Ultimate Osaka Shiitake Mushroom and Izakaya Guide with 5 Original Recipes

shiitake izakaya dish
shiitake in izakaya in Osaka

Over the last one hundred years Shiitake, or ‘poor man’s matsutake’ have taken first place in the world of edible Japanese mushrooms. Shiitake have a thick, wide cap from two to five inches in width. The caps are of a light cream to chocolate brown color contrasting with their pale undersides and off-white stems. Known as the ‘fragrant mushroom’, they are best known for the earthy, woody taste they impart to dishes in tandem with a steak-like toothiness making them a perfect substitute for meat. Often used in soups, hot pots, steamed, grilled, or fried, monks of the Zen sect found long ago that forest grown shiitake best enhance other flavors of shorin-ryori, temple food, better known as vegetarian cuisine. It is often served in izakaya.

Sale/export-grade shiitake in dried form

Today, in our ever-enlightened state of Umami, we know that shiitake contain a natural occurring chemical compound called Guanylate. This unique compound contains super umami-boosting properties that interact with the glutamates contained in nearly all foods. The process by which they interact seem to enhance other foods’ potential such that every ingredient creates an exquisite symphony of flavor.

Sold fresh or dried, the latter possessing the most concentrated umami, both play different roles in Japanese cuisine. In recent years, shiitake mushrooms have expanded their culinary roles not just in Asian cuisine, but in Russian and European cuisine as well. In Osaka’s vast Izakaya (Japanese style pubs) nightlife, this humble food is a major hit, pairing well with drink, otsumami (finger foods paired with drink), and other dishes.

This article will explore the history of fungi in Japan, the rise to fame and popularity of shiitake, the world’s second largely exported mushroom, and a few secrets on how to source, pick, or grow your own for your very own table. Before we dive into all thing’s shiitake, feel free to scroll closer to the bottom for a few great izakaya to access and even a few great recipes to try for yourself!

Dried mini shiitake mushrooms upon a drying rack
(Photo credit: gov-online.go.jp.english archives)

A Hated Favorite

As a child, if most of us had ten friends, nine out of ten on average loathed mushrooms! If you were like me and had parents like mine, yours couldn’t buy, beg, borrow, or steal a single trick in the book to lure you into mushrooms, no matter how well prepared, nor cleverly concealed!


My mother’s late autumn “go-to meal” was steak coated in mushroom sauce. We either raised our own beef or had it raised for us in those days but alas, all my mother knew was a broiler. My father’s lament was well known: “She can kill a steak twice!” She found that she could levy the balance by whipping up a thick, brown sauce with mushrooms and French onion. My father’s complaints quelled; my earliest memories are being kept long hours at the table “Until you eat every bit of that!” To this day, a steak thrown upon a plate like boot leather holds absolutely zero appeal for me.

As for mushrooms, these days it’s a different story! Those ten friends if interviewed today? We might find seven of the ten- on average- have turned in favor of mushrooms. Somehow into adulthood somebody had worked their culinary magic and changed the minds and tastes of those of us dead set against mushrooms!

Born Again

For me, it was Wyoming at age twenty-two. Just back from a long tour in Japan and newly appointed to Francis E. Warren Airbase, I was introduced to a Chief Master Sergeant in my section living in the pine-forested hills northwest of Laramie.

He and his Japanese wife, Setsuko, and her network of other Japanese and Korean wives were avid matsutake, or pine mushroom, hobbyists. They would find, collect, slice, dry, and package the highly aromatic matsutake for sale overseas in Japan and Korea. One large-sized, densely packed coffee tin would bring $1000.00 U.S.! Before long, I would be invited to bivouac with three other families on their annual hunt!

Being peak season in late October, we hunted and picked wild matsutake nonstop for three days in miles of forested backland inhabited only by the wild. “Either we get them first, or the deer and bear get them,” beamed Setsuko.

Matsutake (photo credit: AZ Animals)

She taught me how to detect a slight rise in the pine needle bed under the trees, how to work it from its soil bed without breaking, how to smell test for a slight pine varnish scent to insure it was genuine. Often one will find an odorless, poisonous imposter within the same bed. “No smell, no go!” she’d say. We would bend, dig, pick, smell, and fill our leather pouches. Then moving slowly, repeat the process, ever crouching over the landscape.

