Osaka, where I was born, is known for having the highest crime rate in Japan. But, this may come as quite the surprise especially to those who have actually visited Osaka for sightseeing. Don’t get me wrong though. Osaka is, for the most part, a safe city. Foreigners will find it to be a safe place, though locals will not be surprised by this stigma. This is partly thanks to Nishinari (aka Kamagasaki, or Airin), which is considered to be the slum of Osaka.
Although the locals tend to avoid this area, it has surprisingly become a sort of mecca for foreign backpackers due to the cheap accomodations. The reason why they don’t mind staying in such a place is because it is statistically way safer than their own home countries. Apparently, there are even a few guide books that say this outright: “Nishinari-ku: the most dangerous area in Japan, but not as bad as your own country.”
But, can you really be confident that this place is not as dangerous as your own country? It’s possible that you may feel quite comfortable in those areas at home, but, many things are done differently country to country. So, how cheap are things in Nishinari-ku? Is it really worth visiting or staying here? Let’s find out in this two part article.
There are 24 wards in Osaka City, and one of them is Nishinari, which takes up a whole 2.8 square miles. If you type “Nishinari” in Google Maps, it will show you where the Nishinari Ward is. Perhaps you’ll even recognize some of the more popular landmarks nearby.
This area is famous for the Tennouji Park, Tennouji Zoo, the Tsutenkaku Tower, deep fried kebab-style restaurants, and “Spa World,” which has many different kinds of onsen from around the world as well as scary water slides. One slide is called “The Death Loop,” if that helps to paint a picture.
After reading the above paragraph you may be wondering something like, “Mami, you said the locals tend to avoid that area, didn’t you?” Well, the park and zoo are in Tennouji-ward and the other sight-seeing spots called Shinsekai (literally meaning “new world”) are all located in Naniwa-ward. Only Midousuji Boulevard separates Naniwa from Nishinari, but the difference is still quickly noticeable. So, if you are a little worried about going to Nishinari, make sure not to cross the road to the “other side” of Japan.
Furthermore, the slum area doesn’t cover the whole of the Nishinari-Ward either. The undesireable areas of Nishinari are found around Haginochaya, Taishi, and Sannou. In May 1966, Airin-chiku became the area’s offical name, but most of the locals continue to call this area “Kamagasaki” or “Nishinari”.
Although not found in the above mentioned areas, Japan’s largest red-light-district, Tobita-shinchi (a.k.a Tobita-Yuukaku) also makes its home in Nishinari-ward. Though it’s advisable to avoid this area in real life, especially if you’re a woman, when writing an article about Nishinari it’s nearly impossible to bypass.
Kamagasaki: Nishinari in Nishinari-ward
Until the mid Meiji-era (1868-1912 AD), Osaka’s slum area was located in Nagamachi, which is now Block 1-3 Nipponbashi in Chuuou-ward, and the Kamagasaki area was just a small fishing village with a graveyard and an accompanying execution grounds, a vestige of the Edo (1603-1867) Shogunate.
The Nagamachi area had many extremely cheap inns for day laborers (called Kichin-ya), but for the purpose of making more available accommodations for the fifth National Industrial Exhibition being held in 1903, a law was passed forcing all inns in the Nagamachi area to move to the Kamagasaki area in 1898. In turn this forced the day laborers to follow, and so began the Kamagasaki slum.
Just as a note, some people mistake Kamagasaki (or Nagamachi) area to be the distinctive village of Burakumin, but they are different. The Nagamachi and Kamagasaki slums were naturally formed by homeless people and wanderers, whereas the Buraku hamlets were officially formed as outcaste communities in the Japanese feudal era.
The Kamagasaki area is only ~500-800 square meters but the population is said to be around 20,000 to 30,000. The actual number is unknown because many of the people there are homeless and aren’t even on the residential registration. Since there are so many Doya-inns (previously known as Kichinya-inns) in such a small area, its population density is said to be 3 or 4 times that of Tokyo’s 23 wards.
Sakaisuji Street divides the area into West and East and each side has different characteristics. On the East side, there are many wooden rental houses and also a shopping arcade called “Tobita-hon-doori” (a.k.a Doubutsuen-mae-ichiban-gai). Thus, it still exhibits a similar resemblance to, and a taste of the ambiance of old Osaka. On the West side, there are many multistoried Doya-inns as well as restaurants and launderettes for laborers. Regional improvement facilities are also increasing in number.
Super Cheap Doya-Inns
In the 90’s there were around 200 Doya-inns. Now it’s nearly half of that due to the aging of the laborers. Some Doya-inns changed into public welfare housing where residents pay rent with public assistance. Although those public housing complexes are no longer available, other Doya-inns are open for not only day-layborers but anyone else who needs a bed. In fact, Doya-inns first started to be used by foreigners in 2002, when the FIFA World Cup was held in Japan and Korea.
News of the cheap accommodations and convenience traveled quickly among world travelers and now it’s becoming a backpackers’ paradise. I even came across a person who tweeted that he wants to make homeless and foreign friends at the same time, so he is thinking of staying over night in a doya.
The cost of Doya-Inns start at 400 yen/night (~$4). However, the cheapest places (400-1000yen/night) are very competitive and are usually already occupied by fixed residents. But, don’t worry. There are still plenty of other cheap places starting from 1000-2500 (~$10-$25) yen/night. Furthermore, if you were rich enough to pay over 2500 yen/night, you could stay at a nice “hotel” in and around this area, as well.
According to Hotel Price Index, the average hotel price in Japan is around $150/night, so now you have a better idea as to how cheap these Kamagasaki “hotels” really are.
