Japan's largest slum attracting new breed of visitor: backpackers

Japan's largest slum attracting new breed of visitor: backpackers Photo by Manami Okazaki

OSAKA —

When Japanese people refer to a neighborhood as being “ghetto,” they usually just mean it isn’t as chic as Omotesando. However, the Nishinari district in southern Osaka, which holds the inglorious title of Japan’s biggest slum, is really quite impressive in its squalor.

Getting off the train, you’ll immediately notice the homeless men and drunks. Things grow increasingly dour the closer you get to the area known as Kamagasaki, which has the highest concentration of homeless people in Japan. During the postwar boom, laborers flocked here from all over the country to work on construction projects such as the Expo 70. Many never left.

Nishinari is still home to an estimated 25,000 day laborers, of whom some 1,300 are now homeless, victims of a stale economy and lack of construction jobs, especially for aging workers. Most live in flophouses (of which there are many), and those who can’t afford a 1,000 yen room sleep in the park or on the street. In winter, hundreds huddle together in an effort to keep warm.

The atmosphere of the neighborhood verges on the post-apocalyptic, and a smell of burning tires hangs in the air. Every morning a thieves market is set up, selling anything from VCR remote controls (minus the VCRs) to single shoes and piles of somen noodles, stolen from god-knows-where. Yakuza groups work out of offices that are instantly recognizable by the shiny cars parked outside, while dealers peddle their products openly on the streets.

Not for nothing has the area come to be seen as an anarchic zone by the general public—a reputation that wasn’t helped by the widely reported riots of 2008. Nishinari has provided a haven to fugitives on the lam, including Tatsuya Ichihashi, the suspected killer of Lindsay Ann Hawker, and Fusako Shigenobu, founder of the now-disbanded Japanese Red Army.

However, things might slowly be changing thanks to the influx of an altogether different group of people. Many of the 120-odd flophouses in Nishinari are being converted into hostels, and the neighborhood now sees about 70,000 overseas travelers a year. Some have even gone so far as to describe it as the “Khao San Road of Osaka,” after the popular backpackers’ strip in Bangkok.

I stayed at Toyo Guest House, which is typical of the converted doya in the area. Most of the tatami rooms are tiny—less than 5 square meters—but come with an air conditioner, TV and futon. The toilets and showers are shared, and wouldn’t look out of place in a penitentiary, but at 1,700 yen a room it’s certainly cheap, and there’s a sento you can use for free at one of the other hostels around the corner.

The train fare to Kyoto is just 620 yen and, as manager Mr Takeshita points out, “you won’t find lodging this cheap there.” “Since five years ago, we’ve been getting a lot of travelers from the USA and Europe, and lately other parts of Asia, too,” he says. “It’s become really popular because of the internet.”

Takeshita recommends that guests check out Jan Jan Yokocho, an old-school street of eateries, as well as the Tsutenkaku area and Denden Town, Osaka’s electronics district. “Just don’t go here,” he says, marking a box on the map where the Kamagasaki district is located. “And here is the chemist’s road,” he adds euphemistically.

Convenient location aside, Nishinari does have a certain charm. The locals are friendly—although there aren’t many women, or people under 40—and there’s an unashamedly blue-collar vibe, with a comic theater, old-school shoji and go houses, cheap kushi katsu and suppon eateries, and even the odd 30 yen drink vending machine.

The illicit atmosphere attracts oddball characters at all hours of the day, including a sizeable contingent of transvestites. Nishinari is also home to Tobita, Osaka’s oldest red light district, where girls operate out of traditional houses with Amsterdam-esque windows, and the kitschy Shinsekai. The latter was constructed in 1912, with its northern half modeled on Paris and the lower half on Coney Island. Suffice to say that it now has a lot more in common with the latter.

Travel Tips

Nishinari can be accessed via Shin-Imamiya station (Osaka Loop line) or Dobutsuen-mae (Midosuji line). There are numerous hostels in the area, and prices range from 1,500 yen to 2,300 yen for the renovated establishments. If you want the bare minimum for a bare minimum price, Toyo Hotel is a good bet (www.hotel-toyo.jp). Be sure to visit Spa World, a “super sento” with an addictively kitsch range of themed bath areas. The Kamagasaki area is unsafe and best avoided.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    jinjapan

    cool. i've always wanted to stay in a slum. sounds like the vacation of a lifetime. i'll be sure to bring the wife & kids.

  • 0

    realmind

    Lets make one of these slums in all the cities. Welcome to all tourists. yokoso japan.

  • 0

    DenTok2009

    30 yen drink vending machine?! room comes with the use of a sento in another hostel? let's go check it out!

  • 0

    Papigiulio

    minami osaka is one big slum anyway, from namba down that is. Would wanna be found dead there.

  • 0

    stevecpfc

    The area is interseting to visit, but i would never recommend anyone staying there while on holiday.Not pleaseant in the evening for kids or those who may have had a sheltered upbringing.

  • 0

    goddog

    This is has been news. Why now?

  • 0

    Greapper1

    or you could just stay in a clean and safe internet cafe @1200 yen for the night....

