A short walk from the busy confines of Umeda stands the quaint neighborhood of Nakazakicho, a place perfect for frivolous wandering through tiny alleys in search of secluded cafes run by aspiring artists. Come along as Wes Lang saunters inside.
Nakazakicho’s narrow alleys are begging to be explored - image © Wes Lang
Nakazakicho is the kind of place you need to go out of your way to visit, as there are no signposts or anything to indicate that a lost neighborhood lies on the other side of the JR train tracks. The easiest access point is from the Chayamachiguchi exit of Hankyu Umeda station, a 45-minute Limited Express train ride (400 yen) from Kawaramachi Station in Kyoto. Go out the Chayamachiguchi ticket gates and make a U-Turn, go down the escalators and turn right through a narrow passage filled with shops. At the end of the passage stands Bagel & Bagel, a great place to pick up a bagel sandwich before setting off on your exploration. The shop is completely non-smoking and the counter seating is a nice place to sit back and observe the throngs of shoppers strolling the busy streets in search of the latest fashions. Since I am in the mood for something Japanese, I skip the whole-wheat temptation and turn left on the main street in front of the bagel shop, veering right at the first intersection to the entrance of Nu Chayamachi shopping center.
The entrance sign to Club Noon - image © Wes Lang
Though it may be hard to believe, just 15 years ago this entire neighborhood was filled with wooden houses, narrow alleys, and traditional tea shops until the big developers moved in. One by one, the houses were bought up and demolished, replaced by higher-end retail chains. NU Chayamachi opened in 2005, and the area hasn’t looked the same since. Luckily, the same fate has yet to befall Nakazakicho, so by walking just a few blocks east, you can take a refreshing step back in time. Follow the street past the Tully’s coffee shop and cross the 4-lane road under the elevated highway, continuing straight on until reaching a tunnel under the JR train tracks.
The tunnel entrance has recently been painted a fluorescent orange, and on the left side directly under the tracks sits the legendary nightclub and cafe Noon. The club had been hosting nightly musical events for over 20 years until the summer of 2012, when owner Kanemitsu Masatoshi was arrested by police for allowing patrons to dance after midnight in violation of an obscure law dating back to 1948. Although the ordinance was originally aimed at stopping prostitution in the post-war years, the Osaka police mysteriously started cracking down on nightclubs in 2011. Kanemitsu contested the charges and was eventually found not guilty in 2014, and the resulting negative publicity resulted in the law being abolished in 2015, allowing Club Noon and other nightclubs to legally start hosting events without fear of arrest. The club functions as a cafe during the daylight hours, and in the evenings the space is transformed into a performance venue hosting nightly House, Nu-jazz, and Crossover events.
Taiyo No To Cafe stands out against a sea of gray - image © Wes Lang
Once you’re on the other side of the tracks, you have officially entered Nakazakicho, and the first thing you’ll see is a giant 7-11 convenience store staring you in the face. Nakazakicho is undergoing a rapid transformation that even the locals find hard to stave off, but don’t let this intrusion tarnish your image of the place. Just before the 7-11, a bright purple building at the end of a narrow alley will catch your eye. This is the Taiyo No To Cafe (太陽ノ塔), a popular place on the weekends and one of dozens of cafes dotted throughout the vibrant neighborhood. Craving an early lunch, I settle into a cozy seat under the stairs and order the Obanzai lunch set, a healthy plate of three side dishes of your choice coupled with 10-grain rice and miso soup.
Most of the places in Nakazakicho open at 11am, which is perfect for those wanting to hit the more popular places before the midday lunch rush. The interior of Taiyo No To is stylish kitsch - a comfortable place that could easily be mistaken for your grandmother’s house. Near the entrance, stacked among a collection of flyers, I find a free foldout map of Nakazakicho and pore over the contents between savory bites of sliced burdock root and steamed mackerel. It’s worth taking a side trip to the second floor restroom to observe the natural light seeping through the frosted windows onto the colorful interior space. The cafe is entirely non-smoking and also has free wi-fi, a plus for those looking to get their Internet fix.
A hearty lunch set at Taiyo No To Cafe - image © Wes Lang
With the belly full, I walk back outside and look into Green West cafe directly across from the entrance. This is Taiyo No To’s sister cafe, serving mouthwatering western-style food in a cozy wood-clad space that naturally attracts your attention. Since my food was still digesting, I retrace my steps back out of the alley and turn right, walking barely a block before being drawn towards a row of bicycles lining the glass-walled entrance to Proty, a shop specializing in snowboards, skateboards and imported bicycles. I quickly browse through the apparel and salivate over the newest models of Burton snowboards lining the racks. The shop opened in 2004 and has a knowledgeable staff of action sport enthusiasts along with an in-house team of sponsored pro skaters and snowboarders.
The center of the artistic community - Amanto Cafe - image © Wes Lang
A few blocks past Proty, the street terminates at the entrance to a 15-story apartment block constructed just a couple of years ago. It is the tallest building in the entire area and a stark reminder that high-rise developers are anxious to get their hands on empty lots in the area for development. Directly across the street from this modern eyesore stands a 100-year old vine-draped wooden storehouse that is ground zero for Nakazakicho’s artistic community.
The abandoned building was falling into disrepair until discovered by Osaka artist/dancer Amanto Jun, who moved into the structure in 2001 and started Amanto Cafe on the first floor of the building. Over the ensuing decade, Amanto teamed up with 30 other artists and succeeded in revitalizing the area and helping to save it from being destroyed. In addition to Amanto Cafe, there is a vegetarian cafe named Minto in an adjacent annex and an organic granola shop just to the right of the main entrance to the structure.
