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Shovel Time: Kura Sushi

The beauty of being anywhere outside the US on Thanksgiving is that you can avoid turkey because turkey is not good, though I love stuffing, gravy, and all the accoutrements. (Well, they did have outrageously priced frozen turkey at the Carrefour in the Mall of the Emirates.) It’s one of my favorite weeks to travel, plus if you have an office job it’s two days off paid.

There is also beauty in conveyor belt a.k.a. kaiten sushi in Japan because it’s not all horrible. It was perfectly fine to eat pre-made sushi at a chain on Thanksgiving in Kyoto. This particular restaurant, which was walking distance from my Airbnb and next door to the best 99-cent (yen?) store I’ve encountered in Japan (even better than Don Quijote because the aisles were spacious and it wasn’t crowded) already had a wait even though it was early.

99-cent store haul

Most of these places aren’t terribly English-friendly (and when they call your number for a table, you probably won’t know it) but if you have basic sushi knowledge it’s easy to deduce what’s what based on the photos displayed on the laminated menus and touch screen. You can also just grab a container with different colored plastic plates as it goes by. If it’s not to your liking, it’s a pretty cheap mistake.

Bacon sushi might’ve been a mistake

You could also order noodles and cooked dishes but why would you? But then, I’ve taken to ordering fries at these places, so…

Surprises: I didn’t realize shiraki a.k.a. cod milt a.k.a cod semen was so pedestrian that you could pre-make it, send it on its way, and assume someone would pick it, since it’s more of a specialty item here. Also, monkfish liver (ankimo) is a standard offering.

When you push your empty plates down a chute at each table (at first, I was scared to do this because it wasn’t clear that the metal door was for this purpose) a video is triggered for your enjoyment and each color-coded plate is tallied and added to your bill. I guess we put away 17 plates. 

There are hundreds of locations (I had no idea) and even a bunch in California and Texas. There is, however, no cod sperm on the American menus.

Kura Sushi * 440 Ebisucho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan


Un-American Activities: Starbucks in Kyoto

Japan has no shortage of high-design Starbucks locations, some where you would have to strain to even see a logo. I’m neither a Starbucks person, nor much of a coffee snob despite growing up in the Pacific NW, the epicenter of second-wave coffee culture. Pre-ground Cafe Bustelo is my morning jam, followed by two cups of watery office coffee of unknown provenance on the days I go to the office.

But I almost always end up at a Starbucks when traveling to other countries. Mostly to gawk at any localized beverages or snacks. I was introduced to an unknown-to-me sweet, lamingtons, little Australian square cakes, frosted, and coated in coconut flakes, at a Starbucks in Hong Kong. I would always get one in the airport (it makes it sound like I regularly hit that airport; I’ve been in and out of it maybe eight times, none in recent history).

So, it was not a leap to seek out the Starbucks in Kyoto that took residence in a Taisho-era teahouse last summer. Even though there is a sign hanging beneath the shingled eaves, it would be easy to miss the Starbucks on the cobblestone path up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in a city lousy with shrines, temples, and Michelin stars. The wood-clad building on the corner blends into the surrounding shops stocked with more pickled things than you could ever imagine being pickled and souvenir cans of Pringles in takoyaki flavor, the octopus balls that are a regional claim to fame. (I am still kicking myself for neither trying takoyaki nor buying these Pringles.)

Look past the Japanese tourists dolled-up in rented kimonos, though, and you’ll see a slate-blue noren with the familiar mermaid marking the entrance, as well as the original racy topless, two-finned logo on an iron lantern that looks as if it has been there for more than a century but could’ve been crafted in 2017.

The interior is dim, understated, with cement floors, wood beams, and neutral tones that lend a spartan quality more aligned with an art gallery than coffee shop. Rock gardens and bamboo fountains occupy outdoor nooks. It’s genuinely a respite from the weaving mobs outside that neither favor walking on the right or the left. I don’t understand this about Japan. Even subway stations would sometimes have arrows indicating to walk on the right, which pleased the rule-lover in me, then sometimes on the left. That’s chaos.

Starbucks has a long history in the country, as it entered Tokyo, its first international market, in 1996. The Seattle-based company has added 1,303 stores since. Kyoto alone has 33.

