When most people think of Japan, they picture futuristic Bladerunner-esque cityscapes, vermillion gates and shrines, and Instagram-ready delicious food.
But Shin-Imamiya, a neighborhood in Tokyo's eternal rival city Osaka, is one of those rare places where even locals hesitate to walk alone at night. As you step off the train in neighboring Tennoji station, with its soaring sky walks, bustling malls, name-brand toting young people, and Abeno Harukas, Japan's tallest skyscraper, you feel like you've slowly slipped into an alternative world as you head toward Shin-Imamiya Station. The streets slowly become more quiet, dozens of old bikes are haphazardly parked on the streets outside apartment complex, the windows so closely packed that it looks more Kowloon than Tokyo, and the sudden concentration in budget hotels with flashy names becomes unmistakable. I saw my first Japanese pawn shop at Shin-Imamiya (the first in 6+ years of living in Japan) - I saw at least two more within a four block radius after that.
"Where are we?" my husband asked, taking out his cellphone, noticeably uncomfortable. He was a life-long Yokohama resident, so he'd never heard of Shin-Imamiya's reputation, but something already felt wrong. We were standing outside a fluorescent-illuminated church. Giant sheets of paper had been taped over the wall and spray painted on it like towering red graffiti were the words: "Why should anyone believe in Christ?" in Japanese. Below that, a television was broadcasting what looked like a bearded man in a white lab coat, reciting Bible verses, interspersed with footage of some unknown riot. Garbage bins and ripped vinyl bags were stacked like shiny black mountains on either side, looking like no one had come to take it away in weeks.
"Oh...how much did this place cost again?" my husband asked, staring down at his cellphone.
"What does that mean?" I snapped, tired from dragging our luggage for nearly a kilometer, my laptop weighing down on my back. I needed to use the bathroom but there was surprisingly no convenience stores in sight.
"See, that's the hotel, do you notice anything else interesting?" he said, handing me the cellphone with that tense smile he gets when I tell him I have a great new idea at 2 in the morning.
"No," I said, handing it back to him.
"The hotel is one block from a homeless shelter."
I guess I was going to see my first Japanese homeless shelter today too.
Shin-Imamiya is in the Nishinari area of Osaka, which has a history as a haven for day laborers. Over the years, there have been a number of riots and the area is also known as where Tatsuya Ichihashi (convicted murderer of British English teacher Lindsay Ann Hawker) was able to hide and find work for several years. For people who cannot afford monthly rent, the area is filled with super budget hotels called DOYA where you can pay as little as 1500yen (~$15) per day for a bed and use of a shared shower room. Each room, often no larger than 12sq ft is shared by 2-3 people. Many work at temporary construction jobs or as part-time staff at pachinko parlors or all-night bars. There are often women's only floors for safety reasons. Nearby shops offer “rental storage” where people can pay a few dollars a day to keep their few possessions since most rooms offer little to no storage space. To take advantage of the influx of backpackers, many of these places now have English signs outside saying "Luggage Storage."
As we walked into our hotel, a tall man in glasses and a gold chain asked if this was our first visit. He had a Mandarin-lilt to his Japanese and looked like he was still in high school. We were explained the rules: the hours for the shower room, the wifi password (which didn't work), and I was given the code for the padlock on the door to the women's bath. He apologized in advance for the long wait times for the elevators. Next to us, the other receptionist, a middle-aged man with orange tanned skin was checking in two Japanese girls who looked equally rattled.
When we got to the room, my husband sat on his bunk bed, staring out the metal barred window before he began researching alternative hotels. "Are we going to survive the night?" he said, only half-jokingly. I was frankly fascinated by the entire experience, until I lifted my blanket and saw small brownish red stains over my sheets.
