Local residents eat takoyaki, Osaka's famous junk food, at a street stall. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)
OSAKA, Japan — In the not too distant past, the Shinsekai neighborhood of southern Osaka City was know more for seediness and squalor than as a tourist destination.
What Shinsekai — literally, "New World" — lacks in elegance, it makes up for in atmosphere and authenticity. And as it celebrates its centenary this year, tourists are again being drawn to one of the few remaining playgrounds of the Japanese working class.
On the rare occasions that Shinsekai is mentioned in international guidebooks, it is often in disparaging terms. An edition of Lonely Planet once advised visitors to "keep their wits about them" in what may be the "closest thing in Japan to a dangerous neighborhood."
While that level of caution seems absurd now, it should be pointed out that Shinsekai is within walking distance of two of Osaka's more insalubrious neighborhoods: the laborer district of Kamagasaki and the classic bordello-style brothels of Tobita Shinchi. Both interesting places, certainly, though best approached with caution.
But there is plenty of a more wholesome nature crammed into the boulevards and backstreets of Shinsekai: standing bars, retro cafes, restaurants and food stalls and, thanks to renewed interest in the area among Japanese visitors, the obligatory souvenir shops.
Given its "cosmopolitan" origins, it is fitting that Shinsekai is now attracting visitors from overseas. Overlooking the entire district is the imposing edifice of the 103-meter-tall Tsutenkaku, an observation tower originally built in 1912 designed to resemble the Arc de Triomphe at its base and the Eiffel Tower at its loftiest reaches.
The northern half of the area was modeled on Paris, with its streets fanning out in the manner of the elegant boulevards of the French capital. The area south of the "tower to heaven" was modeled on Coney Island, complete with the 132,000-square-meter leisure park that featured an arcade, rides, a music hall, theater and spa. Lunar Park's existence was short lived, however: It closed in 1923 and was not revived after Tsutenkaku, which had been damaged during the war, was rebuilt and reopened in 1956.
That Shinsekai was overlooked during Japan's rapid postwar development turned out to be a blessing. It has undergone a facelift in recent years, but remains arguably the best, and most visitor-friendly example of the real Osaka.
In keeping with Osakans' well-earned reputation for gluttony in a city known as "Japan's kitchen," most people come here to eat. Deciding where to dine can be a problem in an area with a heavy concentration of restaurants, from traditional izakaya "pubs" to intimate sushi joints and counter bars that appear as busy on weekday afternoons as on Saturday evenings.
The area's culinary claim to fame is kushikatsu: wooden or bamboo skewers of meat and vegetables, dipped in batter and breadcrumbs before being plunged into a deep fryer.
This is not food for the faint-hearted, although it is possible to offset the effects of pork belly and beef with marginally healthier options such as chicken wrapped in shiso leaves, shishito peppers, and much else besides. The indispensable condiment is a sweet, deep mahogany version of Worcestershire sauce, which sits glistening in rectangular steel trays.
As with so many Japanese dishes, there is an etiquette to kushikatsu dining. Don't dip your skewers in the sauce mid-bite — what the locals call "double dipping." Give the kushikatsu a liberal coating of sauce at the start, and refresh with slices of raw cabbage in between skewers.
The "triple whammy" of Osaka's signature dishes is completed by okonomiyaki and takoyaki.
Visually, okonomiyaki — a savory pancake made with flour, grated yam, julienned cabbage, eggs and a selection of toppings ranging from pork and squid to shrimp and beef tendon — is as far from a meticulously arranged lacquered tray of sushi as its possible to imagine.
Takoyaki is a cheap and filling street food best eaten on the hoof. The ball-shaped dumplings, cooked in iron pans with half-spherical molds, are usually filled with chunks of octopus, tempura scraps and a little pickled ginger and green onion. Like okonomiyaki, they are finished with a coating of mahogany sauce and mayonnaise, dried seaweed and bonito shavings.
Shinsekai is also a haven for for devotees of the Japanese board games igo and shogi. The clientele at gaming halls is exclusively male, the atmosphere defiantly smoky and the concentration almost palpable. If all that sounds too forbidding, there is always the nearby New Star, a gaming parlor filled with smart ball machines, an early version of the modern Japanese obsession, pachinko.
Locals believe Shinsekai's appeal lies in the proximity of all of the essentials for a day of pleasant miscellany — sightseeing spots, cafes, bars, restaurants, and the distraction of board games and low-level gambling.
Now, thanks to recent conversions of local flophouses that once accommodated laborers, it also provides that other essential for out-of-town visitors: somewhere to sleep.
The dozen or so dozen hostels are aimed at international travelers on a tight budget. Most charge no more than 2,500 yen [32 USD] a night, with some offering bicycle rental, free Wi-Fi and separate floors for female guests.
The qualities that bring Japanese to Shinsekai pander to our natural instincts for sustenance, visual stimulation, harmless distraction ...and perhaps the faint promise of the unexpected.
Today, exactly 100 years after its birth, this tiny, colorful slice of old Osaka has finally made it on to the international tourist map, and for all the right reasons.