When we dragged our haul back to camp, I was treated to the delightful taste of these fresh-sliced matsutake fried in butter and a few shards of wild garlic. Nothing from the fungi world I’d ever had up to that point has come so close to heaven. I was a convert!

What are Fungi?

Are mushrooms a plant? An animal? That’s a tricky question! They don’t have leaves, flowers, seeds, nor do they produce any fruit! What can we call these then? Fungi!! Fungi rate as a kingdom all of their own! With the inability to ingest food and convert that to energy as animals do, and lacking the ability for photosynthesis which plants use to convert sun energy to food, fungi are a considered a group. This group consists of yeasts, molds and mushrooms by which spores coat a substrate such as tree bark or decaying matter such as tree trunks, fallen trees, and cut logs.

These spores send out mycelium- a network of threadlike roots that penetrate and spread throughout the substrate and often the entire forest floor. This rooting cell system finds its nutrition in its host. Mushrooms are simply the ‘fruiting body’ as well as spore-shedding reproduction system of rooting mycelium. Fungi, including mushrooms, are responsible for an important part of the ‘decomposition’ stage within the eco system cycle.

Japan is home to over 5,000 varieties of mushrooms, 100 of which are edible. Of this 100, there are around 10 average species sold seasonally or for year-round sale: maitake, bunashimeji, enoki, hiratake, eringi, nameko, kikurage, white (button) mushroom, shiitake and matsutake.

Japan’s Long History with Fungi

Since ancient times, various types of fungi have been regarded as an integral part of the autumnal bounty in Japan. Mushrooms have been a staple of culinary applications and revered for medicinal, ritualistic, and existential purposes. Commonly called kinoko or take/dake depending on the substrate they grow upon, (Take grow upon the forest floor. Kinoko can only grow on trees.) these fungi have a long-recorded and varied history throughout Japan.

Ceramic mushrooms-Jomon Period (Photo credit: gov-online.go.jp.english archives)

Excavated pottery and earthenware castings of mushrooms dating as far back as the prehistoric late Jomon Period (3,000 – 2400 BCE) show evidence of the widespread ritual use and worship of mushrooms, particularly kinoko. Earthenware mushroom imitations made from clay were unearthed in the Ise-Dotai ruins of Akita prefecture dating back to 2000 BC.

Guardians of ritualistic mushrooms- Jomon Period (Photo credit: gov-online.go.jp.english archives)

While it seems clear the attitude of reverence held by the people of the Jomon period for mushrooms, there is no singular timeline recording mushrooms as a familiar food source. Haiku written about Japanese mushrooms (along with Tanka pictographs of 7th century aristocrats on Mt. Takaen in Nara, mushroom hunting) are found within the Man’yoshu, or “The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”. This famous manuscript is the oldest known existing anthology of Japanese poetry and literature from the Nara Period, 8th century. It has other direct references to mushrooms.

In “The Collection of Gleanings of Japanese Poetry”, the Shui- Wakashu, both matsutake and hiratake were not only consumed as special food at banquets, but often given as gifts or souvenirs, obviously both prized edibles in the Heian Period.

The 11th century folktale collection, “Tales of Long Ago”, Konjaku Monogatari, recalls a story of a group of forest-bound woodcutters who happen upon a group of Buddhist nuns singing and dancing through the depths of the forest. They confessed they had eaten maitake, [mai,” dance”; take, “mushroom”] an account that alludes to the psychoactive properties of certain mushrooms. The nuns shared some with the wood cutters who themselves could not resist dancing and singing!

In the Edo period cookbook, “This Breakfast Guide”, a document meant to ‘spread the awareness handed down by our ancestors’, praised seven main mushrooms: matsutake, maitake, hiratake, enokitake, shiitake, kotake, and shoro, or “false truffles”. Cooking methods mentioned reveal that in any era, the method of cooking mushrooms was mainly soup, simmered hot-pots, fried food, and grilled food. While there is no definitive clue as to just when mushroom consumption began in Japan, it is generally believed that consumption began around 3-4,000 years ago, while mass cultivation began around 400 years ago in the Edo Period (1603- 1838).