Our floor was filled with Chinese tourists. They came in large groups, occupying several rooms in a row. They visited the bathroom in pairs, joking happily as they shared Japanese snacks, leaving their doors open like college students. Understandably, the few real residents, the Japanese dayworkers, looked visibly puzzled and out of place whenever we saw them. In the lobby you'd find rowdy groups of Chinese or Thai tourists with their Anello backpacks and UNIQLO jackets, bags of electronics and toys bought at Yodobashi Camera at their feet as they look up restaurants on their iPhone maps, take selfies, and snack on taiyaki. Meanwhile, clustered at a separate table was usually a quiet group of Japanese people in mismatched t-shirts and shorts, eating discount bentos or cup noodles, or watching baseball on the small television bolted to the ceiling while sipping on Ozeki one-cup sake, a get-drunk-quick-and-cheap alcohol infamous for its popularity with homeless people in Japan. They'd sometimes glance over at the foreigner groups, annoyed at the sound but also afraid to make eye contact, not knowing how to say "be quiet" in English or Chinese.
For many of these hotels, the flood of tourism over the past decade from nearby Asian countries like China, Taiwan, and Thailand has been a windfall. Many of these hotels that had relied entirely on walk-in customers or weekly/monthly contracts from day laborers, now looked online to reach this massive pool of new business. Many were signing with popular travel and booking sites like Rakuten Travel and Jalan to fill up their rooms. During popular tourism seasons like spring cherry blossoms or autumn foliage, while most mainstream hotels or popular airbnbs may fill up months in advance, these budget hotels with their seemingly endless number of rooms, numerous amenities, and low prices seem like a miracle to foreign travelers.
The narrow alleyway arcade through Shin-Imamiya toward Shin-Sekai is lively and retro with random air gun carnival-like games and standing bars. Despite how the area has a reputation of not being safe (with two yakuza gangs being headquartered in the Nishinari area), there were so many foreigners walking around with their giant backpacks, playing the air gun games, taking photos of Showa-era signs with their DSLR cameras, and laughing at their 100 yen vending machine winnings, that it was impossible to feel threatened. Even my husband, who had told me it was probably best not to take photos, gave up half-way and said I should just do whatever I wanted.
After finishing up our dinner at KUSHI-KATSU DARUMA, a famous kushi-age (deep-fried skewers) chain in Osaka, we take a walk through the bubbly Shin-Sekai area which is just a few hundred meters from Shin-Imamiya. Literally translating to "New World," Shin-Sekai is one of Osaka's most retro-looking neighborhoods with its endless neon signs and its own seedy reputation for gambling. Home to TSUTENKAKU, a depressing imitation of the Eiffel Tower (dubbed one of the top “most disappointing famous sights” in Japan), the area was developed and modeled after Paris and New York's Coney Island in the early 20th century, but now exuded the aura of an abandoned carnival.
Within a walking distance of our hotel is one of the most infamous prostitute districts in Japan, TOBITA SHINCHI and KAMAGASAKI (aka Airin), one of the few that survived both the anti-prostitution laws of the 1960s and increased police raids of the early 2000s. Most of these brothels exist under the legal guise of a traditional Japanese restaurants (RYOTEI) with a young woman often kneeling at the entrance and an elderly woman sitting next to her who will then try to call customers in. While prostitution is illegal in Japan, here it feels surprisingly like Amsterdam. The legal explanation used by these places is that "These women are just waitresses. When a customer comes, he may fall in love with a waitress and we cannot be responsible for what they do as a couple." There are even “information stations” in the area to explain which places to go for your sexual preferences and proclivities, and once you leave a “shop,” the owner will give you a candy as a sign to other nearby shops that you’ve already “finished” (so they do not have to waste your time or theirs by trying to pull you into their shop).
For those with lower budgets and more interest in PG-rated merriment than physical satisfaction, there are also countless SNACK/Karaoke bars throughout the small alleys in the area, also usually run by an old woman at a bar and a younger female helper. You can hear the echo of microphones and drunken renditions of enka and Queen late into the night.