The newer world’s biggest Starbucks in Shanghai has been grabbing recent attention among the followers of chain-related happenings. That’s all fine for more-is-more China, but they do things a little differently in Japan where hypermodernity clashes with analog traditions. The country clings tightly to phone-only reservations and a preference for cash transactions, inconveniences for digitally reliant foreigners. (Of course, you can pay by app at Starbucks in Japan..)

Upstairs, customers patiently wait on benches for their turn in one of three tatami rooms covered in the traditional straw mats and zabuton cushions for seating. There are friendly reminders to remove your shoes and low shelves to store them. No worries about anyone making off with your footwear–this is Japan, the lost and found capital, after all.

(My travel companion left his iPhone in a cab, and we got it back the next day, only with the help of a Japanese speaking friend who communicated with everyone and filled out the paperwork–did I say they like analog transactions? This amazing turn of events, spurred us to pay it forward the next day when we found a phone dropped on the sidewalk and turned it into a police station on the corner. They had to get an English-speaking translator on the phone to explain we had a right to claim any reward money as well as being reimbursed for travel to turn it in!)

Maybe in other parts of the world you might feel embarrassed for showing interest in an American chain rather than immersing yourself in authenticity, but most Japanese citizens aren’t judgmental like that. No one in Tokyo is ashamed to line up for Shake Shack or overpay for nacho fries at Taco Bell. A few gawkers were taking photos of this 100-year-old-plus structure and young women with expensive SLRs had no problem striking poses or setting up shots of pastel drinks, presumably to share on Instagram, or more likely, Line.

Perhaps not my best photo, but it does capture something essential to my character.

Blessedly, pumpkin spice has not yet infiltrated the autumnal Japanese consciousness (though they are mad for sweet potatoes). Instead, seasonal beverages included Grapy Grape and Tea Jelly Frappuccino with blobs of gelatinous black tea and sliced grapes bobbing around, Hojicha Cream Frappuccino, made from the roasted green tea, and a Christmas colored Candy Pistachio Frappuccino sprinkled with raspberry cookie crumbles. This nutty beverage might be the only treat in Japan of that pale green hue not flavored with matcha. No surprise, the glass case at the counter is a sea of green tea scones, pound cake, and doughnuts. There is no Thanksgiving buffer outside of North America so songs like “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride,” reworked by The Platters and Earth, Wind & Fire were on rotation the fourth Thursday in November.

Un-American quirks abound, like the advertised existence of a smaller size than “tall.” It is called “short.” There are tiny thimble-sized plastic containers of milk, no self-serve pitchers, and no almond or coconut pseudo-milks (soy milk is 50 yen extra). Perhaps the most un-American thing about the Kyoto Starbucks, though, was the clientele. Westerners made up fewer than half of the customers and I didn’t hear one familiar accent.

Starbucks * 349 Masuyacho Kodaiji Minamimondori Shimokawara Higashi Irushiigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan

Shovel Time: Matasaburo

I was thinking Kobe beef might be a better thing to eat in Osaka than Tokyo since Kobe and Osaka are geographically close to each other, though I don’t know if that’s true. It might be like how I assumed there would be good Thai food in Malaysia since those two countries share a border and was sorely disappointed.

I was really tempted to try Steak Misono because it’s the original teppanyaki restaurant a.k.a. The O.G. Benihana. It originated in Kobe but is now a chain, so I thought better of overpaying for something potentially gimmicky and touristy. Also, wagyu sandwiches seem to be all the rage. Well, at least they were a few years ago and now this $180 nonsense is washing up in America. I’m curious but not that curious.

Anyway, I ended up choosing a modern yakiniku style restaurant, partially because its tagline was so irresistible: “The Beef Wonderland.” Also, you could make online reservations, an anomaly in Japan, as long as you could decipher the Google translated text.

You can order a la carte but I didn’t trust myself to pick the optimal cuts (plus, my dining companion isn’t as enamored with tongues and intestines, “horumon” in Japanese,  as I am) and I have an awful time mentally converting grams to ounces and an afraid of getting charged like $100 for a petite piece of meat, so I went with a set meal.

