Travel

Okonomimura Is a 3-Story Theme Park for Japanese Pancake Enthusiasts

Go inside Hiroshima's ode to okonomiyaki.

YingHui Liu/Shutterstock
YingHui Liu/Shutterstock
YingHui Liu/Shutterstock

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.

Vassamon Anansukkasem/Shutterstock
Vassamon Anansukkasem/Shutterstock
Vassamon Anansukkasem/Shutterstock

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 Worcestershire sauce. 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.

Courtesy of Jake Emen
Courtesy of Jake Emen
Courtesy of Jake Emen

Exploring Okonomimura

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 25 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.”

Hiroshima Pancake House - Ron お好み村 3F ロン
Hiroshima Pancake House – Ron お好み村 3F ロン
Hiroshima Pancake House – Ron お好み村 3F ロン

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.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Jake Emen is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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