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In Defense of Shin-Imamiya, Shin-Sekai, and Nishinari

June 4, 2010 8 comments

Shin-Imamiya, Shin-Sekai, and Nishinari–these three places are known by people throughout Kansai as dangerous places. Guidebooks parrot the same mindless hearsay, advising people not even to set foot in these neighborhoods. I, for one, believe their reputation for being “dangerous” is undeserved, or at least highly exaggerated.

Let’s start with Shin-Sekai, the home of Tsutenkaku, Spa World, and delicious fugu and kushikatsu. This place has a reputation for being “dangerous,” but in all seriousness, there is almost nothing dangerous here. People talk about Yakuza presence, but it has been gone for decades. Of course, it is not the kind of place a woman would want to walk through alone at night, but for the most part it just smells bad because of all the homeless people living in the covered shopping arcades.

Then there’s Shin-Imamiya, that awful-looking, awful-smelling area at the bottom of the loop line, near the Airin labor center. There are many homeless people and generally creepy people, but there is minimal danger near in this station-front area. It is actually a popular place among backpackers and budget travelers from abroad, as many of the doya* that day laborers used to live in have been converted to extremely cheap youth hostels (2,000 yen or so a night), and the location is convenient for sightseeing in and around Osaka, as well as for nights out in Minami. The day laborers themselves are, for the most part, not bad people–many of them were workers who fell victim to economic downturn, were members of outcast groups, or else were “salarymen” and the like who couldn’t cut it in corporate culture and had no family to help them. Of course there are also alcoholics, criminals, and the like mixed in, but I don’t think that’s the norm. An interesting bit of Shin-Imamiya culture: on the south side of the JR station and west of the Nankai tracks, at around 5:00 am or so every morning, homeless, poor, and regular residents of the area put on a flea market, selling all sorts of interesting things they pick up from around town. While there’s nothing there really worth buying, it’s fun to browse through.

Lastly, there’s Nishinari. This ward became famous in 1991 when the Nishinari Riots occurred, stemming from dissatisfaction on the part of day laborers and homeless in the area and also in response to their unfair (and sometimes brutal) treatment by police. This sort of violence rarely occurs on such a large scale in Japan, a country that is considered extremely safe, and as a result Nishinari came into the spotlight as a “dangerous place.” Now, I’ll admit that Nishinari is not a very nice part of town by any means, and it really isn’t a very good place to live, but for the most part it’s safe as long as you know where to go and where not to go. (Tip: stay out of the southeast area, where Yakuza actually are still active.)

I spent about two years living in these areas (one year in Ebisucho just a short walk from Shin-Imamiya and right next to Shin-Sekai, and one year in Nishinari itself on the other side of Shin-Imamiya), so I have seen a lot of the good and the bad. These are poorer parts of town, but I truly think their reputation for being extremely dangerous is exaggerated, although their reputation for being filthy and dirty is spot-on. Although these areas are probably less safe than other parts of town, a little common sense is all you need to avoid trouble. Perhaps my attitude is related to my different perception of what is “dangerous,” having grown having grown up visiting American cities where real danger is easily encountered.

Furthermore, there is a really sense of community in these areas, whether it be in the Shin-Sekai neighborhood (an old neighborhood with pride in their history), among the homeless and day laborers, or among the many non-Japanese and other people who don’t quite fit in to society as a “normal” Japanese person might.

Before speaking so badly of a place, I think it should be visited and evaluated in person.

*Doya (ドヤ) is a slang term used by day laborers for facilities where small rooms can be rented out for short- or long-term stays. These facilities are used by many day laborers who stay when they have enough money (or when the weather is too cold), and sleep outside at other times. The term comes from the common word yado, which means home or lodging, but with the two Japanese letters ya and do put in reverse order (宿→ヤド→ドヤ). In order to stay in business among changes in day laborer demographics, owners of many doya have converted their facilities into youth hostels targeting backpackers from abroad and other budget travelers.

Pepsi Baobab

May 25, 2010 3 comments

It’s the time again. Yes, it’s time for another strange Pepsi flavor to be released in Japan. Previous incarnations have often been downright disgusting, but this time around it’s a bit different.

Pepsi Baobab.

