Osaka’s cursed town10 August, 2011 by Chad
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.