In terms of what you’re getting, the average Doya-inn is around 54 square feet (3 tatami mats). The bathroom and toilet are shared, or you may have to go to another inn or hotel to take a shower. Some rooms are becoming non-smoking for backpackers, but you can still smell the stale cigarette smoke that will be stuck there for years to come.
What Else Is Cheap?
As many of you have probably already guessed by now, the accommodations are not the only thing that is inexpensive. Let’s have a look around to find out what else can be done on the cheap.
First, in Kamagasaki area, there are 5 super cheap grocery stores called “Super Tamade.” Super Tamade was founded in 1992, coinciding with the final decline of the Yakuza in Tamade of the Nishinari-ward. There is a well-known rumor that this discount grocery store chain is run by the Yakuza, but I will leave that up to your imagination.
This discount grocery chain goes to extreme lenghts to stand out in comparison to others, not only for their brightly decorated appearance but also their unbelievably cheap prices.
(A flyer of Super Tamade)
For example, they have a unique 1 yen (~1 penny) sale system. If you spend 1,000 yen or more, you can buy one of their special items at 1 yen. Several items are selected everyday and they are usually canned food, drinks, vegetables, meats, eggs, etc… The amount you can purchase at 1 yen is restricted, but it’s still a nice surprise, isn’t it? They are so friendly to day laborers that they also offer a variety of bento boxes starting at 200 yen.
There is also a 24/7 cafe restaurant called “Himawari” (meaning sunflower) managed by Super Tamade in the Nishinari-ward. They offer breakfast for about 300 yen and lunch sets for about 500yen.
Cheap Foods Other Than Tamade
There are many cheap teishoku (set menu) restaurants. For example, manpuku-shokudou provide “home-made” set meals for 400 to 500yen that will fill a traveller’s stomach.
Most of the restaurants in Kamagasaki also have a tachinomi (standing bar) because it’s more economical for both restaurant owners and laborers.
Tachinomis offer quick and simple meals, as well. For example, one place sells “cooked instant ramen” for 200yen and another sells “homemade curry rice” for 300yen.
Free meals are sometimes distributed in a public park, but you need to bring a container and wait in a super long line.
Cheap Vending Machines
Although Japan’s cheapest beverage vending machine (10yen) is in the Fukushima-ward of Osaka, they have their own cheap cans too. All of the cheap beverages are made by Sangaria, a local company in Osaka. The average price of Kamagasaki’s vending machines ranges from 50 to 70 yen/can, whereas the average Japan-wide price is 120 yen. Unlike the cheapest vending machine in the Fukushima-ward, at least here you actually get to choose what comes out of the machine.
Interestingly, Sangaria gets its name from a famous Chinese poem called “Spring View” by Toho, “国破れて山河在り” or “國破山河在 (guó pò shān hé zài)” in Chinese, which means; “The country is destroyed; yet mountains and rivers remain.” So, I feel like the company is saying, “Even though Japan was bankrupt, Sangaria’s cheap beverage will remain.” Please don’t say that I’m the only one that thinks that because they made a song for a commercial that went;
いち にい サンガリア
1 2 3(san)-garia
にい にい サンガリア
2 2 3(san)-garia
The country is destroyed: yet Sangaria remains.
You should invite both friends and foes. (Yondaria sounds like “youndariya” in Kansai-ben, which means “you should invite”)
みーんなで仲良く 飲んだりア サンガリアコーヒー
You should all drink Sangaria coffee together as friends. (Nakayoku-nondaria sounds like “nakayoku-nondariya” in Kansai-ben, which means “you should drink as friends”.)
Needless to say, there are many alcohol vending machines, as well.
Seemingly Cheap Shops
There are also several shops displaying unique signboards. For instance, the board of a clothing store called Yasuda-ya says “まだ高いですか!!”, which means “Is it still expensive?”. There is an Izakaya restaurant in the arcade that goes by the name “甘すぎてすいません”, which means “Sorry for spoiling you”. Speaking of “sorry,” sorry, but I’m not sure if these places are actually cheap or not, but it’s a fairly safe bet given their signs and where they are located.
There is a small movie theatre called Tobita-Cinema where you can see 3 movies for 800 yen. If it is Tuesday, it’s 500 yen.
Cheap Or Even Free Haircut
The average price of a haircut is around 800 yen in this area. If you were really broke, sometimes volunteers will offer you a free haircut. There’s usually a notification posted somewhere beforehand. In order to get a free haircut, you have to get a numbered ticket in the morning in the public park because they usually have a maximum limit.
Granted, if you’re reading this you’re not likely to be homeless, but don’t be taken aback that I’ve told you where to get a free haircut. Believe it or not, when I took my boyfriend to Spa world, we came across a caucasian man sleeping on flattened out cardboard boxes.
At first we weren’t able to see him because of the blanket he’d fashioned out of cardboard to get away from the drizzle that night. Yes, he wasn’t even able to stay in a Doya-inn and had to do Aokan (sleeping outside). We had some leftover nan bread from the curry restaurant we’d just come from, so my boyfriend offered it to the man.
As he rustled to grab the bread we realized that he was not Japanese when his response – “Ah, cheers man. Thanks” – was unmistakably that of a native English speaker. We never asked him anything about how he came there, but like I said at the beginning of the article, you never know what will happen there.
What’s Coming Up Next
Now that you know what’s here (and how cheap it is), please come back tomorrow to learn more about the “dodgy” side of Nishinari. It will tell you what makes this place somewhat dangerous (though maybe not as dangerous as you might expect). Go ahead and rent out a night in a Doya-Inn and we’ll see you in the morning!