Osaka Shinsekai

Osaka’s cursed town

10 August, 2011 by

Every bit of Shinsekai exudes nostalgia. But calling this old Osakan neighborhood preserved wouldn’t be quite appropriate. Most travel books would keep mum about this best forgotten town, as Shinsekai is particularly notable among locals for being Japan’s largest and seediest slum town.

When not picturing the fantasy of castles filled with samurai and geisha serving you tea, the picture of Japan painted overseas is of exquisite cuisine, the latest fashions and cutting edge technology around every corner.

Travelers hardly associate poverty with touristy Japan and are often shocked by the presence of homeless littered around metropolitan cities. But no where is the problem more real than at Shinsekai. If not for the obviously Japanese signage, one might think it straight out from a different time or country.

Streets of Shinsekai.

What makes Shinsekai quite as depressing is its remarkably unfortunate history. Translated literally as “New World”, Shinsekai began as a fair, inspired after similar exceptionalism projects in the West. The great Domestic Industrial Exposition was held at the grounds in 1903. An initially successful idea, millions flocked to the site to be amazed by the newest inventions of the time.

In the following years, the town expanded around the fair. It’s ego and ambition growing faster than its purpose. The neighborhood was reconstructed in the image of New York’s Coney Island, while erecting the Tsutenkaku Tower to imitate Paris’ Eiffel Tower.

Architecture straight out from a different era.

The intention was to create a new, miniature world where people could get lost in the Western atmosphere. Naturally, the idea never quite took off and was eventually shut down. Unsurprisingly, rebuilding the neighborhood wasn’t a priority after Japan was ravaged in the war.

Soon, the forgotten town became a hotbed for criminal activity but has since mostly cleaned up its act in the past decade. Stepping into Shinsekai, one cannot ignore the general atmosphere of sleaziness. But its not exactly the dangerous place that some other sources make it out to be either.

Painted with gaudy visuals.

A walk through Shinsekai is only about as life threatening as a walk through the shadier streets of Shinjuku or Asakusa, which is to say, not very much but is infinitely more depressing.

In recent times, tons of homeless from all over Japan have flocked to and have taken refuge in the areas surrounding Shinsekai. It is almost impossible not to cross paths with them when visiting Shinsekai and the many homeless are likely the reason for the stench of sewage and urine along the quieter streets.

Sort of a tourist town.

Shinsekai slowly advances but never quite at the pace of the rest of the country. Attempts to revive the neighborhood in the past have all ended in failure. Spa World, the largest building complex in the neighborhood lies in a semi-demolished state. As no one has the intention to purchase the property anyways. Many of the other lots remain in similar disfashion.

Like other shadier towns, Shinsekai has an active night life of the immoral kind as well as an abnormal number of eateries and religious places that seem to cling to this sort of area.

Lots of Takoyaki stands.

Locals choose to ignore their surroundings when visiting Shinsekai. Instead, the town has become famous as sort of an attraction.

Those who flock here, often come for one of two reasons. The first being to sample the town’s culinary specialty, Kushi Katsu. These are breaded cutlets that are deep fried on a skewer and dipped into Japanese Worcestershire sauce. Sticks start at 105 yen each.

Daruma is the name of the town’s busiest store. It has been in business since 1929 and occupies a spot just under the Tsutenkaku tower, the other main attraction at Shinsekai.

Tsutenkaku in the distance.

Once the tallest structure in Japan, the ominously named “heaven reaching tower” Tsutenkaku was first built in 1912 and disassembled during the war in 1943. The “new” 103 meter tall Tsutenkaku was actually built in 1956 to be a symbol for the town and a possible attraction.

But attempts to market Tsutenkaku as a tourist spot have met with little success. Like the rest of Shinsekai, Tsutenkaku has soaked up much of the depressing aura of its surroundings. Yet some still visit for the bittersweet feelings and the aerial view of the surrounding neighborhood. Entry usually costs 600 yen but is free with the Osaka Unlimited Pass.

View from Tsutenkaku.

For more pictures of Shinsekai, Tsutenkaku and Kushi Katsu. Visit the following day’s walk through Osaka.

Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.


Supermerlion's Webmaster and Editor-in-Chief. Singaporean Nikkeijin with over 12 years of experience in the media industry. Producer at a Japanese entertainment company. Former Web Developer, Graphic Designer, Multimedia Programmer, Manager and Consultant. Shoots with a Canon 5Dmk2 and Sony RX100-2.
  • Derek Jang

    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.

  • JPWatcher

    You’d think that Japan, with all its wealth banks and other financial institutions and government policies, would actually “help” its own people.

    I heard/read somewhere that Japan, particularly, Tokyo, has a large population of the “working poor” which includes the homeless. No matter what “trivial” jobs are available for its working citizens, the high cost of living in Japan has “doomed” many of its citizens from ever making a decent wage, much less having “affordable” housing.

    Japan does have ONE of the HIGHEST cost of living areas in the WORLD despite it being an industrialized nation! The nation also has debt which is currently double or triple their GDP! Heaven help the nation and the people when their economy REALLY implodes onto itself!

    What a sad state of affairs!!!

  • Qtyu33

    The main reason for the hobo is the crash of the property market in the early 1990s in which the country never recover from it