Okonomimura Is a 3-Story Theme Park for Japanese Pancake Enthusiasts
Go inside Hiroshima's ode to okonomiyaki.
Neon billboards and animatronic signs—a giant crab, a karaoke singer—illuminate my steps as I stroll through a busy nightlife district in Hiroshima, Japan. I'm on the prowl for one of the city's specialties: okonomiyaki. And as is so often the case in Japan, neon lights are guiding my gaze upward, as my destination isn't spread out over a few blocks but is instead housed within the vertical expanse of an office building that would be nondescript if it wasn’t covered in cartoon characters.
It's not a single restaurant I'm looking for, but rather a village of them.
Sometimes described as an okonomiyaki theme park, Okonomimura is really a food hall with about two dozen vendors spread across three floors. The catch is that they all serve their own variations of a single dish. Imagine a multi-story food market in Philadelphia serving nothing but cheesesteaks from rival stores, or a skyscraper in New York with every variation of Ray's Pizza—famous and infamous, original and not—all under one roof.
Within Okonomimura, each shop is set up in more or less the exact same fashion, with an L-shaped counter in front of a griddle on which the okonomiyaki is cooked. This arrangement provides a bit of performance theater as hungry onlookers await their food. Meanwhile, the sounds and smells of its preparation fill the air as the okonomiyaki masters work their magic. Welcome to the Okonomi Village.
What is okonomiyaki, though?
Okonomiyaki is often described as a cabbage pancake, but in my mind, that description is inadequate. These are savory, countertop-grilled flavor bombs, with shredded cabbage providing a base to absorb various sauces and toppings. They're uber-customizable; the dish's name can literally be translated to “whatever you like grilled.”
Its origins date to the years following World War II, when cheap eats were in demand. “At first, people were able to eat simple foods with few ingredients, using flour sent as relief supplies from the US,” says Miyuki Shiwaku, a local tour guide in Hiroshima with Arigato Travel. She was referring to dishes such as issen-yoshoku, which was something like a prototype to okonomiyaki. Over time, cabbage and bean sprouts were added, and eventually, noodles, eggs, and meat, as well as signature flavors such as green onions, bonito flakes, and okonomiyaki sauce, a concoction often made with Worcestershire sauce and other ingredients such as oyster or soy sauce, ketchup, and sugar. Thus, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki was born.
Modern-day okonomiyaki is most commonly prepared on a long griddle running the length of a counter with patrons lining the outside and staff working the grill from the interior. It’s similar in concept to something like a teppanyaki restaurant. Larger shops may also have small tables with personal griddles on them. Each diner receives a spatula—really more of a metal putty knife you might find in a handyman's toolkit—to cut the okonomiyaki into pieces, and there's usually an assortment of sauces and seasonings to dole out at your own discretion.
The food is considered to be from Osaka, where all the ingredients are mixed together and then grilled, and there are no noodles. Made from a batter dumped onto a griddle, the idea of the okonomiyaki as a cabbage pancake is most apt there. But in Hiroshima, where this dish is perhaps even more loved, it's a whole different ball game. The city's okonomiyaki methodology veers more into the domain of crepes, in that there are distinct top and bottom layers loaded with fillings. “With Hiroshima-style, each ingredient is cooked layer by layer and noodles are put in as one layer,” Shiwaku says. Diners can choose between soba or udon noodles, with the vast majority opting for the former.
Shiwaku explains that the history of Okonomimura dates back to 1965, when the city banned unlicensed food stalls and open-air night vendors, so they simply moved indoors. They’re now housed within a licensed, two-story building with 14 shops. The current building was constructed in 1992, quickly becoming a wonderland filled to the brim with 23 vendors spread across three floors. There are dozens of other such places throughout food-mad Japan, including brand-led enterprises such as the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama and the Kewpie Mayo Terrace in Tokyo, as well as more organic celebrations of entire food groups, like Osaka's Takopa, or Takoyaki Park, which honors octopus fritters. “But Okonomimura is one of the top food theme park destinations for tourists in Japan,” she says.
Choosing where to go on an initial visit may feel intimidating. How are you supposed to sort through two dozen adjacent purveyors of the same dish? I simply went to the most highly rated outpost I could find, Ron Okonomiyaki, which sported a sterling 4.9 out of 5 stars via hundreds of Google reviews. (Its listing also included parenthetical information on how to find it.) I was sold, and after my first visit, I soon made several return trips that became more akin to daily pilgrimages.
The shop is run by Yukina Ninomiya, who has gone by the nickname of Ron since high school. Her bright, welcoming smile proved to be a major lure in the at-first bewildering environs of an office tower food village, and it wasn't long before we were toasting with highballs and posing for pictures. She’s run the shop since 2012, slings as many as 70 okonomiyaki per day, and seems to thrive on attention from international visitors.
Different shops offer unique flavor and topping combinations, or specialize in other local dishes and drinks they serve alongside the okonomiyaki. But sometimes the stars of the show may be the shop owners themselves, who've developed not only their own signature flavors but also their own legion of loyal devotees. “Each stall has a different personality depending on its owner,” says Kotaro Ninomiya, Ron's husband who sometimes helps translate for her. “Ron enjoys working in Okonomimura as she feels like she's traveling to foreign countries with all the guests coming from different parts of the world.”
At Ron, the always-smiling purveyor spreads a thin layer of batter and egg onto the grill. These will serve as the exterior layers of the dish, which she then goes on to stuff with a mound of cabbage and a layer of grilled noodles topped with bacon strips. Then come the specific, to-order toppings. Her specialties include options such as a tomato, cheese, and shiso-leaf okonomiyaki, which is much closer to a Japanese lasagna than it is to a cabbage pancake. Poached egg and potato salad toppings are also popular, and she offers signature drink specials as well. “Her homemade yuzu-jam mixed drinks have also been a hit as of late,” Ninomiya says.
Shiwaku, the Hiroshima tour guide, has two favorite vendors—Suigun and Teppei—on the third floor. “First of all, they both serve good okonomiyaki and you can add yummy, spicy sauce by yourself,” she says. “The lady of Suigun, who is over 80 years old, is very charming. She doesn’t speak English, but she tries communicating with customers using gestures or some simple English words.”
A meal at an okonomiyaki shop is like dinner and a show, which hopefully includes a few laughs shared among new, local friends. On my first outing to Ron, I met Yoshi, a visitor from Tokyo. He practiced a fantastically precise system of cutting up tiny squares of okonomiyaki one at a time, before eating each bite straight off the spatula. His station was pristine; mine was a mess. On my next, during lunchtime on the weekend, a local patron plowed through a handful of drinks in half an hour, encouraging me to keep pace—much to my chagrin, and to Ron’s delight, of course. "Most times when people go out to eat, they only get the finished dish, and don't get to actually watch the chef cook," Ninomiya says. You'll get all that and more during a visit to Okonomimura. So pull up a stool and dig into some “whatever you like grilled” in a multi-story, snack-food theme park that you can absolutely only find in Japan.