osaka flâneurie (II): kita and minami

03Mar06

Way back a million years ago in December, on the last day of Hsuan’s visit in Japan, Hsuan and I decided to have a night out on the town since he still hadn’t had a chance to see much of Osaka. Osakans tend to divide Osaka into two zones, Kita (“North”) and Minami (“South”). Kita Osaka, essentially the Umeda area, is primarily one giant shopping district with some office buildings, bars, restaurants, and a sex entertainment district thrown in on the side. Minami Osaka is also a shopping district, but it’s historically linked to the pleasures of eating and entertainment and it has a nightlife second to none if you’re ready to stay up for the five o’clock train. The phrase “Kuidaore,” which roughly translates as ‘going bankrupt by spending all your money on good food,’ is associated with the Minami area, and indeed, even the Daimaru department store in Minami traces its origins to sometime in the 17th century (unless it was the 1700s, I can’t really be sure). In contrast, Umeda is a relatively new area of Osaka, probably about 100 years old. The kanji for 梅田 basically means “plum field,” but the original kanji for Umeda (same pronunciation, different ‘spelling’) meant “reclaimed field,” or something close to that. In effect, Umeda was originally swampland with a few islets poking through the surface of the murk, and now its a metaphorical “plum field” of shopping arcades and highrises.

In any event, our night out started with dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in the Chaya-machi area of Umeda. The name of the restaurant is Koi no Shizuku, which translates roughly as “tears of love.” The name comes from the famous tale of the love suicides at Ohatsu Tenjin shrine, a shrine that, incidentally, used to be located on an island but is now located in the center of Umeda’s more risqué entertainment zone. Koi no Shizuku is, as far as I can tell, a three-story restaurant, but the first story doesn’t begin until you’re already on the third floor of an elevator ride. The restaurant itself is designed in such a way that it feels like you’re outside, walking through the small side-paths of some closely knit cityscape. Part of this effect (in addition to the black paint that creates a network of shadow) is generated by the fact that there are absolutely no windows in Koi no Shizuka. Another part of this effect is generated by the paving stones that lie in the center of the paths that wind between individual private rooms that are raised above floor level and sealed off from the outside world with sliding doors and wagashi covered windows. When you eat a meal in Koi no Shizuku, you are in a room within a room, completely dislocated from the streets below. Each room is also decorated slightly differently. Our room this time around was dominated by a floating golden pagoda that presided meticulously over what was an absolutely delicious meal. In fact, aside from dinner, the only thing that makes it inside your room from outside is the J-Pop. Lots and lots of J-Pop. Mercifully, the volume is not overwhelming.

After our dinner we walked over to the Christon Café for some desert and more drinks. I’ve written about this Christ-themed establishment before, but things have changed at the Christon. The first time I went to the Christon the chandeliers were low and the place was in a deep night of gothic gloom. The altar to the Virgin Mary hovered in space over what could have been the set of many a cinematic vampire rave sequence. Imagine my surprise when, instead of walking onto the set of Blade II, I found myself walking into the brightly lit maw of LA baroque. Gone is the gloom at the Christon, replaced instead with cream-colored walls, paintings of cherubs dripping from the clouds, and enormous stands of brightly-colored, arm-sized candles. They’ve even added jewels to the Jesus diorama.

After our drinks, Hsuan and I walked around Umeda’s red light district, which is located just across the overpass from the Christon. What’s interesting about Japan is that, unlike the United States, there’s a strange lack of sleaze about sex districts (though there’s definitely more of a sense of the fetishistic). They feel much more like entertainment districts than like places where lonely men in dark overcoats go to sit alone in movie theatres and get off. Sure there are tons of signs advertising ‘naughty nurses’ in white vinyl, or lacy maids, or bunnies, or whatever you might like — but these places sit right next door to hugely popular restaurants and karaoke boxes and the entire area is jam-packed with people who aren’t there for the sex trade. In fact, some of the best places to go in Umeda can be found in the red light district including my favoritly named bar, Bar Trash, and a bar that advertises itself with a (real) stuffed tanuki. There’s also the fabulous Santa-themed Hotel Chapel Christmas, which is a love hotel that’s festooned with life-sized glowing plastic Santas. For those of you who aren’t in the know, love hotels are a ubiquitous institution in Japan and they’re just what they sound like — places to go where you can rent a room for an hour (or a night) in complete privacy. The biggest reason that love hotels exist is that most young Japanese people tend to live at home with their parents until they get married, which, these days, can mean that you’re living at home until you’re in your mid-thirties. Rather than waking your parents up by going bump in the night, why not just pay for a couple of hours at a clean, comfortable, and well-appointed love hotel?

And, said Hsuan and I, why not take a clean, comfortable, and well-appointed subway car down to Minami for a walk along the neon-lit Dotombori arcade, and a few drinks at one of the many small bars in the Shinsaibashi area? Like the red light district in Umeda, Osaka’s Shinsaibashi area (the entertainment area, not the shopping area) is a mixture of risqué entertainment, popular restaurants, shot bars, and hostess bars. It also borders a bluer area of town (or ‘pink,’ to use the Japanese terminology) that’s dotted with love hotels and soaplands. Shinsaibashi is an incredibly popular area for entertainment on the weekends, and it’s also a prime location for Yakuza spotting, since the Yakuza are deeply involved in Osaka’s ‘entertainment’ business. In fact, the Yakuza are deeply involved in business in general, to the point where the line between legitimate and illegitimate Yakuza activity is heavily blurred. On any given night in Shinsaibashi you can watch Mercedes after Mercedes with deeply tinted windows driving slowly down the streets. Sometimes they’ll stop and you can watch a group of four or five younger men get out, often wearing suits and sunglasses, followed by an older man who demonstrates his importance by NOT bothering to look around because the underlings have already done the looking for him. I think Hsuan may have been a little doubtful about the heavy Yakuza presence at first, but then I pointed out the parking garage filled with Hummers, Mercedes, three white (!!!) Ferraris, and a couple of Countaches.

We ended up at Bar Friendly, or Friendly Bar, or something like that, which turns out to be run by a group of Ghanaian ex-pats who were nice to talk to. There are a huge variety of ex-pat communities in Japan, and often you can find concentrations of ex-pats of a particular nationality at one or the other small bar in Shinsaibashi. Of course, you find all the Americans and Brits at the Pig and Whistle, but in smaller bars you may find a Ghanaian community, an Indian community, or, as is the case with Bar Freetown, a Sierra Leonean community. Most of these bars are really small by American standards — some can be as small as three square meters — but the upside of this is that they feel full with only five or so people crammed inside.

Since Hsuan was getting on a plane the next day we opted not to stay out until the first train, and so we took the last train home and back to my place, where we slipped into a deep, flâneurie-induced slumber.

Damn, that Christ has some bling! White and blue diamonds accent a Jesus diorama at the Criston Café.

A pair of Santas, perched precariously above the entrance to the Hotel Chapel Christmas.

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