witnessing all the injustice meant for Korean residents in Japan for late years, but not able to have a substantial influence to make it right, so I thought if having a connection with oversea Koreans may be a key for them to make difference, just my idea.

      • wangkon936

        I don’t remember you. Where / when did we converse in the past?

      • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

        Sorry that’s MH, not MM.
        First time on the Diplomat by another name.
        Little later on MH by this name, another frozen account.
        Most recently I posted an open thread on MH, about the Korean man I am talking, like I posted about him 2 years ago, then soon found MH to be closed, a month later or so.
        Actually it was the very time that I was suggesting him, encouraging him to post on MH so to get in touch with you, because post by Hangul may not be deleted there, mostly meeting with deletion on other English fora.
        So MH shutting down made me dissapointed.

      • wangkon936

        Ah, I think I remember now. Sure, he can email me if he likes. What does he want to talk about? My email is wangkon936@yahoo.com.

      • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

        Oh thank you very much. I’m going to tell him.
        He must have something to ask you for, regarding his anti-racism act, I suppose, also you must have lot to teach him, this is my speculation.
        As I see, you have nothing to be afraid of, for being Korean, but he has, since he was born, so someone who can teach him how not to be afraid of, how to keep his head high, is needed, but it can’t be me.

      • wangkon936

        I guess not all Japanese treat Zainichi like he is Masayoshi Son… :(

      • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

        Mr wangkon, the e-mail address is not available when I tried to send something to you now, do we have some misunderstanding?

      • wangkon936
      • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

        Hi it’s okay whether you ignore me or not, but it’s not okay for Lee in being ignored in his first interaction with an oversea Korean.
        I don’t think just to ignore is a proper manner of a decent Korean man.
        Perhaps ignoring someone is a usual manner that an American man adopts, but it’s totally different feature from properly rejecting someone, in east Asian manner as far I understand.

      • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

        Mr wangkon, the e-mail address is not available when I tried to send something to you now, do we have some misunderstanding?
        I checked now as yahoo.com is not an ordinary e-mail address.
        I need to tell him as it’s not easy.
        Is there any other means that you can offer him but Disqus?
        Please consider more oriented way for him, as he is not an English managing man basically.

      • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

        Not all, 3 types of us are existent, ones with obvious racism, ones with not obvious racism, and ones like me, trying to have an appropriate relationship or way with Korean residents, which they don’t feel too much or annoying of.

      • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

        Sorry, is everything okay? He said he has sent first one.