Friday, 4 August 2017

Living in one of Japans most notorious neighbourhoods

Compared to London where I use to live or the numerous towns and cities I’ve wandered
through during my travelling life. I’ve somehow ended up living in the apparently notorious slum of Nishinari. Everyone I speak to recoils with shock and horror when I utter where I live. Words such as abunai (dangerous) and honto (really?) are the instant responses from Japanese people I meet in my everyday life. I just smile and soon begin to wonder am I just naive?

If there are this many people saying this to me it must be right, honto?

I was determined to not let others fears imprint on me……

Open land is rare here, like many major cities and Osaka isn’t the exception. Though I have somehow found myself in front of a patch of greeny. Several benches sit dotted around the edge, a sand pit, old exercise structures remain. A metal fence sits around the edge, these are 5 meters high and I wonder if it’s for rogue baseballs or to keep the high number of homeless out…

Every morning a trio of elderly men meet up and make several laps of the park. Sometimes they over take, sometimes they keep in formation, sometimes one will tap out and watch a lap before jumping back in. I first discovered their exercise regime/game upon hearing a raucous laughter coming from the outside, My Japanese is a work in progress and understanding the kansai dialect is another ball game altogether. It is lovely to hear them talk or bicker regardless. They joke loudly and make animated gestures which are injokes and result in more contagious laughter. They continue this amusing banter as they pace their way around the park keeping their fitness up. After which they all rest on a bench in the sun and continue their chin-wagging regaling old ventures. I can only imagine what they relive. Past adventures, lovers, dreams, desires or perhaps just local gossip.

Other local residents include the huge flock of house sparrows who served as homesickness relief when I first landed here. They flit over the rooftops. Hopping and bouncing seeking dozy flies. They search in tiny groups but regroup to chit and chat loudly. Perhaps swapping details of the current hot spots for food and decent nesting sites, I can only guess.

I work in a busy guest house and often find the solitude I need on the roof. Only the gentle humming of the washing machines are the only disturbance I get up there. Besides the guest house sits a derelict home. It is slowly succumbing to the affects of weathering and neglect. Inside I’ve only seen the residents cats arguing and bickering. An assortment of rotting wood, greying cement and wonkey tiles cling to the slanted roof. Considering the area maybe I should be surprised there are not more haikyos (derelict places). A part of me would like to wander inside and peruse the past lives spent there. Where are they now? How did it become derelict?

Being one of the poorest district in Japan it naturally accumulates a lot of homeless people. These vagabonds are no bother though unlike others I’ve known. They keep to themselves and have their own spot where they sleep each night in the four meter wide roofed corridors which links the shops and streets whilst providing shelter from the rain.
They sleep surrounded by their personal belongings; books, magazines, half price bento boxed, beer cans, empty sake glasses, porn, bags of empty cans waiting to be exchanged for yen, clothes, bikes to the lucky ones. Some make cardboard walls and bury themselves in various blankets and sleeping bags. Their shoes sit undisturbed just outside their wall. When I walk to the 24h supermarket I pass them sleeping and marvel at their endurance to bear the cold each night. Never have I worried about them, they discretely observe me and as I pass I them. Occasionally after they’re been drinking they’ll shout “herro!”  But this is probably out of excitement at seeing a gaijin (foreigner) and a sudden outburst. I return the friendly gesture with a cheery wave and smile.

Precisely two streets behind my home is the red light district. Walking through here during the day you’ll believe that everyday was a national holiday. All the shutters are down and the neighbourhood is quiet. Come night though and you’d question where you had suddenly found yourself. Golden lanterns illuminate the streets and up come the metal shutters. Inside sits a madam or mistress. A mature woman who was clearly stunning in her youth and still retains the glamour of her former days. She sits poised waiting for the next customer with money to burn. Mirrors sit strategically positioned allowing her to spot these walking wallets to give maximum beckoning and encouragement to approach.

Behind the mistress sits a new generation of the lady in red. All are different to suit the varied tastes of customers that pass through. Some girls wear school uniforms, some kimonos, other fantasy, others lingerie and then night gowns. Whatever you desire you’ll find it here. They wear layers of makeup to enhance their beauty, their hair is perfect, their eyes making contact with every potential customer. Some preen with large oval mirrors, some watch hoping for maybe a gentle lover, others wave and smile. The rest watch as a strange, lone, female gaijin passes through on her way home.
Of course prostitution is illegal in Japan. The apparent way to bypass this is for the girl to “fall in love” with the customer so it appears legit - in some way. Of course money is still exchanged so I’m not sure how that part is bypassed. Perhaps something about the resident Yakuza has helps turned a blind eye. I can only surmise.

Another marvel found only in Osaka is the collection of cheap supermarkets known as Tamade or Supa Tamade for the huge 24h ones. Here you will find all walks of life, normally near the dodgie end of the scale. Nevertheless I’ve never had a problem. Come 8 pm the stores suddenly fill with people trying to buy the half prices goods mainly bento boxes and bakery boxes. A midnight wander to the Supa Tamade should be included on all tourists itineraries to experience the delights of the neon lights and firework themed outer display. The looping prerecorded voice bellows over the the loudspeaker which spouts a few phrases without choice to the customer ears.

The sheltered passageways of the shopping arcades invite a whole host of visitors to their doors. The transition from day to night is again stark. Cheap clothes with bright sales tags, open stalled vegetable and fruit shops spill out onto the front, liquor brimmed shelves competing with the plentiful vending machines. Cosy, intimate bars awaken at night allowing the lone men to be doted on by pretty hostesses and sing to the heart's content - for 100Y a song.

The bath houses are open all throughout the day, some till 1am. I usually head over at 11pm and stay over till after midnight. Taking full advantage of the steam room, sauna with tv, the cold plunge pool, the jacuzzi and jet area, the pulse pool which feels unnerving, the mineral pool and my personal favourite, the outdoor pool. All of these delights are obviously enjoyed after a thorough wash by the shower hose and tap area. I smile and make limited conversation with the tiny 30kg elderly lady as we sit side by side in the nude washing. The tattooed covered lady smiles at me and gives me the hairdryer after seeing my long hair. We exchange a little Japanese and smile. She has obviously Yakuza ties but is completely normal to me.

Of course as I write all this from my rooftop position these are still people here who want to do good.  It’s not all doom and gloom here. The park that I overlook is tended to by an unnamed local. He faithfully opens and locks the park everyday at 10am and 4pm. I can time my watch by him. He litter picks the careless left overs from others and with pride makes sure everything is as it should be.
And it’s not just him. I’ve seen teams of people adorn with orange stripes picking up litter and placing them into the correct containers on wheels. Even the cigarette butts are collected. The area though once bleak and depressing is on its way up and out of the doom. Redevelopment and new businesses are springing up, tourists flock to the area due to cheap accommodation, the coming Olympics too will aid the growth of the area.     

I've spent eight months here and will miss the place when I leave. It has grown under my skin and left its imprint there. I will not forget the people I've met here from all walks of life and nationalities, the nightly bimbles and karaoke binges, the summer heat.

Everything will come with me as leave to explore more of Japan.  

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