What in the name of Amaterasu is a “baobab”? That’s the same thing I asked myself when I saw it in the Family Mart today.

The bottle has a little description written in Japanese: 「アフリカの大地にそびえるバオバブの木をモチーフにした開放感あふれる爽やかなコーラ!」, which means “a cola with a liberating and refreshing flavor, taking as its motif the baobab tree that towers over the vast African continent.”  So, as you can see, that doesn’t help us at all to understand anything except that baobab is the name for a big tree. And it’s hard to imagine “tree” being a flavor of soft drink.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Adansonia, also known as the baobab and many other names, confirmed that it is in fact a type of African tree native to Madagascar. Further reading informed me that its leaves are often eaten as vegetables, and the fruit and seeds are used in various sweets and dishes. Apparently Baobab is eaten in Europe, and also by the natives of Australia.

Oh, and Rafiki, that crazy old monkey in the Lion King, lived in a baobab tree.

Honestly, I don’t know if this Pepsi is supposed to taste like the leaves, the seeds, or the fruit. Or just a tree. This writer seems to think it’s the fruit, and I would have to agree because of its faintly sweet taste. Either way, it’s not too bad, especially when compared to such past monstrosities as Pepsi Shiso and Pepsi Azuki. So for those of you living in Japan, pick up some Pepsi Baobab today and tell me what you think!

Genji — Premium Soba in Namba

May 19, 2010 Leave a comment

This lovely little soba shop, crammed into the back streets in the heart of Namba, serves a variety of delicious, natural dishes, including some of the best soba you will find in Osaka. The shop is called Genji (源氏), and their goal is to provide customers with trustworthy ingredients that will contribute to their current and future health. Genji’s management personally selects only the finest suppliers of raw ingredients: soba noodles from Fukui, Ibaraki and Nagano Prefectures, rice and daikon giant radish from Okayama Prefecture (grown using little or no pesticide), and fresh spring water, a vital ingredient in good soba dishes, from Fushimi in Kyoto Prefecture. This blend of quality ingredients, consideration toward customers, a unique shop design with a rustic feel, and a wide variety of traditional and original dishes make Genji a must-try in the Minami district.

Genji is just a 3 min. walk or so from Namba Station on pretty much any line except JR–a map to can be seen here. Tabelog’s page in Japanese can be found here, and they can be contacted at 06-6633-5402. Store hours are from noon until 3 pm, and 6 pm to 11 pm (last order at 10 pm). They are closed on Sundays (except during holiday weekends).

Being an Expat

May 12, 2010 7 comments

There are numerous ranters on the Web who moan and groan about the unjust treatment they receive while living abroad. Once the initial novelty wears off, they gradually become bitter, even hateful, and begin to despise their adopted country.
In a broad sense, in Japan at least, there are generally two types of responses among expatriates to these attitudes and behaviors: they tell whiners to go home if they can’t take it, or else they band together and try to fight inequality. Don’t get me wrong–I am against inequality, and I think the world would be a great place if we assumed that others want the same fair, considerate treatment that we ourselves want. But one person usually can’t change the world, and I think fighting against all of Japan is a losing battle.
The key components to surviving as an expat in Japan are a thick skin (ability to survive adversity), a good reason for being here (hint: you can make one if you don’t have one yet), and the ability to see the good in the people around you rather than focus on the flaws. And adjust your expectations before you even get on the plane.
But enough negative talk. Below are some things I think make the expat experience a positive and worthwhile one. There will always be hard times, but if you focus on positives such as these, you will realize that what you are doing is unique and worthwhile.

  • You get new perspectives on the world that most people don’t have
  • You learn more about yourself, including your limits and abilities
  • As a representative for your country, you can improve the image of your people
  • There’s no shortage of challenges to help you grow–you get more out of life by not simply taking a “safe” route
  • You can experience a fascinating culture with an even more fascinating history
  • As an expat in Japan, you are in a unique position to easily meet other expats and visitors from all corners of the earth
  • You have a chance to master a difficult language and become one of the few in the world from outside Japan who can speak it well
  • You will come to better understand the position of foreign nationals in your own country, and respect their strength
  • You can travel from Japan to many other countries very easily
  • You will have two places to call home
  • Sometimes, it’s just a lot of fun

There are numerous ranters on the Web who moan and groan about the unjust treatment they receive while living abroad. Once the initial novelty wears off, they gradually become bitter, even hateful, and begin to despise their adopted country.

