April 28, 2012

Shinsekai, Osaka - The 'New World'

During Japan's prosperous Taisho period (1912 onwards), the Osakan neighbourhood of Shinsekai - the 'new world' - was a vibrant and glamorous entertainment district, modeled after New York and Paris. Made up of a network of covered shopping arcades, as well as a popular amusement park, the modernist cherry-on-top was the Tsutenkaku ('reaching heaven') Tower, at that time the tallest in Asia.

Then World War II happened, and Shinsekai, along with most of Osaka, was destroyed in the relentless firebomb raids. Tsutenkaku Tower was demolished, its steel recycled for the war effort. Although Shinsekai and the tower were rebuilt after the war, the one thing that wasn't restored was the neighbourhood's former glory - quite the opposite, actually. Shinsekai and its surroundings now have a reputation for being one of the most poverty-stricken and dangerous areas in Osaka, due to a perceptible presence of homeless people and, supposedly, Yakuza.

Tsukenkaku Tower today
Shinsekai today
 To get to Shinsekai, we took the Midosuji Subway Line to Doubutsuen-mae Station, went out the wrong exit, and promptly found ourselves smack bang in the middle of Airin, the largest 'slum' in Japan. The guidebooks tell you to avoid the south side of the station, and, well, oops. But although the area had a completely different atmosphere to the Osaka tourist meccas of Umeda and Namba, I didn't feel particularly in danger. There were lots of cheap looking 'business hotels' and shops such as 'Working and Casual Wear' that seem directed at Airin's huge day labourer population. There was also a strange looking Christian church, with a neon cross. An abandoned amusement park stood in the background. The place wasn't so much dangerous as deserted. It was quiet and empty in the middle of the day.

Working Casual - for Osaka's working class

Christian church, with abandoned rollercoaster in background
A helpful man pointed us in the direction of Shinsekai, and finally we found ourselves in Osaka's Old New World. My first impression was that it didn't seem like a particularly dangerous place at all. A little bit gaudy and rough, perhaps, but again, not dangerous. In fact, there were small school children everywhere - I think they were being taken on a field trip to the zoo that is right beside Shinsekai. There were also adorable Billiken statues on every corner, and if you rub their feet, it's meant to bring you good luck. Aww.

Some may say he looks like an ugly oversized baby.
As we walked through the arcades of Shinsekai, we peeked into each of the shop windows, and every second one was a restaurant where food is served on a skewer and deep fried. This is one of Shinsekai's famous fast foods, known as kushikatsu. The kushikatsu smell that wafts through the alleyways is delicious - sort of reminded me of a fish and chip shop. Around 100 yen per stick, naturally we decided to have this for lunch. I had potato, takoyaki, and strawberry, but there were also all sorts of offal, veges, meats, seafood, and even cheesecake and icecream on offer. On each table or counter of these kushikatsu restaurants is a container of communal dipping sauce - very important not to double dip.
The diverse kushikatsu menu


Enjoying a deep fried stawberry
Fugu (the notoriously deadly blowfish) restaurants are also popular in Shinsekai. I have not been brave enough to sample this delicacy for myself just yet, but apparently this particular restaurant 'Tsuboraya' is a licensed chain, and the staff are experts in the art of cooking fugu safely. They have one in Dotombori too.

Blow up blow fish
Shinsekai was home to the cheapest vending machines I have ever seen in my life.
Tea or coffee for 50 Yen? Yes please.
Of course, there was also the famous Tsutenkaku Tower, once a glittering beacon of the future, now a tainted symbol of the past. What could have been a superb tourist attraction even today stands still, stuck in a time that the rest of Osaka has left behind.

This neon sign looks old and broken in the middle of the day

Another view of the tower
I don't think Shinsekai is dangerous - just sad. From the way certain websites and guidebooks wrote about it, I was expecting to be mugged at knife point by a crazed hobo. It's not like that at all. Yes, there are homeless people - but they just sit quietly, in the shadows of the tower. I think Shinsekai reveals what the rest of Japan tries to hide - that if you scratch the surface, Japanese society isn't so homogenous and middle-class after all. Shinsekai may not be a 'New World', but it is a different one to what tourists of Japan are used to seeing. It's well worth having a look for yourself - enjoy the food, take in the sights, and meet some interesting characters while you're at it.

Homeless person sits under shade of umbrella, Tsukenkaku Tower in distance
Might not be a conventional tourist attraction, but still featured on this pretty postcard
Happy birthday Shinsekai - this year it turns 100


  1. I think everyone should wander off the beaten path if they really want to get to know a society better. Thanks again for the rare read.

  2. What an excellent, informative post!! Well done!! I knew about that area and history, but I never found much information about it through research. Thank you for this!! My friends and I used to be fascinated with this area. One of my fondest memories of Osaka was drinking at 6am outside the zoo, it was surreal.

    1. Thank you so much! I thought it was such an interesting place too, I can't wait to explore Doubutsuen-mae again!

  3. Great post. I like Shin Sekai because of exactly what you said...it's so different from the conventional image of Japan.A lot of these tiny shops sell 2nd hand and recycled stuff, something that most Japanese people will say doesn't ever happan in Japan. It's one of the most interesting areas in Osaka purely because of that. Despite the myths I don't think it's dangerous at all, even after dark...I think Auckland on a Saturday night is worse. Cheers.

  4. I love Shinsekai - though a lot of my co-workers couldn't believe that I -liked- to go there! And by myself, at that! The area has a lot of history.

  5. I wasn't aware of Shinsekai's state when my friend and I went to Osaka. All I knew about it was its name meaning New World and Spa World. Needless to say, when the two of us wandered through the streets of Shinsekai, it wasn't disappointment that really struck us as much as a sense of depression and nostalgia for my Japanese friend, who was so accustomed to life in Tokyo. Walking through the alleyways and seeing old men play Shogi, old restaurants catering to the same, growing population, it looked like it was doomed to its fate, as the only people who inhabited the area were growing elderly and no one was there to replace them. Passing by closed down softcore porn theaters and street stalls and restaurants, it was easy to imagine the hectic and vivid street life decades ago, but it was surely depressing seeing it all gone and the memories of those days fading away. I truly wonder what is to happen to that area once everything dies away, physically and spiritually. I think if anyone were to visit Osaka as a true traveler who's curious about Japan, they must visit Shinsekai, because it certainly sheds light on the many Western misconceptions about Japan being a fantasy, high-tech, wealthy country all over. I'm sure scattered all over Japan are similar towns and cities, and I wonder if such areas are growing in number or decreasing.