by Dinh Long Pham
Shinsekai district was built in 1912 in Southern Osaka and was modeled between Coney Island and Paris, even boasting its own Eiffel Tower. Shinsekai, meaning quite literally, “New World,” aimed to attract foreign visitors with its futuristic vibes and modern entertainment area. But somehow along the way became better known as a relic of the ancient and genuine Osaka--and as Japan’s most dangerous neighborhood.
Abandoned throughout the World Wars, Luna Park (Shinsekai’s amusement park) was left to ruins--foreign visitors never came and its Tower demolished. The dream of Shinsekai being a cosmopolitan “New World” never quite came to be.
Today, the heart of this working class playground has been reconstructed into the 103-meter-high Tsutenkaku Tower (looking as if the Eiffel Tower dropped itself onto the Arc de Triomphe). Around there, you’ll find yourself lost in a maze of colorful streets, giant signs, all-you-can-eat kushikatsu restaurants, game stands, and lots of people rubbing Billiken’s feet for good luck. Billiken (or “The God of Things as they Ought to Be”) is a local folklore imported from the US and the statues are literally everywhere in northern Shinsekai.
As you explore south, the colorful streets progressively give place to Japan’s biggest slum: Kamagasaki. Kamagasaki is home to many homeless and day workers wandering around waiting for short-term labor. To be honest, the area’s reputation is mainly due to the country’s high safety standards; nevertheless it still feels rather unexpected to feel this kind of atmosphere in Japan.
Next to Kamagasaki is Tobita Shinchi: Osaka’s provocative “Red Light District”. Even though the brothels officially turned into “traditional Japanese restaurants” (per law), the open living room where the “waitress” welcomes her customer is unequivocal.
Nowadays, Shinsekai is having a sort of renaissance. Its original dream is about to come true: foreign visitors start to flock there for cheap accommodation, to see Osaka as it was before, fill their munchies with kushikatsu buffet, and, of course, rub Billiken’s feet for good fortune.