The show piece is dry-aged Kuroge wagyu (there is also Tosa-Akaushi, a brown cow from Koshi) which is cooked for you on the charcoal grill. The marbled piece of meat gets tended to periodically, turned, placed closer and farther from the flame, and strategically covered in foil.

I was kind of overwhelmed by the whole meal (and was spatting off and on–no, not about offal). Strangely, the meat was just a fleeting memory. I should have parsed the flavor and savored it more.

Meanwhile, other dishes are presented like wagyu tartare on toast and boiled peanuts, which I had no idea was a Japanese thing. Oh, plus smaller cuts of beef we got to grill ourselves.

The savory portion of the meal is finished with curry rice, which seemed odd as that’s a substantial dish, but was odder when we were warned it was spicy. Nothing in Japan is truly spicy so I mentally called bullshit. It really was spicy, though!

This is the point I would split a dessert if I had to but probably wouldn’t order one at all. They thought I was nuts saying we could share one, so I picked an eclair even though I wanted the sundae I had seen brought to many tables. The dining companion ordered it and turned out to not be a sundae at all. The parfait glass contained a god damn fruit pile (and soft serve). Fruit is not a dessert and there is no such thing as nature’s candy!

Matasaburo * 2 Chome-13-13 Nagai, Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka, Japan

I Do(nut): Avocado Appropriation

In a word: No!


Shovel Time: Menkuikinya

Everyone–at least Americans–seem ramen-crazy. I like ramen, but I might like udon more. Soba? I could take it or leave it. So, I tracked down this counter that was walking-distance from one of the gazillion temples in Kyoto.


 Even though it was prime lunch time, there were two open spots at the far end of the counter, which was great but not so great for fat-asses sucking-in and shuffling sideways between the open foot of space between the customers’ backs and the coats hanging on the wall. (I felt better when I Google-translated some Japanese-and-Korean-language reviews that made reference to the narrow space.) I do like that there are always coat hooks in restaurants in Japan, though. 

I just ordered a simple kitsune udon because I love the sweetness of the broth and eggy texture to the big flat sponge of tofu. But the thing here, apparently, was udon with a big tuft of tempura green onion. It was a total Kyoto-style Bloomin’ Onion.

Tending to the noodles

Later on the subway, I thought I was clever for noticing the resemblance to the screens used for draining tempura to shelves for bags (I couldn’t even imagine shelves on the NYC subway). Then I started noticing food-like objects everywhere. The sponge in our Airbnb had a very tamago-like quality.

Who are you calling a baby?

Menkuikinya *112-2 Hakatacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Portland Update January 2018

It is still slightly weird that I’ve been back to Oregon so many times since January 2016. Portland has its charms but I’m still wary of fully embracing them. It’s not a bad place to eat, though.

Nimblefish I wasn’t really impressed with Portland fave Bamboo Sushi or even Nodoguru, though that was due to more of a vibe thing than a reflection on the product, so I was curious about Nimblefish which seemed to fill the niche between generic sushi and omakase. You can walk in; it’s not a big to do. You check boxes and each piece is made and placed in front of you one-by-one, which I prefer to all-at-once on a plate. It’s not cheap since it’s a la carte not combo-style, but not prohibitive (many nigiri are $3-$4). The menu is tightly edited and changes based on availability. I wanted to try both Hokkaido and Santa Barbara unis (which I’d seen on Instagram) but only the latter was on hand. That was fine. I ended up ordering more than I had intended–seven pieces in all–because I was fresh off of multiple happy hour vodkas at Kachka: hotate, tako, maguro, uni, akami (not pictured), chu toro, sawara. I would probably go here regularly when I get the urge for good sushi without a wait or too much fanfare.

