The “Skid Row” of Osaka may be a dream for budget-conscious tourists, but is it safe?
Nishinari is a ramshackle slum filled with ragtag vagrants and dangerous criminals — at least, that’s what the Osaka locals will have you think. Tourists, on the other hand, view it as a backpacker’s paradise packed with cheap hotels and Airbnbs conveniently positioned near tourist attractions like the Shinsekai area.
The reality is something else — a rundown but bustling district with heaps of character and a complicated history. Welcome to one of Osaka’s most fascinating, yet controversial, neighborhoods.
Nishinari is one of Osaka’s 24 wards. It’s located just south of Namba, a glitzy nightlife and shopping district geared towards tourism. Nishinari is essentially the opposite, characterized by an aging male population, faded storefronts, and dingy karaoke and pachinko joints. Day laborers, unable or unwilling to find steady work in the suit-and-tie world, have congregated in the area since 1898, seeking shelter in doya (cheap and often minimalist inns).
The front and back streets are still packed with doya, as well as lively local haunts and covered shopping arcades. Everything is ridiculously cheap with izakayas, grocery stores and even vending machines advertising prices much lower than Namba and the surrounding areas.
Restaurants serving filling meals for around ¥400 to ¥500 line the streets, and local supermarket Super Tamade offers boxed lunches for around ¥200. The supermarket also has a wacky system where select items are only ¥1 after you spend ¥1,000. Some hotels are even as cheap as ¥850 a night!
As such, Nishinari has become a sought after spot for tourists both trying to save money and looking for a glimpse into Osaka’s rougher and more authentic side. It’s an exciting place to simply wander, that is if you feel safe enough to do so.
Kamagasaki and the red-light district
Sure, it’s great for the budget conscious, but if the stories are to be believed, are travelers staying in Nishinari asking to get robbed or kidnapped? Let’s look at the facts.
Osaka has the highest crime rate in Japan. This may shock people who’ve already visited and left their wallet unattended without incident, but that’s because the corruption is mostly concentrated in Nishinari, specifically, in the Kamagasaki district.
Sketchy things can and do happen— indecent exposure and rancid smells usually being the worst.
Kamagasaki (also known as Airin-chuku) is home to the largest concentration of day-laborers in Japan. Thousands live within a small radius either on the street or in doya, creating slum-like conditions. Crime is a regular occurrence, though offenses typically relate to drugs and gambling. Over 20 riots have occurred here, with the first in 1961 and the most recent one in 2008.
Nishinari is also home to Osaka’s morally questionable Tobita Shinchi, the city’s red-light district. It’s the largest red-light district in Western Japan rivaling Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Sapporo’s Susukino. To top it off, Nishinari is supposedly the base of two yakuza (Japanese mafia) factions.
A red light district famous for ramen and LGBT friendly?
Let’s be real though, the crime rate in Japan is lower than many of its Western counterparts in Europe and the United States. Even its most dangerous areas are tamer than what a large chunk of Western tourists are likely familiar with. Though clearly shady, the criminals of Nishinari are unlikely to mess with tourists.
To stay or not to stay
That is definitely the question, and ultimately, it’s up to you to do your research before visiting. Despite the area’s bad rap locally, many outsiders scoff at the warnings. Sketchy things can and do happen — indecent exposure and rancid smells usually being the worst — but robbery, assault, and murder? Highly unlikely.
For travelers, a more pressing drawback may be the cleanliness or lack thereof. Compared to the rest of Japan’s pristine appearance, Nishinari’s tent cities and urine smell can be jarring.
It isn’t all bad. Nishinari is also home to lively and generous people who live and work there legitimately, charming old buildings displaying a glimpse into Japan’s storied Showa era, and gaudily-lit shops patronized by perfectly friendly folks. It’s a great option for those visiting Tennoji Park or Tennoji Zoo as it’s only a few steps away from the Shinsekai area.
If saving money is your primary objective, go for it! If you’re concerned about safety or ethics — the area is gentrifying which could ultimately displace the day laborers — it might be best to stay elsewhere.