In a broad sense, in Japan at least, there are generally two types of responses among expatriates to these attitudes and behaviors: they tell whiners to go home if they can’t take it, or else they band together and try to fight inequality. Don’t get me wrong–I am against inequality, and I think the world would be a great place if we assumed that others want the same fair, considerate treatment that we ourselves want. But one person usually can’t change the world, and I think fighting against all of Japan is a losing battle.

The key components to surviving as an expat in Japan are a thick skin (ability to survive adversity), a good reason for being here (hint: you can make one if you don’t have one yet), and the ability to see the good in the people around you rather than focus on the flaws. And adjust your expectations before you even get on the plane.

But enough negative talk. Below are some things I think make the expat experience a positive and worthwhile one. There will always be hard times, but if you focus on positives such as these, you will realize that what you are doing is unique and worthwhile.

You get new perspectives on the world that most people don’t have

You learn more about yourself, including your limits and abilities

As a representative for your country, you can improve the image of your people

There’s no shortage of challenges to help you grow–you get more out of life by not simply taking a “safe” route

You can experience a fascinating culture with an even more fascinating history

As an expat in Japan, you are in a unique position to easily meet other expats and visitors from all corners of the earth

You have a chance to master a difficult language and become one of the few in the world from outside Japan who can speak it well

You will come to better understand the position of foreign nationals in your own country, and respect their strength

You can travel from Japan to many other countries very easily

You will have two places to call home

Sometimes, it’s just a lot of fun

Umeda Kita Yard Redevelopment Project

April 21, 2010 6 comments
Firstly, I would like to thank all my readers and fellow bloggers for supporting Osaka Insider. This is officially my 50th post, and while Osaka Insider is a still a new face on the Internet, the increasing readership and lovely comments have encouraged me to keep going. Thank you!

Construction started in March 2010 in Umeda’s Kita Yard (北ヤード), an area located directly next to JR Osaka Station that has been used as a freight terminal throughout its history until now. The area has always been an eyesore in the upscale district, and the redevelopment of this area will essentially “complete” the Umeda area. According to the development project’s website, phase one is scheduled to be complete in March 2013. According to various sources, the entire redevelopment will be complete between 2020 and 2025.

Phase one consists of a series of buildings forming a district known as the “Knowledge-Capital” (inappropriate hyphen placement is their English, not mine). It will supposedly be a multi-purpose commercial-residential-research district, focusing on an international gathering of minds combined with cutting-edge technology. Cutting through all the flowery descriptions, the reality will be a mixed office-shopping-residential district, along with facilities for conferences, conventions, research, and knowledge-workers. There will also be green space modeled after Osaka’s current overarching development theme, the “city of water.”

The above is my summary of what the planners envision, but now I’d like to share my personal thoughts. The Kita Yard is a giant eyesore in Umeda, especially when going to the Umeda Sky Building or Yodobashi Camera, and it also acts as an unwelcome reminder of Osaka’s dirty, industrial past. The land in question is probably the most expensive property in Osaka, and I have high hopes that they will redevelop it in such a way as to add more originality and fun to the Umeda district.

I think the idea of a “Knowledge-Capital” will flop, and the new area will essentially be an expansion of Umeda as a shopping district, with new and extremely expensive housing added in. About a third of the area is dedicated to housing and hotel space, another third to offices, and another third to commercial facilities with a smattering of “Knowledge-Capital” commercial zoning. Throughout Japan’s modern urban development history, there have been many attempts to make technology-based districts or districts revolving around vague concepts such as knowledge or internationalization, and all of them have simply turned into upscale commercial districts in the end–I have almost no doubt that this time will be no different.

In other words, this new part of Umeda will simply be an expansion of the current upscale shopping and central business district. What is needed is some originality, something to make Umeda stand out. This cannot be accomplished by simply throwing in a few department stores, overpriced restaurants and brand-name department stores for gold-diggers and himo. Umeda is a fun place, but it has always felt a bit like a Kansai version of Tokyo’s Shinjuku rather than something uniquely Osakan, as places like Namba, Tsuruhashi and Shin-Sekai are.

