Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Diversions #1: Deep Osaka

(Ocasionally, when the urge strikes me, I'll write about Japan things that aren't musical Japan things. It's a diversion from the main theme of this blog, hence the label).

I ended up in Osaka this weekend as part of an 円盤出張 (Enban shutchou). This literally means "Enban-business-trip", but there was no "business" involved, unless you count the poorly attended gig (it was snowing hard for the first time in a while, which confused the Osakans a bit, I think).  The gig itself is not what I want to write about, although it was located at the famous Bears club (no, not that kind of bears club: although I am a little on the hairy side, I'm leather averse...) where the Boredoms honed their dada.

Instead I wanted to note that it is the first time in three or four trips to Osaka that I felt like I had located the fabled "Deep Osaka" experience. One of the things that I think people don't realize about Japan, or don't fully appreciate if they pay a brief visit, is how a number of parts of Japan's big cities are what we would call "run-down". In reality, they're just parts that haven't been touched by money since the 80's boom, and are victims of the Japanese propensity to build structurally sound but superficially flimsy buildings. There's still enough money sloshing around in the world's third biggest economy to trim such rough edges, but thankfully it's either not a priority or the inhabitants actively resist it.

This confluence of factors results in certain areas of Tokyo and Osaka in particular being full of shabby buildings with wonky facades. If a Japanese 商店街 (shoutengai) or shopping street  also exists in such an area, you have all the ingredients for a decaying fairground kind of feeling, which lovers of 千と千尋の神隠し(sen to chihiro no kamikakushi = "Spirited away") are unable to resist. The 動物園前 (Dobutsuenmae = literally "infront of the Zoological park" ) area of Osaka has this feeling in spades. It even has a literally decaying theme park - complete with a partially demolished roller coaster - in the notorious Shin-sekai area. That's right - the Shin-sekai area is actually "notorious". I'm skeptical about that word being used to describe any area in Japan - in reality, almost anywhere in Japan feels safer than  big city America or the like. Nonetheless, I did feel an odd an odd sense of seediness which I have almost never detected before in Japan when I was walking around the network of covered shopping streets in doubutsuen-mae just south of shin-sekai. One particularly dilapidated branch off the main street had a canvas roof which had been ripped to shreds, an excellent complement to the oh-so shabby snacks and karaoke bars that lined the road. Although I've never been to the day workers' district of San'ya in Tokyo, I imagined that this was what it would feel like.

Sure enough, in a NY Times article that does a much better job of explaining the area than this post, I found mention that it is indeed close to the Osaka day labourer town. Despite the close proximity to very cheap business hotels and even a rare youth hostel, I didn't see a single other foreigner in the shopping streets of Dobutsuen-mae. I can only ascribe this to the exagerated bad reputation of the are conveyed by travel guides - thanks lonely planet!

The above-mentioned Shin-sekai (新世界 =  new world = ironically named area) to the north of Dobutsuenmae contains a number of seedy shopping streets (as well as some great looking restaurants) and the marvellous jan-jan alley (じゃんじゃん 横丁), where you can see old men play shogi and go in clubs, and other locals lining up outside old  ramen shops. The centerpiece of the area - the famous 通天閣 (tsutenkaku) tower - looks like a half built Eiffel tower with an aluminium box perched on top. Seriously, the windows made me think of the very cheapest aluminium ranch-sliders you'd find in old baches back home.

Talking with some locals over okonomiyaki (the waitress had the most amazing mayonnaise squirting skills I have ever seen; no I'm not being dirty) confirmed that I had indeed encountered "Deep Osaka" and not merely the Tokyo or America imitating areas closer to Osaka station. Enban boss Taguchi-san said that he used to stay in the area when he visited Osaka, and that you can often see young Yakuza standing on street corners at night ready to send warning if the police appear.

All in all, I can't recommend the area enough if you want to see a slice of real Japanese city life. I've heard these parts of Osaka compared with Tokyo's Asakusa, Kichijoji's harmonica yokocho and even Koenji, and while comparisons with the chuo-line area of Tokyo are apt, Dobutsuenmae and surrounds had a more dense, exciting feel to me. As an additional plus, it's only a 10 minute walk from Dobutsuenmae, through Shin-sekai to the Osaka version of Akihabara - the awesome Denden town.

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