7th Century Man’yōshū : Aristocracy mushroom hunting on Mt. Taiken, Nara, Japan Photo Credit: Hokuto-Kinoko.co.jp

Early Consumption: Mushrooms Over Meat

Edible mushrooms have been valued worldwide since the earliest part of human history. The Greeks believed soldiers readying for battle were strengthened by mushrooms. Romans believed mushrooms to be the “Food of the Gods.” Chinese culture has hailed them as “The elixir of life.”

Winter shiitake
Winter shiitake with fibrous mycelium “Bark”

Today, mushrooms are considered a powerhouse of healthy, cholesterol and fat-free, nutritional benefits. They are low in calories, carbohydrates, sodium, and fat, yet rich in an abundance of vitamin D, potassium, selenium, niacin, riboflavin, proteins, and fiber. Many other nutraceutical properties found in mushrooms are extolled for their healing and medicinal benefits as well as prevention or treatment of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, hypertension, and risk of stroke.

In the ninth century, Japanese emperor Saga passed a law against the killing of animals and the consumption of their meat (aside only from fish and certain fowl). Thanks to the nutrient rich, umami packed, and almost meaty texture, many mushrooms became a delectable substitute- and have remained a savory addition to Japanese cuisine ever since. Valued for their fragrance, woodsy flavor and texture, mushrooms are known as one of the main umami ingredients of the vegetarian, Buddhist-inspired ‘enlightened diet’ or keihatsu sareta shokuji. Many types of mushrooms are a main ingredient of vegetarian shojin-ryori, known in the early days simply as ‘temple food’ before vegetarian food was a revered class of its own.

“Hush, hush! Never tell the secret places you find your mushrooms, not even to your own son!”

-A Japanese Proverb.
Emperor Saga (嵯峨天皇, Saga-tennō, October 3, 786 – August 24, 842) was the 52nd emperor of Japan Photo Credit: En.Wikipedia.org

Cultivation of Take

So precious are forest floor mushrooms, this old Japanese saying admonishes farmer’s foraging wives to keep them secret! In years past, most edible mushrooms in Japan were available only in autumn and collected by hand. Many varieties not growing on trees were collected from the forest floor or fallen, decaying matter.

Over the last 200 years, though mushrooms are still sought out by avid collectors, artificial cultivation has taken the place of foraging. Through trial and error, processes of elimination, setbacks and successes, farmers began to realize the ability to grow their own mycelium roots by mimicking substrate from the forest floor.

Mushrooms on cube substrate mimicking the forest floor logs or pieces of logs

Grown upon substrate such as tree shavings, nutrient infused saw dust, wet, dichotomous organic matter, and dry matter such as rice bran, buckwheat, grain, foxtails, hay, and so on, this process spawned the original bacterial bed cultivation- for growing take. This substrate is often set up upon thatched shelves and stacked upon each other like bunk beds.

Wood chips mixed with bran, buckwheat, meal, and other dry matter to be bound with organic material as a base materiel for Bacterial bed (artificial) mushroom cultivation.

Artificial cultivation of mushrooms using techniques that mimic their natural environment, is the sole reason the mushroom industry exists in such hiatus today. It has kept many breeds intact, while spawning many more. Mating of monokaryotic mycelia by a process called hyphal fusion has become the typical method to breed new strains of mushrooms. This allows farmers to capitalize on mushrooms size, color, and abundance.

Many types of popular mushrooms are now available for year-round sale thanks to such cultivation techniques. Bumper crops have ensued with farmers making available for domestic export the year round the ‘top eight’ mushrooms commonly sold: bunashimeji, enoki, hiratake, eringi, nameko, kikurage, and–last but not least- shiitake.

A wide variety of mushrooms can be sourced cheaply and easily year round

Let’s talk Shiitake!