Ate-oh-Ate  I’ve probably said this before but Portland has an outsize Hawaiian presence. I’ve been told it’s because a lot of Hawaiians go to University of Oregon and just stay after graduation. Maybe. I don’t know. I was staying at an Airbnb and tried to acclimate to my daily 10:30am NYC work call at 7:30am, which is very West Coast. Just like the inexplicable Hawaiian thing, people start work very early on the West Coast–at least in Oregon–even if they don’t do business with the East Coast. Like an 8am start time is normal. My mom, who just retired, started around 7am, I think, and her crazy husband gets to work at like 5am when he doesn’t even need to. People think I’m nuts when I say I don’t go to work until 10am (which is more like 10:30am but I don’t want to shock them too much). Anyway, I was working “at-home” and wanted lunch delivered. The Seamless scene is kind of sad, delivery is not a thing, and extra fees abound. Ate-oh-Ate did deliver, though, and why not a plate lunch? The double starch of macaroni salad and rice always gave me pause but I’ll admit it’s really good together (one scoop of each is plenty, though). I completely underestimated mayo-heavy macaroni salad, here served with teriyaki beef, and a side of chili water (the middle container), which might be my new favorite condiment (it’s spicy vinegar, not water).

Langbaan I still love what Langbaan is doing. On my third visit the theme was Bangkok street food (both other visits happened to be Central Thailand). Not all the dishes sounded alluring on paper (think I was just objecting to the “spinach noodles”) but none turned out to be duds. The salad of oyster, tripe, trumpet mushroom, wood ear mushroom, ginger, scallion was up my alley and my favorite might have been one of the three entrees: kor muu pad kapi/pork jowl, shrimp paste, jalapeno, crispy betel leaf, which hit all my fiery, funky, fatty buttons. I discovered that the long-distance boyfriend isn’t really a tasting menu person, which I kind of knew but I wanted to treat because I enjoy the experience from time to time. It can be pretentious for a server to (over)explain all of the ingredients (his complaint) but that just goes with the territory. I’ve been to Yarowat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, but I’m not going to be a brat about someone explaining it to me in the context of a dish.

Chart House When you start your workday at 7am, you can kick off at 3pm, which is disorienting. That seems like a vast amount of free time but then you realize you can’t stay up as late as you’re used to. But one advantage is being able to go to happy hours, something I’m rarely able to do in NYC. Plus, happy hours are more of a thing in Portland, not just at bars but restaurants, even nice restaurants. Chart House is a “nice” restaurant in that it has a view (supposedly of all three area mountains) and it’s where people go for their anniversaries and maybe 50th birthday parties. This is probably the case in all cities (it’s a Landry’s chain). Apparently, in its former incarnation, Hillvilla, my mom went with her eighth grade class for lunch. When I ended eighth grade, we only got to go to Oaks Park on a school bus where the kids were screaming along to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” and mocking the lyrics. I would not eat at Chart House, the restaurant, but I was curious what the downstairs lounge would be like for happy hour. There is cheap wine and well spirits (the discounted cocktail are all too sweet) plus calamari, fish tacos, sliders, ahi nachos, and the like. Nothing mind-blowing. On the non-discounted menu, they featured cocktails made in those Porthole infusers made famous by The Aviary, a trickle-down effect in the wild.

Kachka I still haven’t eaten a proper meal here since I’ve only been solo during happy hours, which are very good value. I ended up with steelhead roe with challah and smetana butter (like creme fraiche), cabbage roll stuffed with beef, pork, and lamb, plus green walnut-infused vodka, cranberry-infused vodka shot and a beer, and one more vodka that I don’t even remember.

Clay’s Smokehouse I wouldn’t seek out barbecue in Portland, and have no desire to try the few spots that get acclaim (and even less desire to try vegan barbecue) but my vote for pizza was nixed when I discovered pies named after old-school Portland music scenesters. Farther down Division Street, it appeared that a long-time barbecue joint that I had never heard of but the companion always liked, moved across the street, so I was amenable to checking it out. The ribs were fine, I don’t love home fries, I wished the Texas toast was cheese bread, and the kale with almonds in a very tangy dressing was surprisingly good. I was more enamored with the Miller High Life pony bottle.

Shovel Time: Copacabana Brazilian Grill

In the last five years that I’ve lived alone, my interest in cooking has gone way down. Not into it after work, and not even into it as a Sunday project. Even when I force myself to make something Sunday night that sounds great (most recently, a Korean short rib stew) by two consecutive dinners and a lunch I’m sick of it. It’s only on the verge of moving that I’ve become ok with this. I’m not going to feel bad for relying on the completely reasonably priced restaurants in my neighborhood.


