Osaka’s Shinsekai: Like a Neon Phoenix (Highlights and History)
There is no place in Japan quite like Shinsekai. Yes, you can say this about many Japanese locales, but the atmosphere of this ribald, working-class neighborhood has a spark of brash, lively cheekiness that sits in contrast to the sedate, composed beauty of Kyoto and the bustling, moneyed vibe of Osaka’s Umeda. Located in the southern tip of Namida Ward and acting as the marking stone for the start of Osaka’s blue-collar southern half, Shinsekai is well worth the trip for anyone, but comes strongly recommended for those who need a break from tasteful temples or glass-and-concrete sheen.
The history of Shinsekai, which translates to mean “The New World,” ties strongly to the history of Japan’s economy. Its earliest seeds were planted in the first years of the 20th century, after a national exhibition opened in nearby Tennōji. This brought the attention of the developers who then opened Shinsekai in 1912 as a “Luna Park,” a sort of proto-amusement park based on the famous Coney Island park of the same name. Its southern half was themed on the streets of New York, and its northern on Paris.
The area thrived as a blue-collar enclave, but owing to a variety of social and economic factors, the area around Shinsekai began to decline after the war, and a riot in neighboring Kamigazaki (now called Airin-chiku) brought the area’s reputation to a nadir. Families left the area in droves, and for many decades afterwards Osakans considered these neighborhoods dangerous no-go ghettos, filled with tenements that housed the thousands of poor day-laborers who built the city in its modern form.
When Japanese economic growth ground to a halt in the 1990s, the area grew quieter as demand for construction labor declined. In the 2000s, Shinsekai and its neighborhood began to enjoy a kind of quiet renaissance as facilities were built in the area and more NPOs were opened to help the indigent of Airin-chiku. The modern Shinsekai is a far cry from it past, though even a laid-back, devil-may-care feel remains, one more reminiscent of Hong Kong or Shanghai than of anywhere else in Japan.
Now that you know the backdrop, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the place!
Easily the most recognizable landmark of Shinsekai, Tsūtenkaku is actually in its second incarnation. The first one, situated in the Paris section of the Luna Park, was modeled even more closely on the Eiffel tower. However, the park closed up business hardly a decade later, and a theater fire in 1943 spread into the tower, burning away much of the area. Demands for fresh iron stripped the tower to the ground, and it wasn’t until 1956 that Japan’s burgeoning post-war prosperity rebuilt it in the form you can enjoy today. Though now dwarfed by the many skyscrapers dotting the city, Tsūtenkaku (literally, “Through-the-Sky Tower”) was at one time among the tallest structures in East Asia.
In addition to its ever-changing cloak of bright lights, it is also home to a little-known secret. Look up, way way up, and you’ll see a crown of white light at the very top of the tower. This light is actually composed of two bands which forecast the next day’s weather. The top tells you the usual or AM weather for tomorrow, and the bottom the occasional or PM weather. White is “clear,” orange is “cloudy,” blue is “rainy”… and rarest of all, “pink” is “snowy.” For example, a white top and blue bottom would mean “clear then rainy” or “clear with occasional rain.” This information has been provided since 1979 by means of a dedicated line straight from the meteorological agency.
More than just the plump and cheerful symbol of Shinsekai, Billiken is the tongue-in-cheek guardian deity of the neighborhood. Designed by the American Florence Pretz, its figure purportedly came to Pretz in a dream. Now, Billiken is touted as the “god of things as they are,” and superstition says it’s good luck to “tickle” the statue’s foot. The main Shinsekai Billiken (now in its third generation) is in Tsūtenkaku tower, though you’ll find a variety of them throughout the streets, some of them even dressed up! Harkening back to its American origin, Billiken also happens to be a mascot of Saint Louis University, perhaps thanks to its few years in the sun as a fad toy in the early 20th century.
Today, we’ve looked at the history and symbols of Shinsekai. In the second half of our feature on the area, we’re going to delve into two famous foods of the area as well as an onsen of truly humbling proportions and a little shrine with a distinctly Osakan sense of the world.