In modern day Japan, the king of the winter season -if we push matsutake aside – is shiitake (Lentinula Edodes), ‘Fragrant mushroom’ of the deciduous bark of the Shii (Castaneoideae) tree -thus its name-and other hardwood trees such as hornbeam, chestnut, saw-tooth oak, poplar, and other chinquapins. Shiitake grow in clusters. Native to East Asia, the shiitake is the second most cultivated fungi in the world after button mushrooms, (white mushrooms).

Late season shiitake with “turtleback” caps

Hailed as ‘The poor man’s matsutake,’ shiitake vary from light to chocolate-brown contrasting with their pale under caps. The stems are a cream to off-white color, often with a furry, fibrous mycelium membrane as the nights grow colder. Also, with the cold end of season, they develop a creased tortoiseshell top – prized for its design in culinary dishes.

Nama (raw) shiitake: to wash or not to wash? It is recommended to give a light rinse then pat dry to preserve the woody aroma

A true kinoko, shiitake are unique in that they are unable to grow upon the ground. Forest-grown shiitake naturally harvested come in various shapes and are named by grade. Donko and Koshin shiitake are the main type sold throughout Japan. These are harvested from the same type of shiitake but each at different timing of maturity. Shiitake picked at the height of their individual season at different stages of the umbrella cap closed or just opening are the most desired for their very concentrated medicinal and umami properties.

Donko therefore refers to shiitake gathered before the mushroom can fully open up and bloom. Donko is thicker, chewier, and has a deeper, meatier aroma but much smaller in size and appearance than Koshin. Koshin has a more brilliant fragrance, but has a larger, flatter umbrella. As a general classification, less than 70% of shiitake umbrellas open or bloomed are donko while greater than 70% are koshin. The most superior on the grading scale are the very small, closed capped nami-nami donko. These donko naturally fetch the highest price on the market.

The word “donko” comes from the Chinese word for “winter” harvested mushrooms. Forest-grown shiitake are harvested twice a year: spring and fall, at times two to three times per season. However, donko gathered mainly (mixed with koshin) from December to April, having grown through the cold months make these true winter mushrooms. On the other hand, the autumn harvest produces a few donko, and most are koshin. The larger koshin harvest is due to the higher temperatures, which mature the mushrooms more quickly, making them larger. Today, this process is extended into winter by cultivating them inside warmer tents.

The history of shiitake mushroom cultivation is said to have started as recently as 400 years ago during the Edo period. Believed that spores dropped and proliferated from mature clusters of shiitake, new cultivars were produced by placing rotting timbers next to fallen, decaying trees with known populations of existing shiitake. Farmers also cut limbs and logs, placing them against producing trees to catch the fallen spores.

Records of first mass cultivation began with the famous story of Gembei in Bungo province in Oita prefecture. Gembei was an old farmer who baked limbs and logs of trees over fire to make and sell charcoal. He discovered shiitake growing wild within ruts and crags upon his stored charcoal. Realizing it must be wind that placed millions -if not billions -of spores along a broader range, he asked himself, “What if shiitake could be produced artificially?”

Early hodaba (Photo Credit: Wikipedia.jp)
A 3~4year old hodaba, a walkway of cut branches, mycelium threadlike roots from the forest floor overtake and find energy in their artificially constructed host
(Photo credit: gov-online.jp)

Genbei used a “scratch method” whereby many scratches and wedges were sawn or cut into the bark of cut logs, stacked together to “catch” spores. Imagine Gembei’s surprise at his newly sprouted crop within a mere few years! This turning of the tide was the birthplace of mass, artificial production of tree borne kinoko such as shiitake.
As word spread faster than spores, farmers near and far mimicked Genbei’s techniques. Cultivation tripled and with it, advances in cultivation techniques. Over the next few hundred years, specially cleared areas of forest called Hodaba evolved. The hodaba was usually placed under or around trees or fallen trees that produced shiitake. Logs of Japanese saw-tooth oak or other hard wood varieties were set against horizontally raised poles called Hodagi within each Hodaba. These logs were scored or pitted with holes or hatchet creases creating a sort of ‘ledge’ for potential kinoko to grow upon. Spores thereby would spread to those surfaces and proliferate.

