Osaka isn't just big, it's unique. Many people are surprised to find that Osaka has a completely different personality from Tokyo. Where Tokyo is reserved, Osaka is extravagant. Where Tokyo is shy, Osaka is warm and outgoing. A century ago, city builders eyeing undeveloped land in southern Osaka created a neighborhood that captured Japan’s worship of the West and its determination to compete as an equal.
The neighborhood, born in 1912, was called Shinsekai (新世界), meaning the New (新) World (世界) in Japanese. Shinsekai has that time warp feeling of 1960s Osaka and gives you a unique, cross cultural kind of feeling.
Shinsekai went through ups and downs over the decades, including a prolonged slump from which it started recovering in the past few years in the unlikeliest fashion. Nowadays, the neighborhood that embodied foreign glamour has become known, through a mix of circumstances and clever marketing, as a quintessentially old-fashioned Japanese neighborhood and as a slice of the authentic Osaka.
The main symbol here is the Tsutenkaku (通天阁) Tower, completed in 1912, symbolizing the birth of a New World. Tsutenkaku basically means “The Tower Reaching to Heaven” which is the landmark of Shinsekai till now. The area was modeled after New York to its south and Paris to its North.
In the early twentieth century, joy and renewal invaded this "new town," which borrowed modernism and an obsession to replicate the Western world. The southern part was modeled on New York, the Big Apple, while the northern part lovingly copied Paris, the City of Lights. The restaurants, shops and boutiques have a colorful atmosphere, warm, dubious, and just like the reputation that Shinsekai garnered over the years, a mysterious area, landmark of the yakuza, the homeless and sex workers.
In Shinsekai over 500 stores are clustered together lining the streets. Many cheap standing-room-only bars are open early and welcome guests while the sun is still high. Delicious and cheap, these are the heartwarming streets of Shinsekai.
Restaurants and other red, garish storefronts follow in the pedestrian streets riddled with outdated, flashing neon lights. The myriad of stalls offer plenty of choices to taste the specialty of the area. The arcades are also an homage to another time, the 1980s, and the pachinko parlors, which you must enter for a quick taste of the atmosphere, are other scraps of this patchwork that almost attract more tourists than it does locals.
So how did a neighborhood symbolizing the New World come to represent the Old World?
Unlike wealthier areas in Osaka, Shinsekai had seen little redevelopment since it was rebuilt after World War II. Much of it seems stuck in the 1950s or 1960s.
But the real reason goes back even further. The neighborhood’s original developers never succeeded in making this place Osaka’s New York and Paris, and never drew the well-heeled crowd they had hoped for, mainly because of the location. The area has long been one of Osaka’s poorest. Today, just south of Shinsekai lies Japan’s largest district for day laborers and a small red-light district where women wait for customers by kneeling in the entryway of old wood-frame houses.
It is a very picturesque neighborhood with all of the colorful signs and the tower looming in the background.
Many tourists visit this tower, Tsutenkaku, the “Eiffel Tower of Naniwa,” throughout the year, to look out over Osaka from the observation deck.
Paris was chosen as the model for Shinsekai's northern half, while the southern portion was built to imitate Coney Island in New York. Tsutenkaku Tower was constructed in 1912 after Paris' Eiffel Tower. Although it was scrapped during WWII, the tower was reconstructed soon afterwards in 1956. The current tower is 103 meters high, with the main observatory at a height of 91 meters.
The Shinsekai area, or "New World," was built from the ground up in 1912 to give Osaka a renewed vitality. Shinsekai itself could use some of that today, as its quaint atmosphere and kitschy streets have not left the last century.