Shinsekai, or ‘New World’, is a densely concentrated collection of cheap eateries, dive bars, and a few other surprises. Wes Lang takes you through one of Osaka’s most colorful neighborhoods.
The Shinsekai area swarms to life in the early evening glow. - image © Wes Lang
The Shinsekai area is at an important crossroads, as gentrification threatens to push out the older, cheaper establishments that have made it such a unique place to explore. With the area under continual transformation, I plan to dive head first into the area to find the remnants of old before they are just another faded memory. To get there, at Umeda Station I board a Tennoji-bound train on the Midosuji line and get off at Dobutsuen-mae Station. The station platform is adorned with glazed ceramic tiles of zoo animals lining the walls, as well as their photographic derriere wrapped around the support columns of the platform. The station is home to Tennoji Zoo, hence the name meaning “In Front of the Zoo”. I follow the exit signs pointing to the zoo, and once out of the ticket gates, life-sized photos of zebras grazing in lush grasslands line the entire back wall of the station hall. While exit 1 leads to Shinsekai and the tourists, I take exit 2 for a literal step back in time.
Zebras point the way to Shinsekai - image © Wes Lang
On street level, I pass by a brick structure housing a 70s-era coffee shop and veer right, into the darkened shadows of the covered shopping arcade. The street is dominated by shuttered storefronts, punctuated in irregular intervals by clothing shops, cheap barbers, and red-lanterned establishments serving alcohol to elderly men in various states of inebriety. Several of these patrons have continued their early afternoon celebrations outside, stumbling down the arcade holding cans of strong chu-hi. At the first cross street I peer to my left and spot a middle-aged guy urinating on a corrugated metal wall. Such public displays of behavior are quite common in this part of town, which has always had a reputation for being somewhat precarious and seedy. After passing through a brief open area exposed to the sun, the shopping arcade continues, deeper into an area that feels untouched and unkempt. Storefront facades remain exactly as they were constructed during the post-war boom. The 50s vibe is likely unintentional, as the shop owners probably do not have a lot of disposable income available for renovations or upgrades.
Storefronts remained as they were originally constructed - image © Wes Lang
I soon reach the artistic entrance to Cocoroom Guesthouse and Cafe. The creative space doubles as an accommodation space for budget travelers and an active NPO that provides workshops and support for local residents. The rooms are works of art themselves and it makes for an interesting place to stay in order to learn more about the hidden side of Osaka. You see, this shopping street marks the eastern edge of the biggest slum in Japan, an area that the local tourist authorities would have you believe no longer existed. While relatively safe in the daytime, you really need to keep your wits about you at night, especially on the streets to the west where an estimated 4000 homeless men are concentrated in an area the size of just few city blocks. Occasionally, the residents band together and riot against the authorities, who struggle to maintain order. The most recent uprising was in 2008, and was the 24th such disturbance since 1961.
Cocoroom posts the rates and availability on a daily basis - image © Wes Lang
I keep this in mind as I proceed on, turning left into another covered arcade that runs perpendicular to the main one. I am now heading due east towards Tennoji to check out another area that never makes it into the tourist literature. At the terminus of the shopping street, I veer right and find an old wooden clock tower overlooking a neighborhood of traditional two-story merchant row houses. Each space is flanked with a simple illuminated square signpost above the first story eave with names written in one or two kanji characters. I have now entered Tobita Shinchi, Japan’s largest red-light district. I put away the camera and walk past the rows of open storefronts, each with a young woman seated on a tatami floor cushion, watched over by an old lady who verbally beckons potential customers. This used to be an area that was strictly off limits to foreigners, but judging by the English phrases being thrown in my direction, times are apparently changing. Male Chinese tourists have purportedly taken an interest in visiting the area, so one wonders if Osaka will clamp down on prostitution as its existence comes out of the shadows and into the international spotlight. Alex Kerr, in his seminal book Lost Japan, calls the architectural feel of the area “as close to Kabuki in the modern age as you can get.” He also cautions tourists from wondering the streets alone, but in the mid-day sunshine I feel no threat other than the one in my stomach telling me I need food. Females may feel more comfortable avoiding the area, however, as one reporter was the recipient of vile insults for walking through the area with her boyfriend, a source of lost revenue in their eyes.