shiitake spore
“Scratch method” by which shiitake spores naturally make their way into cuts made in the bark (Photo credit: SHUN-GATE)
Modern day Hodaba- an area of forest cleared with cut logs stacked in a way in which to allow forest floor mycelium to spread naturally throughout the vertical log substrate
Photo credit: Shiitake-Himeno.com

The hodaba is still the preferred method of cultivation today producing the most prized shiitake born in a natural environment of light, air, and humidity. After an incubation period of 1~2 years, mushrooms are produced for 4-6 years, usually with a single harvest in spring, and a double harvest in fall. Logs are recycled and replaced with nutrient rich logs at the end of each cycle. Not much has changed in the past hundred years except the method by which spores make their way into logs or other substrate.

Stacked Log Hodaba; artificial bulk shiitake cultivation (Photo credit: gov-online.go.jp.englisharchives)

Inoculation: From Axe to Drill

Spore catching techniques since the old days remained somewhat unpredictable until 1943 when Kisaku Mori, an agricultural student from Kyoto University, developed a highly successful method. In the Mori technique, the fungus was grown on pre-sterilized wood chips. The chips were covered with a pure culture of the fungus then used as inoculum by placing them directly into axe cuts or into holes drilled into logs.

Today, prepackaged inoculated inserts abound. Drilling nearly fifty holes per log, professionals use a handheld hammer slotter to insert a ‘spawn plug’. When hit in the back, this instrument slots the shot of inoculated spawn plugs perfectly in each hole. The logs last about 3-4 years before running their course and are stacked for recycling.

Export grade shiitake
Dried and reconstituted shiitake soaked in water
(Photo credit: gov-online.go.jp.english archives)

Modern Day Export

Shiitake both fresh and dried are the major edible mushroom in Japan and have been since the early 1930`s. Prewar records dating back to 1935 indicate that a whole 2000 tons were being exported in that year and every year up to 1940. A natural lull in production and export occurred in Japan during war-torn years 1941~ 1945 but by 1949 they were back up to around 1000 tons production and up to 1400 tons by 1950. Skip forward 28 years to 1978, the industry employed 188,000 people, exported 10,000 tons, and generated $1.1 billion in retail sales. Dried shiitake became Japan’s major agricultural export.

Japan’s exports were highly prized through the seventies and late eighties however, wholesale exports from Chinese markets began to dominate in the nineties with prices far below average. Japanese companies on the international exchange have become fewer since. Lucky for us here in Osaka and throughout Japan, a booming domestic market still thrives!

Packaged bacterial bed substrate shelved in tiers complete with misters and temperature control at Hokuto-Kinoko

These days the mushroom industry is run by a handful of small farms and more than a handful of large conglomerates such as Oita prefecture’s OSK. These companies mass produce by shelving vast beds of mushrooms or cube substrate of kinoko upon multi-tiered shelves. These are equipped with misters and temperature control devices. About all the professionals must do is watch them grow and pick them at just the right time!

Pick your own in Osaka!

While a wide array of mushrooms is found in abundance at any supermarket or roadside farmers markets in Osaka, for those of you wishing to pick your own, we have good news! There are two farms within about an hour of each other that both offer picking opportunities to the general public!

Takatsuki, Osaka: Takatsuki Shiitake Mushroom Center

Takatsuki Shiitake Mushroom Center

In the hill country north of Osaka Kita Ku, Takatsuki City’s Shirin Kanko Center houses a fairly spacious shiitake farm.
Visitors can learn about shiitake, pick their own (100g for ¥300), and either take home or opt to barbecue them at the
restaurant located within the center. A great day trip for kids!

  • Location: 〒 569-1002 Takatsuki Shinrin Kanko Center, 2 Oazatano, Koazamatodani , Takatsuki-shi, Osaka
  • Tel.: 072-688-9359
  • Hours: Open weekdays 10:00-15:00 except Tuesdays (unless a national holiday falls on Teusday), New Year’s holidays (12/27 – 1/5), and weekends 10:00-16:00.
  • Parking available.
  • Directions: Located a 5-minute walk from Shinrin Senta-mae bus stop via city bus from Takatsuki Station on the JR Kyoto Line
  • URL: https://www.kinokos.net/

Mino City’s Todoromi; Kawanishi-En Orchard

Pay-to-Pick shiitake in Mino, Osaka’s northernmost neighborhood-Kawanishi -en Orchard
Mino city’s Kawanishi – en Orchard

“A region of vast and rich nature”, Kawanishi- En Gardens encourages visitors to try potato digging and shiitake.
picking on their own! The park boasts a spacious BBQ area where supplies can be rented, or you can bring your own to
grill what you pick.

