Walking the mile

Dave Broom takes us to one of Osaka's many bars
By Dave Broom
Osaka is a fast-paced city whose relentless energy soon turns what was intended as a gentle stroll around a few bars into a crazy night of chat, laughter and great drinks.

Maybe, I reflect in the hotel later (much, much later), Osaka suffers, as does Glasgow, Birmingham, Boston, Lyon, etc. from Second City Syndrome, a large conurbation which is somehow always in the shadow of a more famous compatriot and, as a result, wants to prove itself. Second cities, it strikes me, do this through friendliness and going the extra distance to make you welcome. Great service is taken as given in Japan, what I found in Osaka was genuine warmth, pride and a sense of community.

Even this sprawling city, with its low-rise housing stretching seemingly to infinity, has a tight bartending network. On this visit, I was passed like the baton in a relay between bars by eager bar owners. “You’re not going to visit there?” said one barkeep, surprised that the itinerary didn’t include what would be seen in most other cities as a rival establishment. “You must go!.” So insistent he got one of his staff to guide me there.

There isn’t the more even-paced build which you get in Tokyo, here it’s lets-pack-as-much-into-life-and-the-evening-as-we-can. As a result, though I could smell food I never got a chance to sit down and eat nor, somehow, did I want to – it was sufficient to snatch some takoyaki (octopus balls, smothered in spring onions, sauce and mayonnaise) as fuel between bars, and settle down to some okonomiyaki (a rather delicious mess of fried stuff that performs the same mopping up function as pizza or kebab) at the end of the evening’s trawl.

The night had started at Royal Mile, where owner and bartender Shinya Imura welcomes me with open arms and a glass of 1975 umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) which tastes like a feral port, all sloe and marzipan.

I take a look around the large, bright, light-wooded 40-seater space. “I used to be an architect,” says Imura-san, smiling, explaining how he had long dreamed of giving up the building trade and opening a coffee shop before being bitten by the whisky bug... hard. “This,” he says looking at his range of 800 plus whiskies, “is my pachinko investment!”

He hasn’t however left his former profession behind. The whiskies are ordered according to bottler, by height and probably by other more subtle means, such as colour or pattern. There’s even a small display on the floor! (truly, Japanese bars operate in a different way to the rest of the world) of the malt of the month; Ardbeg at the time of the visit. I settle my excitement at such surroundings with a normal soda-wari (Yamazaki).

Despite being in a hostess bar district, Imura-san hasn’t noticed a downturn in trade, and though his clientele is slightly older (late 30s upwards) than in other whisky bars there are still plenty of new whisky converts coming to worship here. “I ask them what flavour they like and recommend from there,” he says, setting out a range of old Japanese blends for us. We shift between a 70s bottling of Suntory Old and Royal and the Kakubin 60th anniversary. A relaxing and civilised place whose ordered ranks of bottles help you to refocus.

Now, time for a quick plate of takoyaki before the next stop. This is Osaka.. who needs sleep?