First of all a huge round of thanks for those who contributed to the various questions I posted prior to my Kansai trip, as well as those who created past threads on the areas of interest.
In short, Kansai was extremely interesting and eye opening for me from a visitor and food standpoint.
We stayed at a condo via air BnB, close to Awaza station (Osaka), and just on the same block as the condo were various eateries. Kinguemon 金久右衛門 is a well established chain ramen shop in Osaka and apparently has won #1 best Shoyu Ramen (Osaka area) 3 years in a row. Tasted at least 3 of their menu offerings and found all of them enjoyable (and I really dislike ramen in San Francisco Bay Area where I live). Gyoza very solid and really enjoyed the Asahi dry (brewed locally) that just made me shudder at the Canadian brewed versions back home.
Just a minute walk away was a local izakaya called "Shin" (heart) and while they didn't speak much English I asked waitress to read out some of the menu items (particularly the ones highlighted as specialty) and we enjoyed all of them. Karashi Renkon age was a huge hit...almost grey colored lotus root, where the holes are filled with Japanese mustard and lightly fried. Not oily at all, very standard neighborhood technique and extremely effective. Had our very first taste of horse meat sashimi (basashi) which was thinly sliced (apparently well marbled) with onions, ginger, scallions, almost tattaki like. Then we continued our munchfest and went to another eatery that specialized in fish cuisine, which was dirt cheap and bustling with customers (opens from 6 pm to 3 am). Sashimi, salt grilled fish, braised/stewed (kinmedai nitsuke was earth shattering, like an exacting braise, very little excess sauce but incredible flavor). It is interesting that most of the local draft beers are Kirin, very light but still tasted very good.
Our condo landlord/host tried to book Saeki for us, which is rated #1 on tabelog (and top 500 within the country) of best sushi (also best in Osaka), but the establishment would only accept Japanese speaking customers. We then tried for #2 on tabelog which was 鮨処 平野 (Sushisho Hirano) coincidentally in the Kitashinchi area. The reservation was made in the private room and we enjoyed the omakase which was to me ridiculous value compared to sushi in California (I looked at my credit card and even with add on's, came to only US$176!!!) Stellar shirauo appetizer, grilled sake kasu which went great with our Junmai Daiginjo, a small portion of delectable Matsuba gani (snow crab 松葉蟹) with kani miso, awesome shirako, a Kujira (whale) course of tongue, bacon, and blubber tail with su-miso, a nimono course of daikon, kuro awabi, and octopus (blew us away), sashimi and nigiri course, plus adding on 5 more nigiri, strawberries for dessert, and the standard green tea and hoji-cha.
Two kaiseki dinners....Hana Kitcho and Kichisen. Kichisen was far superior hands down, and even cheaper! I have a new found respect for kaiseki and absolutely was ruined for life (whatever "kaiseki" we have in Northern California is never going to measure up). Had two different kinds of Sai-Kyo yaki (white miso sake marinated grilled fish) and neither of them were cod/gindara....makes you wonder how Nobu Matsuhisa took that idea and made a fortune with it, almost claiming that for his own. Also this trip made me really appreciate the delicateness and flavor of Japanese grown fruit, particularly citrus (not just yuzu). The level and quality of service was impeccable and from a vistor's standpoint far above and beyond (which to them was standard).
Osaka street food....takoyaki and okonomiyaki in the Dontonbori area. Why can't folks in California even do these simple things right? My friend said he has the same issue with pho (he makes pho at home and almost never eats pho outside). Heck even the Japanese Chinese fare kicks so much ass, particularly the Chuka-Ryori ya's in the area (e.g. a small subway restaurant in Shin Osaka station where we grabbed a quick breakfast of beef ramen, fried rice and gyoza, originally from Kobe Chinatown/Nanking machi). Also tried Osho gyoza, a famous local brand, in Dotonbori and loved it.
Even some of the touristy local eats in Shinsaibashi area were stellar. Fuku? sushi made a very beautiful saba sushi and the level of detail even in the packaging moved us. 1700 yen not cheap for a small sized saba sushi (not battera though, and not bou-sushi).
Kyoto Nishiki market was an eye opener for all of us. Fantastic small shops and eats. Loved the kyoto style pickles, particularly anything with daikon. Gives me a new found appreciate for local produce as well.
Aritsugu (knife shop) did indeed have two kinds of katsuobushi kezuri (bonito shaving box), small and large. Small one ran above US$150 and big one was over $300. Stellar impeccable crafstmanship, and the knife sharpening master behind the counter tested it out for me before wrapping it up...the sound was almost musical (the sound you hear from the shaving). Also bought a grater (can be used for yuzu for zesting and wasabi) and brush. One stall sold matcha warabi mochi and it was very enjoyable (though a touch messy). Somewhere 10 mins away outside the market was a killer taiyaki shop, tried one with sweet potato filling (Satsuma imo) and it was so comforting in the cold weather (it actually snowed that night after the Hana Kitcho dinner). There was also a roasted chestnut shop called 林万昌堂 that was absolutely stunning, really enjoyed those chestnuts!
JR Kyoto station (basement area) had a Malebranche cafe branch, which also sold the langue de chat matcha rectangular cookies. Couldn't really taste the matcha exterior, but the white chocolate(?) layer inbetween was delectable. Regret not buying some more to bring home.
Wish we had more time in Kyoto, only scratched a tiny portion of the surface!
Back to Osaka. 磯丸水産 (Isomaru Suisan) was a fun restaurant. Sashimi, grilled at table shellfish. Sazae, scallops etc. Also got a large tuna collar, and it was like eating Flintstones style.
We had one meal with our landlord/host, who took us to his favorite neighborhood restaurant Tori Nabe Tei とりなべ亭 very near Teradacho station (Osaka). No English on the menu but absolutely stellar with a good cost performance ratio. Most of the yakitori ordered was sauced, but even the sauce was extremely delicious. Had our first chicken sashimi as well (thigh, liver, gizzard, breast) and the texture/quality surprised us....so clean, no slimeyness. Tori nabe (hotpot) was incredible....for the chicken they used tsukune (fantastic recipe). And I couldn't believe how tasty their kama meshi was also.
Last but not least, Kuromon market in Osaka...one morning we passed by a vendor that sold charcoal grilled saba shioyaki and I polished off a medium sized one. Then we found a vendor that sold Aomori Oma bluefin toro blocks, and splurged on a block of kama toro. Ho Lee F***k....ruined for life. My friend then picked out what appeared to be an A5 Kobe (real kobe beef) steak that cost 3000 yen per 100 grams. Incredibly fatty and overkill but so damn good. Brought it back to the condo and just pan fried it, added some salt and pepper, along with some local vegetables.
Ended the meal with a 3000 yen Shizuoka musk melon (we saw 100,000 yen versions as well).
Went to Takashimaya department store basement (Osaka and Kyoto) and was just awestruck at the variety and quality. Osaka is definitely bigger. So glad I bought their jarred kani miso....had some over the weekend and it is supremely good stuff, though a touch more salty. Had it grilled over scallops and also in a crab handroll.
Damn I miss Kansai already.