Which brings me to Copacabana, kind of like a low-rent churrascaria, which is very cost effective if you’re into meat trying to go light on carbs (I can’t give up bread!). I couldn’t justify buying ribs, pork belly, and prime rib just for a few slices.  On some nights the self-serve buffet is just ok (I’m sad when there is no chicharron) but on my recent visit it was great and had everything freshly replenished. There’s also a guy who cuts slices of around eight skewers of meat on a rotisserie. Most cuts are closer to well done than rare (and I’m sure you could ask for slices closer to the middle) but aren’t dry and flavorless at all.

There is green salad and toppings plus fried yuca (carby, whatever), plantains, beans, rice, and also multiple Brazilian dishes that I don’t know the names of like one with shrimp, mushrooms in a pinkish cream sauce, a black-eyed pea thing with ham and hard-boiled eggs that is almost like fried rice and I could eat a whole bowl of, and slightly odd cold dishes, one which looks like julienned beets from afar but is actually vinegary ham.

Anyway, you can be strategic and less dense items. If I’m correct, the meat is $9.99/lb and buffet and meat is $6.99/lb. The above takeout container’s contents cost around $12 (there’s more in there than it appears) and that was dinner and lunch the next day, which isn’t ridiculously cheap but totally reasonable considering I might spend $12 on a midtown sandwich when I go to the office.

Copacabana Brazilian Grill * 80-26 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, NY 

Un-American Activities: McDonald’s Japan EBI Filet-O


I’m not one of those McDonald’s nuts who has to pay a visit in any city, but it was late and the Marriott I was staying at for two nights in Osaka had a skybridge attached to the train station  with a McDonald’s on the other end that happened to be still open right as I was heading home. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

And the EBI Filet-O a.k.a. shrimp burger seemed to highlight the differences between American and Japanese tastes best. It’’s a classic, always on the menu, not a limited edition. Shrimp is a perfectly fine thing to make a patty out of, though this is more like a flattened croquette, crusted in panko and fried. The sauce was kind of tartar and kind of thousand island. For some reason in Japan, fried food doesn’t seem like an unhealthy choice.

These cheesy potato puffs, a.k.a. American Cheddar Potato, were part of an “American Deluxe” promotion. Less like tater tots, these were mashed potato mixed with cheese and fried. Yes, like another croquette.

I Do(nut)/Un-American Activities: Dominique Ansel Japan

She said yes! 💍 Honored to be a part of a special moment here at the Bakery, when Allen surprised his girlfriend Sam – not only did she not know he was going to be in Japan, but then he proposed to her with a ring hidden inside our Blossoming Hot Chocolate! Congratulations to Allen and Sam! Wishing you lots of love and hot chocolates for many years to come. #DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #shesaidyes #Omotesando プロポーズ大作戦! フィリピンからお越しのサムさん、何も知らずオーダーした花咲くホットチョコレートから輝くエンゲージリングが💍、そしてフィリピンにいるはずの彼のアレンさんがサプライズ登場!!✨ アレンさん、サムさん本当におめでとうございます㊗️いつまでもお幸せに!#ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #ドミニク #花咲くホットチョコレート #プロポーズ #表参道

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There is nothing un-American about using food in your public marriage proposal. I think it might’ve been one of the tenets our nation was founded on. So, I suppose it’s not that strange for someone to use a Blossoming Hot Chocolate for a “Will you marry me?” vehicle at a Tokyo branch of an NYC bakery helmed by a Frenchman. No idea on the nationality of the betrothed, though I think it’s a safe bet with names like Sam and Allen they are not Japanese.

I’ve never eaten a cronut before but I can’t resist seasonal, localized flavors so I did stop into the Omotesando location and order the November flavor, rose ganache, chestnut jam, even though floral edibles are not my bag. Also, the autumn religieuse, which turned out to be very pumpkin-y, just because it was so pretty.

Mr. Roboto buns, fake tomatoes, and more.