Tobita Shinchi, a holdover from Japan’s feudal past - image © Wes Lang
One street of Tobita is more than enough for me, so I cross back under the overhead highway and back to the main shopping arcade, where I retrace my steps to the subway exit. Here I cross over the four-lane road and pass through a concrete tunnel and into a smaller, busier shopping arcade. This is Jan Jan Yokocho alley, a thriving, bustling stretch of restaurants and bars heaping with patrons no matter the time of day. I shuffle through the tourists, looking in vain for a smoke-free establishment to sample the local fare. Most shops only have room for about a dozen customers at a time, except for the standing bars, which tend to pack them in like sardines. I continue on, passing a shogi parlor full of elderly players gathered around low tables engaged in the traditional board games shogi and igo. As recently as 10 years ago, the alley was home to nearly a dozen such parlors, but this is the last one still in operation. The influx of tourist money has convinced the greedy owners to convert their precious real estate into restaurants, and it’s only a matter of time before this last holdout gives in.
The end of an era, Jan Jan Yokocho’s last shogi parlor - image © Wes Lang
The alley soon merges into a wider open-air street jammed with restaurants and neon lights. Servers stand outside each establishment with open menus, motioning patrons to enter their eateries. The specialty here is kushikatsu, deep-fried skewers that are dipped in a mysterious dark sauce. Restaurants sell these snacks by the stick, and it’s a fierce pricing battle between shops to attract customers. I walk around the block, comparing prices as I go and I finally settle on Torakatsu, which hawks their kushikatsu at the affordable price of 80-yen a stick. The server escorts me over to a counter seat and I order skewers of lotus root, green pepper, asparagus, potato, eggplant, cheese, and a few other novelty items. The deep-fried gingko nuts were quite tasty, but some things, such as the avocado skewer, are best appreciated raw. I order a dozen different things and walk out with a full belly after having spent just 1000-yen.
Skewers of lotus root and cheese await their fate in the dipping sauce. - image © Wes Lang
I slow down the pace considerably once outside, and head towards the towering billboard of a blond-haired girl on rollerblades. This is the Asahi pachinko parlor, and just behind the building on your right sits the Kokusai movie theater. The facade is plastered with hand-painted movie posters that rotate every few weeks, a rarity in this era of digitally designed billboards. The upstairs theater hosts second run Hollywood movies for just 1000-yen a head, while the space downstairs screens X-rated films. The structure was built in 1930 and originally functioned as a playhouse before being converted into a theater in 1950. If your visit happens to coincide with one of the all-night screenings then it’d be a unique place to watch a flick, but there’s no guarantee you won’t be stuck with a dubbed version of your favorite blockbuster.
The retro facade of the Kokusai movie theater - image © Wes Lang
The fun continues at the next cross street, when the jet black exterior of Tower Knives draws me in for a closer look. Though I am not in the market for a new kitchen knife, the knowledgeable English-speaking salesclerk nonetheless explains about the handcrafted blades available for purchase at duty-free prices. The interior is part showroom, part workspace and is a recently opened expansion of the main store just around the corner. I grab a brochure for future reference and step back into the daylight, where I immediately run into Sam from Cycle Osaka. He has just returned from seeing a couple of clients off and we chat for a few minutes until the brisk winds push me further west, towards the star attraction.
A knife marks the entrance to Tower Knives - image © Wes Lang
I am now just in front of Tsukenkaku Tower, Shinsekai’s own Eiffel-inspired tourist trap. The tower was originally constructed in 1912 as part of Shinsekai Luna Park, Japan’s second ever amusement park. The original tower was twice the current height and was the tallest structure in Osaka for many years, until it was damaged by fire in 1943 and subsequently demolished for the precious steel to be used in the war effort. The current tower dates from 1956 but was completely overhauled in 2011 and now includes LED lighting for the Hitachi-sponsored neon billboards lining the exterior of the tower. Admission is 700-yen and access is through the confined quarters of the basement. An updated signpost at the ticket counter displays the estimated waiting time to enter. Tsutenkaku has recently been featured in the Michelin Guide, so waits of upwards of an hour are not unheard of. The views are definitely worth the wait, but beware that the convoluted route takes visitors through several gaudy souvenir stalls en route to the tiny elevator whisking visitors to the glassed observation platform at the top. For an additional 500-yen, you have the luxury of ascending to the outdoor observation deck, which affords unobstructed panoramic views of the city. Being short on both cash and patience, I quickly escape from the congested madness and head back outside.