Furthermore, areas in the central city north of Osaka Castle Park and Utusbo Park are severely lacking in quality parks and pleasant green space (I’m not counting the drab Yodogawa riverfront), so quality parks and open areas rather than a few sad-looking shrubs are sorely needed in Umeda. These would likely raise property values in the area even further (which must be of some interest to developers there). Osaka has some of the most well-planned parks I’ve encountered in Japan, and a new one in Umeda would be a definite plus for residents.

Finally, this development plan coincides with transportation network expansion projects, namely by JR and the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau (public operator of subways and buses in Osaka). JR has long been considering a namboku (“north-south”–name TBD) line going underground from a new Kita-Osaka Station in Umeda, through to the existing JR Namba Station and continuing from there on current tracks to Tennoji Station. This would not only provide an alternative route for regular trains and tokkyu special express trains going north-south (they currently use the loop line), it would provide an alternative route for JR freight traffic, as well as new public transportation along Naniwa-suji (boulevard). Osaka City is considering extending its Yotsubashi Line to connect with Kita-Umeda and continue north through Juso to Shin-Osaka Station (where the shinkansen stops). Although they are still in the discussion phases, these moves could greatly improve the Osaka City and Kansai area rail networks and improve ease of movement around the city.

I have mostly commented on phase one of the plan, because that is the only one where details are clear. Only time will tell what the new Umeda will look like, but I have very high expectations that the positive direction Osaka city planning has taken will continue to pick up momentum with this project.

Take a look at the development project’s website if you are interested in learning more.

Photos by Wikimedia Commons.

Still Time for Cherry Blossoms in Osaka

April 7, 2010 2 comments

Last weekend was the big one for cherry blossom viewing (hanami) in Osaka, but in case you missed it, grab your picnic gear because there is still time left. I mentioned the cherry blossoms of the Mint building and Osaka Castle Park in a recent post; this time I will list a few more scenic places in Osaka to go for hanami.

  • Shitennoji Temple: The grounds of this beautiful old temple complex, rich with the culture of Osaka past and present, is a lovely way to take in the sights of spring. Shittenoji is located just a few minutes on foot from Shittenoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station (Tanimachi Subway Line).
  • Kema Sakuranomiya Park: This park, located to the northeast of Tenmabashi and the northwest of Kyobashi, stretches along the Okawa River. Beautiful under ordinary circumstances, the scenery here is fantastic at this time of year with fluffy pink and white flowers reflecting off blue waters. You can get here most easily from Sakuranomiya Station (JR Osaka Loop Line).
  • Banpaku Kinen Koen (Expo Commemoration Park): This is one of the best sites in Osaka thanks to its superb facilities, beautiful natural scenery and imposing Tower of the Sun. It’s even better during cherry blossom season. Located in Suita, this park can be reached via the Osaka Monorail (get off at Banpaku-kinen-koen Station).
  • Daisen Park: Here you can take in cherry blossoms in Sakai, surrounded by the ancient tombs of emperors past. The Sakai City Museum is located just steps away, in case you are interested in learning about the local history. Daisen Park is only a short walk from Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line.

For information on other parts of Japan, check out japan-guide.com’s cherry blossom forecast!

Blow Bar

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Blow Bar is a reggae bar tucked away in the heart of Minami。 It’s ideal for going out with friends in groups of any size, and also for parties. The laid-back island atmosphere will put you at ease, and the reasonably priced food and drinks won’t empty your wallet. Blow’s only disadvantage is that it doesn’t provide a good atmosphere for solo bar-hoppers, at least on non-event days. Keep an eye out for DJ events, live music and seasonal parties, which are held often at Blow. If you are thinking of dropping by for the first time, check out their 16th anniversary party this coming weekend (April 2-4, 2010).

Blow Bar is a 5 min. walk north from exit 25 of Namba Station (subway), or a 5 min. walk south from exit 7 of Shinsaibashi Station: walk along Midosuji until you reach the Midosuji-Mitsuderacho intersection, walk one block west, turn left, and the bar will be right in front of you. My Google Maps directions are here. Blow is open 6 pm to 5 am every day, and their phone number is 06-6211-4300. You can also view their website here (some parts, including the menu, are in English).