  • Location: 563-0251 492 Todoromi, Mino, Osaka
  • Tel.: 072-739-0609
  • Hours: Weekends ONLY 10:00-1600.
  • Parking: Available.
  • RESERVATIONS: Necessary only for shiitake picking. Please reserve three days in advance!
  • Directions: Kaminosho bus stop via Hankyu bus from Ikeda Station on the Hankyu railway.

D.I.Y.’ers Grow Your Own!

D.I.Y.ers, grow your own in Osaka

For those of a DIY nature into shiitake and other mushrooms, you too can create your own hodaba! To purchase or cut your own logs, run down to the nearby home center or order online, cut logs (pre-drilled or drill-your-own- the former a bit pricier), a package of pre-inoculated cork or sponge ‘plugs’, drill your holes and push the plugs in! Your author started his own hodaba nearly 16 years ago. Various types of tree- borne kinoko can be grown with plugs.

Author’s personal Hodaba in the woods of Southeastern Osaka, a close look reveals holes drilled which follow a pattern the author illustrates below
Tap in plug inserts of spawn inoculate into Japanese sawtooth oak logs
(Photo credit: o-ism.com)

For the bacterial bed enthusiast, a wide variety are able to be grown at home. These too can be done at home by the beginner home grower. Homemade substrate using things such as ground sesame and buckwheat, rice bran, a dark organic soil mulch, and a binder. Instead of putting these in a bed or shelf form, you can grow them simply in plastic-lined recycled foam ramen cups! Or better, buy the mixed substrate as seen below in bag or box form, add water, let it do its thing! Instructions are provided stipulating just how many days or weeks you will begin to see mushrooms.

Try these video links below to see more on this process: the first video is Day 1~2, the second is Day 3~7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIQltqP17Cc

【アメリカ生活~栽培編】マッシュルーム栽培 Day2~Mushroom Grow Kit – YouTube

Author’s rendition of a proper drilling schematic for placing holes on self-drilled logs
Plug spawn insert set complete with depth-controlled drill bit.
(Photo credit: O-ism.com)
Inoculated spawn ‘plug’ inserts
Bag substrate premixed with spores and a binding starter agent. (Photo credit: gov-online.go.jp.english archives)
IWADE DIY kinoko kit
Grow your own kinoko

Run, Don’t Walk! Four Restaurants Serving up Delicious Shiitake Dishes in Osaka

Choosing four izakaya Japanese style pubs, from far north Osaka, up town, middle-south town, and far (deep) south, we were curious as to how the menus by area might differ in size, preparation, presentation, and flavor. As simply divine as shiitake truly are, let’s just say we were pleasantly surprised. While there are countless ways to prepare these, we found that anywhere we chose to go, either pan fried, grilled, or deep fried was the holy grail when paired with drink. And come on, who doesn’t enjoy a hot fry-up with a cold beer? While the methods of cooking these shiitake were close to the same, on a micro level, looked at closely through the glass, each indeed differed and represented a variety of possibilities, fusion, and flavor within the frying/grilling game.

IZAKAYA: Awaya (JR Awaji) あわや

Address: 4 Chome-33-22 Higashiawaji, Higashiyodogawa Ward, Osaka, 533-0023.

Tel:06-6160-0050. Open: Mon-Fri 13:00-21:00; Sat, Sun: 12:00-21:00.

The cook is in his kitchen!! Nobuyuki Tanaka of Awaya serves up his signature take on shiitake: golden delicious shiitake tempura.