  • 0

    tamanegi

    Nishinari should be burned down. It is dirty, it stinks, drunks urinate or fight in the streets at night and it is dangerous. Osaka people don not go there and most are ashamed to talk about this hell hole.

  • 0

    miamum

    Well be there - as soon as our kids get bigger we cant wait to return to our days of rats, sleeping on our purses, surviving on a loaf of bread for 2 weeks and listening to the guy in the bunk above promise to still respect the girl in the morning...

  • 0

    WilliB

    If it is anything like Sanya, which is Tokyo`s "slum", then it is not really a slum at all.

    I don´t think slums in the way we use the term exist in Japan.

  • 0

    stevecpfc

    A lot of these people are victims of society and although willing to work daily are stuck in their situation. Of course these days we see less and less empathy for people less fortunate than us.

    WilliB; There are places in Amagasaki which are much more run down than this area and would be considered a slum in any developed country.

  • 0

    kyushujoe

    Osaka people do not go there

    So the folks who live there, in Osaka, aren't "people"?

  • 0

    kokorocloud

    I kind of would like to go, not particularly because omg so cool!!11! but more as a learning experience.

  • 0

    HermioneGranger

    It sounds scary. I would be afraid that anything I left in my room would be stolen, or that I'd be pickpocketed on the street. No thanks. I'll take my vacations at a gorgeous, clean, smoke-free location somewhere in the tropics, thank you.

  • 0

    borscht

    Slowly the area becomes gentrified, hostel owners realize backpackers have more money than day laborers, increase the prices, and the next thing the day laborers know, they've been priced out of a room.

  • 0

    Piglet

    There's a rampant "slumification" of some areas of Tokyo metropolis too (eastern Tokyo, some areas in Chiba and Saitama). With the stagnant economy, this might unfortunately be more and more common.

  • 0

    manfromamerica

    Getting off the train, you’ll immediately notice the homeless men and drunks.

    Sounds like Shibuya, Harajuku, Ueno, or Shinjuku

  • 0

    nandakandamanda

    Reminds me of the slum in Coin Locker Babies.

  • 0

    Foxie

    Looks like a fun place to stay. Spa World is just amazing.

  • 0

    jianadaren

    When's the best season to go?

  • 0

    oberst

    sounds like a great location to make movies, Blade Runner redux ?

  • 0

    elbudamexicano

    Only in Japan?? This place in southern Osaka, even by Osaka standards sounds like a real dump, let alone by regular Japanese standards but thanks to the internet, cheap tourists from overseas get to stay there for cheap and go off and check out Kyoto that is only about 600 yen away by train? Good for these tourists and good for the local economy! Congrats!

  • 0

    thuganomics79

    Nishinari has certainly cleaned itself up in the last few years. People there are now actually making an effort to properly dispose of trash. The place was a complete dump 5 years ago. That being said, it's funny how people refer to this place as dangerous and a "hell hole". What nonsense. Stastically speaking Nishinari has a lower crime rate than other parts of Osaka eg. Namba or Umeda. I've walked through the kamagasaki "ghetto" area countless times at night. Try doing that in the backstreets of Manila or Phnom Penh. Even then if you exercise caution then you should be ok. Nishinari may be rundown but it has that retro Showa atmosphere about it.

  • 0

    WordStar

    Well, what can I say, except, "There goes the neighborhood."

  • 0

    BurakuminDes

    Cool! I will put this on my "to do" list of Japan and take my overseas visitors there next time we are in Osaka.

    “And here is the chemist’s road,” he adds euphemistically.

    I guess this means the place where the local junkies can score a hit?

  • 0

    sourpuss

    victims of a stale economy and lack of construction jobs

    ahhh, victims. right.

  • 0

    DentShop

    Ghetto? Not that bad. Movie theatres run old-school Japanese movies all day for about 400 Yen (stay all day), Spa-World is rad, the kushikatsu and cheap beer are a hit with any overseas visitor, turtle soup, lobster UFO catchers, Showa-era izakayas, two classic shotengais, great hidden away bars that could never exist in the West and clubs that attract sophisticated "gentlemen" with some of the craziest stuff you will see happen inside. Always take visitors here and they love it.

  • 0

    Piglet

    Of course, compared to slums in South-East Asia or even China, this is nothing and should probably be considered as a very rundown area. However, I predict this kind of areas will develop in Japan, especially outside big centers. Many Inaka area are almost dead (no more shops, average income half than in Tokyo, etc...).

  • 0

    palanteboricua

    ***manfromamerica - lets not forget Kannai station, Yokohama - an area in Fujimi-cho (northside from the baseball stadium)! Can't recall the slums name....

  • 0

    Sarge

    Japan's largest slum is upscale compared to most neighborhoods in a whole lotta countries.

  • 0

    Hotbox08

    That picture don't look like any slum to me. Visit a slum like Compton California or Detroit's East side, and you'll see what a slum really looks like. On second thought, maybe you should stay away from those areas.

  • 0

    littlebear

    Just came from Compton and Inglewood. I can't imagine it's that bad. Kids take a bus to avoid one street block at night if there's too much heat on the streets so they don't become a story in the newspaper if they get that far.

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