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they are now called ryotei or "restaurants". They offer tea and snacks and a "waitress" to serve yo

Time:2019-05-09 19:18Shoes websites Click:

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Shinsekai district in Osaka, Japan.

Shinsekai district in Osaka, Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

Osaka's district of Shinsekai, or "new world", is filled with neon lights  that suggest the one-time glamour of old Osaka.

This new world was built in 1912 after the success of the Fifth National Industrial Exhibition in 1903 in Osaka. The northern half was modelled on New York and the southern half on Paris, reflecting an increasing interest in the West. It also included a Luna Park,  which featured an aerial tram connected to a tower. Modelled on the Eiffel Tower with a base inspired by the Arc de Triomphe, Tsutenkaku Tower was the second-tallest tower in east Asia and became the symbol of Osaka.

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 But none of this exists today. Luna Park closed in 1923 and in 1943 a fire destroyed the tower with the scrap metal used for the war effort. Changing tastes, war, and new and competing forms of distraction plunged the precinct into the doldrums.

Vintage neon: Shinsekai is a tourist drawcard.

Vintage neon: Shinsekai is a tourist drawcard. Photo: Alamy

Today nostalgia and retro charm are the drawcards to the area, which shares its history with a heritage red light district and a homeless labourers' area which has earned a reputation for danger.  A visit begins at twilight just as the neons and the vein-blue lights of the 1950s replacement Tsutenkaku Tower are switched on.

 Our night walking tour of the district is run by Andy, an Australian-Japanese former Melbourne policeman who has lived in Osaka for 12 years.  The tour includes the back streets of Shinsekai, what Andy calls the underbelly of Osaka. Andy says when it was opened, Shinsekai, with its mechanical rides, arcades, theatres, cinemas, hot springs and nearby Tennoji zoo, was the centre of leisure for Osakans.

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He takes us to the seventh-century Imamiya Ebisu-jinja Shrine. Ebisu is one of the seven gods of good fortune and Andy says that at New Year, about 1 million people, particularly business owners, come here to pray – and pay – for good luck, health, happiness and prosperity in the months ahead.

We then reach Tsutenkaku Tower. The name means "tower reaching heaven" and this version of the original has a retro outer-space look – a mere snack for Godzilla. A covered shopping arcade, or shotengai, provides a natural walking route from the tower.  As we sidestep into a parlour with dated computer games – Donkey Kong, Space Invaders – some of our group old enough to remember their playing days get misty-eyed. Outside there are rows of Gacha Gacha, mystery prize machines that for a few yen dispense kitschy items concealed in black plastic capsules.

Many of the tourists on the pedestrian-friendly streets are Japanese families who seem to be enjoying the neons, cheap restaurants and shops as they queue for a ride to the observation deck of the tower. The main intersection is a joyous jumble of vintage neons – perfect for photos, especially Zuboraya's giant fugu lantern. Founded in 1920, Zuboraya is famous for its expertise in preparing the potentially toxic fugu fish. Another restaurant, displaying images of sumo to reference the super-sized portions it serves, is a glorious blaze of lanterns.

In Janjan Yokocho Alley old men, one elderly woman and a young gun play Go and Shogi, a Japanese form of chess. Concentrating on their next move, they are oblivious to us with our noses pressed to the window. This is apparently the last Shogi parlour in the area. The scene, like a still from an old film, may die with this generation unless that young gun can recruit new players and the parlour obtains a heritage order.

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We pass graffiti shuttered doors and continue through Dai-ichi, a near deserted shotengai. Crossing the street, a retina-burning, neon yellow Tamade supermarket, known for cheap food, marks a boundary. Beyond here the colour drains as we enter a ramshackle area known as Kamagasaki.

Andy says this is one of the largest homeless communities in Japan. All cameras and phones are put away out of respect. So why are we here? Andy says tens of thousands of labourers came from all round Japan to get a job building Shinsekai, living here in Kamagasaki. But once it was completed they became unemployed. Too ashamed to return home with nothing to show for their efforts, they settled around here.  For generations of itinerant workers and homeless men, this has been the place to find shelter. Kamagasaki was often omitted from official maps and after riots with police in the '60s, the name was changed to Airin, but few use it. The yakuza's influence in this area declined in the 1990s and it hardly seems worthy of the reputation as one of the most dangerous places in Japan. But that often quoted warning, I'm told, is in relative terms – Japan is very safe.

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