The train station in northern Osaka’s Awaji sits high upon her ground, a stone fortress in the clouds. When you jump out the gate from Awaji’s raised platform, take the steps down. If on the west side, tunnel under the bridge to the east side, back up to the road, you’ll find the east-side arcade running north to south. Travel north until the arcade plays out within two blocks or so, hook a right. Go to the main road hook another right, walk down 100 meters and Awaji’s gem, AWAYA is waiting to welcome you.

Nobuyuki Tanaka, proprietor, set this shop up with his private network a few years back. The newest and hottest watering hole in Awaji, Awaya is an extension of the izakaya he worked at for years in Tenma:Ginzaya. Flowing white beard, hair tied back, buttoned into a suit vest and oshare, stylish sleeves, the cook is in his kitchen!

All menus are meticulously hand-written, with over 100 different options to choose from, the food cooked to perfection, and the beers ice cold on tap. Tanaka-San was a part of the free spirit movement in the sixties and travelled extensively on Route 66 in his twenties. With a very able grasp on English, a ready smile, and an amicable, welcoming air about him, Tanaka-San is the epitome of an OLD SHOWA MASTER in any izakaya, to say the least of his own, AWAYA.

A tradition carried over from his years at Ginzaya, proprietor Nobuyuki Tanaka handwrites all of his menus for Awaya.

Tanaka-San welcomed us to come up and try his different approach to shiitake. Enthusiastically obliging, we hopped on the Metro from Tengachaya,(K20) on the (K) Sakai Suji Line. In no time at all we were passing Tenjinbashisuji 6-chome (K11), the point past which the subway becomes a regular train operating on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. From there, Awaji is a mere two stops and only costs an additional fifty yen to adjust your ticket upon exit.

Tanaka-San was in fine form with a full place. We enjoyed drinks with other patrons and waited for our shiitake surprise. Tanaka-San wouldn’t let us see them until he handed the dish over the counter – what you see in the picture is what we saw.  I gave a start because they were not the medium to large size we’d been hunting! They were so small I thought they were escargots! “Wow, Tanaka-San! What in the world of fungi are these?!”

“Here at Awaya, and anywhere in KITA (Northern Osaka~<onset> Kyoto) we prize the small over the large,” Tanaka replies, a grin spread ear to ear. “They MUST be small, barely opened and they MUST be tempura! There is no other way we prefer to eat these, no better way to enjoy the earthy goodness of these small prizes. There is no other way we would consider them better than THIS! Crisp outside, soft and flavorful inside, our take on heaven! that’s how we do these. Eat up! Eat them hot!”

Matthew Kaufman reads an Awaya menu
Wes Wesson and The Man

True to his word, they were a delightful take on shiitake. Extremely earthy, woody, intensely aromatic, the tops brittle and crispy, the insides so soft and hot enough to melt on your tongue! Tanaka’s batter is a handmade tempura batter with cornstarch, making a light batter coating and a crispy, delicate finish. Exquisite! A very gourmet play on these, I emphatically recommend these with a mug of sake or hot, oyuwari shochu. Thank you, Tanaka-San! We’re definitely coming back for more!

The Master: Nobuyoshi Tanaka doing it the old school way.
Golden deep-fried mini shiitake in an in-house conceived batter.

IZAKAYA: Azuki Iro no Marcus, Temma あずき色のマーカス

Address: 4 Chome-12-11 Tenjinbashi, Kita Ward, Osaka, 530-0041. Tel. N/A. Open: 15:30-24:00 (L.O. drinks 23:00), daily. Closed New Year.

IZAKAYA: Azuki Iro no Marcus

Duck into the shotengai, arcade, in Temma for the best kept secret since Grandma’s apple pie! Azuki No Iro Marcus awaits you!

Many standing bar izakaya are known to have a simple, hard, blue collar, working man’s vibe that seem to yell out over the crowd, “Step off the moving cars for one at our place! Lay your worries aside, and your money down! HERE is where you can forget about the grind for a time, step up to the counter, boys! Wash thine troubles away!” Traditionally, the izakaya has been a working man’s world. Azuki Iro no Marcus proves otherwise; this restaurant is very popular with women of all ages. An ‘F’ for ‘free’, one size fits all, Team Marcus has something everyone seems to love.