Get your granola fix at La Granda Familia - image © Wes Lang
Intrigued, I step into the granola shop La Granda Familia to peruse the merchandise and to chat with the founder Sawada Chiaki, who mixes and roasts the fresh ingredients daily with her husband Yasuharu in the small kitchen behind the counter. With so many varieties of homemade granola to choose from, making a final choice becomes difficult, until Chiaki offers something irresistible: fresh smoothies. I order an Acai Berry Smoothie with fresh granola topping and sit at the small serving table at the front of the shop to wait for the mouth-watering concoction to arrive. It goes down smoothly and I exit the shop with an extra spring in my step.
It’s best to put away the map and follow your instincts - image © Wes Lang
The first thing that catches my eye upon turning right is Nakazakicho Hall, an open-air event space that hosts flea markets, workshops, and other annual events such as a vegan festival and a world craft beer tasting. Since there was no action on this particular day, I continued walking east and turned left at the first intersection, immediately spying an animal-themed handicraft shop called Only Planet. The shop, which opened 5 years ago, carries handmade wooden tableware, trinkets, and figurines made in the likeness of mammalian creatures far and wide. I purchase a bear-printed wooden spoon for my sister-in-law and head back out into the warm sunshine to further explore Nakazakicho’s unique offerings.
A Ponkan tree forms a natural arch over one of dozens of Nakazakicho’s alleys - image © Wes Lang
It became immediately apparent that there are simply too many shops and cafes to choose from, and in the spirit of spontaneity I simply stow the map in my back pocket and set about wandering through the maze of narrow streets and alleys in search of nothing in particular. This is perhaps the best way to explore any neighborhood in Osaka, for the best places usually present themselves when least expected.
Some of the alleys are quite narrow and sometimes dead-end at the front door of someone’s residence, so at times it feels like you’re invading someone’s privacy. I pass by nearly a dozen different cafes that all seem to tout one defining feature - signs prohibiting photography, many of which are written in Korean. Nakazakicho has caught the attention of Korean guidebook authors, which has resulted in large numbers of camera-wielding tourists entering cafes with the sole purpose of snapping photographs.
Paradise found at Salon de AManTo - image © Wes Lang
Wanting to avoid the tourists as much as possible, I set out to find the perfect cafe, a place where I can truly feel the spirit and energy of this up-and-coming artistic quarter. Suffering from a horrendous cat allergy, I give Mr. Nekota’s Cat Cafe a miss, and am tempted to enter Book Cafe Arabiq (アラビク) if not for the late opening time. Instead, I see a Ponkan orange tree draping over a side street, forming a natural arch as if to draw me closer. I pass under the tree and walk several meters, catching sight of an impressive wall of ivy completely enveloping the entrance to an old wooden house glowing with warm incandescent light. I duck under the greenery, slide open the glass doors, and am immediately transported to an earlier century.
It turns out I have stumbled upon Salon de AManTo, a cafe and event space started by Amanto Jun himself. I saddle up to the counter, glance at the Japanese menu on the bar wall, and order a Jiman no Chai (boastful Chai tea) before taking a seat at a table that looks like it came out of an elementary school classroom. A half a dozen patrons, all Japanese, immerse themselves in conversation and observation. A pair of university students puff away on cigarettes while discussing their plans for the upcoming holidays. Another pair of young females discuss their lack of English proficiency at another table, while an elderly lady dressed in a flowery garb takes in her surroundings.
At the back of the cafe, a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat sits in an elevated niche space just in front of the full-sized windows overlooking the small garden in back. A rolled-up projector screen sits directly above his table, ready to be pulled down at any moment for one of the many independent film screenings the multi-functional space hosts. Directly behind me, on the narrow wooden staircase leading to the second floor, sits a child of 8 or 9, sorting through the comic books stacked high on the dusty, leaning bookshelves.
The shop staff rotate on a daily basis, and on this particular visit the slightly pudgy man behind the bar is more interested in the anime streaming from the computer than engaging in small talk with customers. Still, in due time my order is called out and I retreat back to my seat with the Chai that Amanto is so proud of. I forgo the sugar and sip away at the subtle flavors of warm tea as it washes over my taste buds. Too many times can Chai bit a bit heavy on the spice, but this particular cup has a good balance and a satisfactory milk-to-tea ratio. Although I wouldn’t particularly boast about this being the best cup of Chai on earth, it does quench my thirst and seems to fit the nostalgic mood of the space.
At night, the interior transforms into a full bar, where starving artists are sure to saddle up to the barstools to share in their struggles with like-minded creative types. In the hour or so I spend in the warm, electric space, a handful of other visitors peer in through the glass as if to enter but quickly retreat back to the street. It takes a bit of courage to enter this kind of place, but the reward is well worth the effort.
Che Guevara observes Nakazakicho’s rapid transformation - image © Wes Lang
After leaving Salon de Amanto, I turn left and walk to the end of the street, where Che Guevara’s hand-screened portrait overlooks the barricaded entrance to Cafe Caliente, a casualty to the rising costs of renting space in Nakazakicho. After French owner Olivier sublet the space and returned to France, the building owner doubled the rent on the new management and have been locked in a legal battle ever since. In some ways, Nakazakicho is becoming a victim of its own success, as the elderly home owners cash in on the elevated land prices and greedy developers sweep in like hawks to capitalize on the booming arts scene. The lofty rental prices will likely result in higher shop turnover, which is all the more reason to explore this area before it becomes just another cookie-cutter extension of chain-heavy Umeda.
About Wes Lang
Wes Lang is a freelance writer based in Osaka whose work has appeared in the Japan Times, Kansai Scene, and Outdoor Japan. He runs the website Hiking in Japan, which provides comprehensive English-language hiking information for Japan's mountains. He is currently writing a guidebook to the Japan Alps scheduled for release in 2018.
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