If you are going to be known as the capital of something in Japan, there aren’t many better things than to be the “Food Capital of Japan,” a title often bestowed on Osaka. Every four years Osaka has hosted the International Festival UTAGE (Japanese for “feast,”) a sort of foodie Olympics with dishes on offer from around the globe. In the eight festivals since its founding in 1985 more than four million people have attended Japan’s largest food event.
Osaka comes by its culinary identity organically. Ingredients flow easily into the city from the surrounding mountains and across its docks in its location on the sea. For generations the city has been known throughout Japan as “kuidaore,” a place where it is possible to “bring ruin upon oneself by extravagance in food.” Such delicacies as okonomiyaki, a grilled pancake of heavy flour with meat or squid; takoyaki, a round dumpling with chopped octopus as a highlight; and tessa, thinly sliced raw globefish, are famous Osaka creations. Kushikatsu, deep fried and breaded skewers of food, was also invented here.
Japan can thank Osaka for such dietary staples as kaiten sushi (conveyor-style fast food sushi) and instant ramen noodles. Momofuku Ando perfected the flash-frying method for noodles after hundreds of experiments in 1958. The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka, near Ikeda Station, stands as a monument to his achievement. Admission is free.
Osaka chefs have been unusually open to international influences which makes the city the natural choice to host International Festival UTAGE. The world-famous Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka has graduated over 130,000 would-be chefs since its founding in 1960 and includes coursework in Chinese, Italian and French cooking in addition to Japanese techniques.
Osaka takes its role as the kitchen of the nation seriously, maintaining the heritage of Japanese cooking while serving as a hospitality center for food-related activities. The International Festival UTAGE is co-sponsored by the Osaka Restaurant Management Association and promotes food-related industries and the stimulation of Japanese food culture. This year’s theme is “Festivals of Japan; Comparison of Flavors of Japan.” While bringing the many flavors of Japan to the guests the main focus will be on Washoku, the traditional “food of Japan” that has been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Washoku is the pursuit of harmony in cooking, not only blending the tastes of salty, sweet, sour and umami on the tongue but emphasizing beautiful presentation.
Not all the food and drink is so high-minded at the International Festival UTAGE, although there is a special section on dietary education and food trends. There are plenty of edible sculptures to admire (while they last). Themed pavilions dish out treats from around the world and special pavilions in the Theme Zone are devoted to the local specialties, including a dizzying array of sake and shochu. There are regular stage performances throughout the run of the trade show.
The “Feast” takes place at Intex Osaka and runs for ten days from April 28 to May 7. Admission is charged, scaling down from adults to children.