Menu at Azuki Iro no Marcus

Says one male reviewer on Tabelog: “My date and I went into Marcus on a whim. Seeing ‘standing bar’ on the sign, I entered hesitantly only to be pleasantly surprised. The place was nicely decorated and full of a younger female crowd enjoying the tradition of standing bar as if they were born to it! One side of the menu was totally dedicated to sake. Brands from all over the country! Right up our alley! I tried one from the hometown of the woman I was with, Nagasaki, and was very pleased. The menu was beautifully prepared and reasonable. The dishes were delicious, and the drinks were like home. The atmosphere seemed to be a great place for women who might be trying standing bars for their first time. Besides, my date and I could thoroughly enjoy sake paired with exquisitely prepared dishes, not so huge in volume but packing a big punch in taste. I love Marcus!”

The entrance way to Azuki Iro no Marcus
Izakaya enthusiast since the late seventies, Tatsuya Inaoka

Known around the town and well versed on all things Osaka nightlife, Tatsuya “Tats” Inaoka originally put Azuki Iro no Marcus on our radar. “You’ve got to try that place! We were just there, we ordered the shiitake mushrooms with cheese,” says Tats, an Izakaya standing bar enthusiast since the late seventies. “I like them a lot. It seems that Marcus is famous for their mackerel saba sandwich however, I’ve never tried it. At least, not yet! As you know, Japanese people like glutamic acid. I’m one of them. That [ingredient] is included in shiitake mushroom a lot. And it goes well with soy sauce and cheese. All Osaka people love such kind of dishes.”

 In the beginning of March, my friends Matt, Jake and I decided to take Tatsuya’s advice and hit Azuki no Marcus for ourselves to celebrate our friend Mike’s birthday. Within about 150 meters we found the front door to Marcus down a rock paved path just off the main arcade. The place was packed! After a short wait, were offered the best standing ‘seats’ in the whole house!  An old, refurbished hutch from times past around which four grown men could stand and enjoy their very own waist high “bar”!  

In the house: Matt, Wes, Mike, Jake
“How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your…. greens???”

Throughout the night, upon that countertop, bottles of Sapporo Black Star beer and plate after plate of some of the finest offerings were placed and quickly devoured.  Of particular interest was their 100- yen feature: a champagne flute housing sprigs of Japanese mustard leaf, komatsuna, served with a thimble of spiced olive oil and herb.

The place was packed with a fun loving, jovial crowd, both male, female, and quite a few couples.  The retro style of the place in tandem with old refurbished Japanese furniture had Mike saying, “Now THIS is a place I like!”

  The very first dish we ordered and savored most was the very same shiitake dish Tatsuya had told us we had to try!  In one word?  AMAZING! Pan steam- fried in sake, ponzu citrus soy, truffle butter, glutamic acid, quartered and tossed in the pan again, plated and garnished in grated shards of parmesan, the shiitake are a perfect pairing with a sweet, smooth glass of sake or an ice-cold tankard of ale! Thoroughly impressed, we will be seeing more of Azuki Iro no Marcus real soon!

Look Ma, Parmesan
A very merry evening at Azuki Iro no Marcus

 IZAKAYA: Hige to Boin, Taisho 大正サロン髭とボヰン

Address: 1 Chome-5-14 Sangenyahigashi, Taisho Ward, Osaka, 551-0002.

Tel; N/A Open: Every day 15:00-24:00.

(A thirty second walk from Taisho station west exit, north side of the station!)

Hige to Boin

We dropped in cold call on this cozy little place with twin smiling, beautiful servers behind the bar. “What can we get ya?” A trendy startup following in the footsteps of time past, for the young chefs and servers at Hige to Boin, fusion is the name of the game!

The izakaya, which is named after a song by Japanese rock band Unicorn, serves the same time told Osakan delights such as karaage, buta-kimchi, eggplant, and shiitake but with their own twist. The Shiitake served here are a perfect 2L size. Keeping the stem intact, one cut is made down the middle of the stem to the back of the cap- but not through it completely. Next, a similar cut is made in the opposite direction like a cross.