As we walked down the karaoke bar alley, we also noticed many apartment buildings advertising “Open Rooms.” These signs were not printed out and taped to the wall or windows for a current vacancy —these were giant neon signs glowing with "OPEN ROOM," bolted or built straight into the buildings, meaning that there would ALWAYS be an open room or that at least they could always make room. The lobby and streets outside these buildings were stacked with garbage bags and close to a hundred bicycles parked. The narrow building itself was less than four floors and couldn’t have possibly had more than 5 apartment units per floor. Where were all these bike owners staying?
In the morning, we crammed into the narrow elevator, a fan whirring above us. Two floors had been covered with duct tape and marked with "x" on the button panel. Someone ran on at the last minute, kicking his foot between the metal doors before they closed. A tall, bean-faced man with a mottled nose waited for the doors to re-open and then boarded; he looked like he'd come from Sri Lanka or India. He apologized as he stood in between my husband and me; a keychain from the popular schoolgirl idol anime "Love Live!" grinned at me from his backpack. The elevator descended one floor and stopped again. This time a middle-aged woman in a blue bathrobe and paper-thin slippers boarded. She held a basket of toiletries on her arm as she frantically texted something to a friend on WeChat. Two more floors down and the doors opened again. A bearded white man got on and now the elevator was buzzing with the static-filled jazz music leaking from his headphones. The sound cut off suddenly as the doors closed again. He murmured something none of us can hear. By the time the elevator doors opened to the lobby, I was desperately curious about what had brought each of these people to Osaka and what they thought of this place we had all just spent the night at.
In the lobby a family was adding hot water to their cup noodles. An elderly Thai woman I'd seen the night before was standing by the microwave in a leopard print shirt and 80s leggings, waiting for her food to finish heating, her hair the color of copper coins. There was a complimentary basket next to the microwave filled with instant coffee packs, sweetener, and those tiny containers of creamer. I asked my husband if we should shower since we'd spent the better half of yesterday battling crowds to see the cherry blossoms and dragging our luggage for several kilometers, but he gave me a bewildered look like I'd asked if he wanted to roast cicadas for breakfast.
There was no clear check-out time (we suspected at least half of the rooms in hotel were still unoccupied), so we decided to take a walk before moving to our next hotel closer to Tennoji Station. A few blocks away from the hotel, we found a tiny bar/cafe which was just large enough for two two-person tables, a cage-like counter (where drinks were mixed and all food cooked on a single hot plate). There was an empty round stage that looks like it was made from old cardboard boxes. “LIVE MUSIC” was written in English on a sheet of yellowed paper taped to the vinyl curtain hanging over the front of the shop. A white couple sipped on a beer and shared a plate of DOTEYAKI, a delicious local beef specialty whose sludgy appearance looks much less appetizing than it tastes. "Livin' La Vida Loca" flowed from a portable speaker on the counter. Outside the bar, an old half-drunk Japanese man in slippers was trying to talk to a group of German backpackers.
While many day workers and long-time residents of the area have found the influx of foreigners to be a nuisance and begrudging source of new income, most are just curious. Japan is deeply homogenous and has traditionally been a conservative country where there is still limited global news coverage (with the exception of North Korea) and the offensiveness of things like blackface are not understood. Despite the country's tremendous inbound tourism market, consistent immigration from neighboring countries, and having one of the world's largest national education budgets allocated to English education, the average Japanese person has few opportunities to communicate directly with foreigners.
"You like Japan?" the old man grinned red-faced at the group. He was clutching a bag from TAMA-DE, the hyper discount 24-hour supermarket chain that sells yakisoba and other box lunches for less than $2 (including questionably edible sashimi specials). The foreigners tried to ignore him, taking out their guidebooks and fiddling with their cellphones, until the old man patted the one with a cartoon sushi t-shirt on. "You like sushi?" he asked.
The tall German man looked at his friends and then sheepishly responded, "Yes, very good."
"Very good! Next you try kushi!" the old man pointed enthusiastically to the ground as if to say 'this place' and then to himself. "Here. KUSHI-AGE. Here. World Number 1!" he roared proudly and even the German man started to laugh with him.