During my early months in Osaka, a staple of my diet was takoyaki, an Osaka specialty: small pieces of octopus cooked in balls of batter an inch across. In those days—during the late eighties boom—octopus balls were mostly sold from stalls near train stations. My neighborhood station was Nishitanabe on the Midosuji Line of the Osaka Metro. Just outside its entrance, an old woman had a takoyaki stand.
I usually visited her after work between nine and ten at night. If there weren’t any octopus balls ready, I’d watch her as she poured blobs of batter from a plastic jug into the empty hemispheres of the batter grill and fished handfuls of octopus bits out of a white bucket, carefully placing a single piece in the center of each simmering white batter circle. After a few minutes, she’d bring down the lid of the grill and then, after a specified time, she’d lift the lid, revealing row upon row of little batter worlds with coelenterate cores. She would then remove the balls one by one with a pair of tongs and place them in a Styrofoam container before dabbing them generously with a cooking brush dipped in the thick, sweet black sauce that gave them their distinctive taste and made the dish a perfect complement for beer. Six balls cost a hundred yen and sometimes the old lady would add an extra ball or two in the container as a free favor to the customer, adding a single word by way of explanation: “Service!”
As my visits became more frequent, the old lady and I began to chat a little in the intervals between the food’s preparation. Once I asked her age, and she laughed.
“Me?” She placed her right index finger on her nose. “Oh, I’m just an old lady!” Her ancient accent clearly revealed that she was from Osaka, but I asked her where she was from anyway. She chuckled and told me she was an Osaka girl.
As my appreciation for her takoyaki grew, so did my appetite. At first, six balls were enough for me to have with a large bottle of Sapporo beer. But before long, I was ordering a dozen octopus balls at a time. Then, ever hungrier, I tried for the first time to order eighteen. The old lady protested, though.
“Eighteen! You’re beginning to eat too many of these! The sauce is fattening, you know. Too much takoyaki is unhealthy! It’s supposed to be a snack. You could almost buy a proper meal for three hundred yen!” I asked her to give me eighteen nevertheless, and she shook her head with disapproval as she handed me the bulging box. She didn’t add any extras for service this time. “You’ll get fat!” she warned as I handed her the money. “That’s not good for a handsome young man like you!”
We built up a rapport over the months, and sometimes I’d order less than I wanted, just to please her. Every time I did, she’d make a nodding gesture of approval.
When my company office moved from Osaka to Kobe, I lost touch with the old woman, but after a couple of years, I went back to Nishitanabe to wander through my old haunts. I ate at my favorite Chinese restaurant, visited a friend, and walked through Nagai Park. I took a few wrong turns, too. So much construction had been completed since I’d left that I had trouble navigating my old neighborhood. I decided I would have some takoyaki before I boarded the train at Nishitanabe.
Right where she had always been, I found the old lady with the takoyaki stand. She seemed like she had aged more than two years. I remember wondering if this was a feature of old age generally, or if it was something in particular about the woman. She recognized me immediately and broke into a broad smile.
“Ohhhh! It’s been a long time! How long has it been? Six months? A year?” When I said it had been two years, she let out a small cry. “Waaaaa! Has it been that long?”
I told her that it had. “I live in Kobe now,” I said. “Okamoto. But I came all the way back today to have some of your delicious takoyaki!”
“Is that so? But they have plenty of takoyaki in Kobe!”
“Yes, they do, but it isn’t as good as yours!”
She laughed and batted that comment away with her right hand. “Thank you very much! But you are just flattering me.”
I assured her I wasn’t and asked her how she had been doing. Unusually, she kept her eyes on the batter grill as she answered.
“Oh, my days are numbered here. They’re rebuilding the station and my space here will disappear. I’d have to get a new license for my stand, but because of the boom, the license would be too expensive—three million yen! That’s too much for an old lady like me. I got my license for this spot before the war, you know. It was very cheap. After the war, the authorities were glad to have me here. Everybody was hungry and takoyaki was cheap. In those days, a dozen balls cost just ten sen. Ah-ah! That was a long time ago. I’ve been here now for how long? Forty-eight years! Even during the war, I was here nearly every day. But the new station is going to be built and that’s that. I can’t stay. There’s nothing to be done about it.”
I asked her if she was going to retire. She cocked her head to one side and thought about it for a moment. “I suppose so,” she said. “But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing—I’m an old woman, me!”