The vista from the top of Tsukenkaku is well worth the wait - image © Wes Lang
The roads fan out in all directions from the tower, but I head due west, away from Tower Knives for half a block until arriving at The Pax, a groovy record shop/cafe that also doubles as a budget hostel. The staff welcome me with open arms as I order a hot latte and a slice of banana bread while settling into one of the wooden tables near the windows. Pax is a newcomer to the burgeoning Shinsekai arts scene, and a welcome addition to an area that is strikingly devoid of nightlife. Since opening in the summer of 2016, the guesthouse has proven popular with both foreigners and Japanese travelers alike, drawn to the communal atmosphere, friendly vibe, and incredibly welcoming staff. A second floor lounge area overlooks the main cafe space on the ground floor and is connected by way of a metal slide that was salvaged from an old playground. The cafe is open daily and serves a tasty curry lunch and succulent homemade sweets, while regularly hosting gatherings that are updated on their social media handle.
The Pax, a jewel of a cafe in a sea of tourist traps - image © Wes Lang
It was hard to tear myself away from the warm comforts of the cafe, but once outside I continue one street west from Pax and turn into the covered shopping arcade, where an intriguing bar and performance venue by the name of Imagination Pika Space gives me pause. Unfortunately it doesn’t open for a few more hours, so it would have to wait until another time, but the place regularly hosts underground music and art events in the cozy confines of the elaborately decorated interior. I follow the arcade past the other shuttered shops to the terminus and turn right, crossing back under Tsutenkaku tower and continuing due south, where a giant rectilinear edifice dominates the horizon. In the late afternoon light the neon illumination comes to life, as the early birds head to the neighboring watering holes. However, I push on, past a couple of pulled rickshaws that look like they had taken a wrong turn out of Kyoto.
I head for my own watering hole, as I climb the stairs on the far end of the lively lane and arrive at Spa World, a giant hot spring facility featuring baths from all over the world. The 1800-yen price of admission is steep, but I am in luck, as there is currently a special campaign that charges a day pass for only 1000-yen. I purchase a ticket at the vending machine and proceed to the counter, where I exchange the paper for a numbered wristband that can be used to purchase things in the facility. Tattoos are strictly forbidden, so those with ink should be warned of the zero tolerance policy. There are two main bathing zones segregated by sex on two different floors of the multi-story facility. The zones alternate depending on the week, but at this time I am shown the way to the Euro zone, featuring a variety of hot tubs of Mediterranean influence. The hot water soothes the muscles and warms the body, but navigating the labyrinth of corridors proves tricky. With a little perseverance I find the correct passage to the outdoor baths on the roof and settle in for a long soak.
Spa World, a remnant of the bubble era - image © Wes Lang
The bath zaps the remainder of my failing energy, and I stumble back to the open air just as the sun hits the horizon and Shinsekai really springs to life. I have had enough for one day, so I retreat back through Jan Jan Yokocho and out to the main street. Instead of taking the subway back to Umeda, I walk due west towards the Nankai railway, where trains lead to Namba, Kansai airport, and Koyasan. Just before the entrance to the station, on the left side of the street, the homeless population set up shop for the night in front of Airin Labor Welfare Center, which has just closed for the evening. It is a stark reminder that while the affluent tourist enjoy the easy life in Shinsekai, there are others who are struggling to eke out a living in the shadows of the tourist hotels overlooking Japan’s largest slum.
Homeless men set up camp for the night - image © Wes Lang
Where Are These Places Located?See these places on the Inside Osaka Google map:
- Open the Osaka map
- You will see the list of places on the left hand side. (Click the 3-line icon in the top left corner if not). Scroll down or use the map search (the magnifying glass icon) to find the place you want.
- Click the name of the place in the list. Its location pin will be highlighted on the map.
- Map pins are color coded - BLUE: Hotels / Ryokan / Guesthouses | VIOLET: Ryokan | PINK: Places to Eat | GREEN: Shops | YELLOW: Things to See and Do
- If you're using the map on your phone, open the map and then search for the name of the place. The map will then zoom in on its location.
Osaka Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Osaka guide
- Check Osaka accommodation availability and pricing on Booking.com - usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too.
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Osaka
- View my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings on Skyscanner
- If you're visiting more than one city, get your Japan Rail Pass
- Get travel insurance for your Japan trip - book online with World Nomads