Our Oden Bûche de Noël, just in time for the holiday season here at @DABJapan. It’s inspired by our favorite kinds of oden! 🍢 The “Hampen” at the top is made with cheese cake, the braised egg in the middle is actually caramel with a yuzu mousse “yolk” inside, and the “Chikuwa” oden at the bottom is made with chestnut mousse. Available also as a mini version both @DABJapan Omotesando and Ginza Mitsukoshi.#DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #Omotesando #Ginza #Christmascake 今年も人気のおでんのようなブッシュドノエル🍢 上から、滑らかなチーズケーキで出来た はんぺん に、煮卵 はキャラメルとユズムースで黄身もしっかりと表現されています。そして 一番下の ちくわ はしっとり大人な味わいの栗のムースです🌰 #おでん #ブッシュドノエル 大きいサイズは表参道限定 ミニサイズは表参道、銀座店共に販売しています! 注目のオデンブッシュ、ぜひお試しください。 #ドミニク #ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #表参道 #銀座 #三越 #クリスマスケーキ

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Sadly, there was no trompe-l’œil oden on my visit, though it was cool enough for real oden to make an appearance elsewhere. I wonder how much usage the 🍢 emoji gets outside of non-Japanese world?

Shovel Time: Bar Masuda

I am a planner by nature, leaving little to chance or happenstance on vacations. I mean, I wander, but I often already have places in mind to eat or drink in the area I’m going. I didn’t, however, research drinks in Osaka. No idea why since I had a list of bars for Kyoto, none of which I ended up going to.

While joining the early evening crowds roaming Dotonbori, I did spy an unexpected fat-fetishy hostess bar, La Potcha Potcha, which is the kind of place I wouldn’t try to enter without prior research. Maybe I could write about it? Strangely, one of the only English language articles I found about it was in Vice from a few years back and it made it sound like white guys would be turned away, and definitely no women would be permitted. I don’t know if that’s true, but as a socially anxious lady, I wasn’t bold enough to test it out. I’ll never know if this was a missed opportunity. I’m no gonzo journalist.

But just down the street, there was a stone arch marking a non-flashy bar. It just seemed right, and by accident we stumbled into maybe the best bar in Osaka, Bar Masuda.

It had just opened so we had no problem getting a seat at the long narrow bar. There was a menu, which opened to a page that I think was meant to emphasize the importance of drinking water with your alcohol.

Osaka was the land of dubious drinking claims (though I’m not saying staying hydrated while drinking alcohol is dubious).

The menu also contained lists classic cocktails by primary spirit and Bar Masuda originals. Only titles were in English, ingredients were in Japanese so the so-called classics I’d never heard of like the King’s Valley or Emerald Cooler remained mysteries. Unlike in New York (or Tokyo, though Tokyo is surprisingly less expensive on many counts than NYC) the drinks were completely reasonably priced, many in the $10-$12 range.

There was a leg of what looked like serrano ham on the counter. This was promising.

It turned out to be Kagoshima Black pig, a local specialty, served in slices with cilantro, Japan by way of Spain.

And then I noticed a bunch of enamel pins high on a shelf, one of “Uncle Tory,” the ‘60s-style Suntory mascot, that I had just bought at the Yamazaki Distillery in Kyoto.

The bartenders were also wearing a few Bar Masuda pins on their lapels. I used my Google translate app to ask the young man behind the bar if I could possibly buy one. He went and got Mr. Masuda (son of the original Masuda) himself, silver suit jacket to match his hair, to come over. And just like everyone in Osaka, though we could only communicate in piecemeal English, he was chatty and generous. He reached down under the bar and pulled out a long piece of fabric with pins attached and gave me both that I had been asking about. Normally, this would call for a nice tip but no one even accepts them.

Boiled peanuts. I had no idea this was a thing in Japan.

When the lights dimmed and a pyrotechnic show started at the end of the bar, I was convinced to switch from my simple, well-made martini to a Blue Blazer. 

The drink really isn’t more than a hot toddy with scotch–at least in the US–but this version, a Blue Blazer II, added Grand Marnier and swapped lime for lemon. It is served warm in tin cup, heated by a flame that gets dramatically transferred from one metal mug to another as the liquor is poured from a great height. This is the specialty of the house, and I say it was worth the theatrics.

Bar Masuda * 2 Chome-3-11 Shinsaibashisuji, Osaka, Japan