Making room for visitors
Jan. 22, 2016
An area of Osaka that was once a dormitory town for day laborers is now attracting a different crowd. The neighborhood is part of an urban renewal that's catering to foreign tourists.
Day laborers gathered in the southern part of the city since the boom years of the 1960s. Many hotels still cater to them, but today the area is also attracting a different crowd.
Nishinari ward was not a well-known destination for foreign tourists but it's seeing growing numbers of visitors from abroad.
This hotel is one of the first in the neighborhood to target foreigners. Around 60 percent of its guests are travelers from overseas.
"We are from Hong Kong," one visitor said. "My friend stayed at this hotel before and recommended the place to me."
The average price for a one-night stay is about 20 dollars. That's a big selling point for low-budget travelers, and the building is almost always full.
Yoshinori Yamada is the owner. He runs six hostels in the area. Day laborers used to be his main guests, but that changed after the early 1990s, when the bubble economy collapsed.
"Workers all lost their jobs and were no longer able to stay," Yamada said. "Times were very tough."
Osaka's economy grew quickly in the 1960s and 70s. High-rises and expressways were built one after another, and workers gathered in Osaka from across the country.
Many low-budget hostels were built to accommodate them.
But the amount of work available plunged when the bubble burst. The number of workers declined. Many of the hostel's rooms remained vacant.
That's when Yamada turned to foreign tourists. He recalled one event 15 years ago that helped pave the way for the company's turnaround.
"We launched our website," Yamada said. "Foreigners who visited it began to come to our place. That made me realize what I should do. I think it fits with the current trend."
Yamada first had to renew the facilities. The rooms used to have tatami straw-mat floors and futon mattresses for the laborers.
But they were transformed into Western-style rooms with wood flooring and beds.
Jeremy Depagne's love for manga and anime has brought him to Japan for the first time.
"Here's my room," said Depagne. "I chose here because it's cheap and located in Osaka. It provides easy access to various places."
Yamada also made another change.
"Inside the doors, the rooms are combined," Yamada said.
This used to be 2 separate single rooms. But Yamada renovated them so that up to 3 guests can sleep here.
"In shared rooms, laborers were annoyed with noises like other people snoring. So they preferred single rooms," Yamada said. "But now, friends in a group want to stay together, I guess."
And Yamada had a communal area built where guests can spend time together.
"Have you been to this place?" asks one tourist.
"Ah, that's Arashiyama, Kyoto," said another. "It's a bamboo grove leading to a temple. It's better to go there early in a day. After 9 or 10, it's getting crowded."
Yamada's efforts have paid off. His 6 hostels grew popular by word of mouth. Last year, they hosted nearly 90,000 guests.
Now the company is looking to expand with a business venture that Yamada says could also help revitalize the area.
Yamada recently visited a vacant shop that was for rent. He's thinking of opening a pub where foreign visitors, day laborers, and other locals can mingle.
"Right now, there aren't many places for foreign visitors to gather or hang out," Yamada said. "New tourists spots are emerging and many foreigners are coming here, but it would be so nice if local people could build friendships with them.
"We hope that our message will be heard not only by the people of Osaka or Japan, but also the entire world. We hope this will help the community grow."
Professor Yoshihisa Matsumura from Hannan University is a specialist of "Tourism Geography". He is also involved in attracting foreigners in the Nishinari area. He spoke with NHK about the renewal in Nishinari.
Tashiro: Professor Matsumura, Nishinari was once known as the laborers neighborhood. But there has been a shift in who is visiting. Why do you think that is?
Matsumura: One of the reasons for the success is room rates in this area are very affordable. They are about 10 dollars to 30 dollars a night. Another reason is the location is excellent. It's close to the airport and has access to main tourist spots. Another factor is this used to be an area for day laborers. Day laborers would come here from all over Japan, stay in hotels, look for work and then go to construction sites all over Japan. After their work was over, they would come back here. This is the kind of area this was. So the laborers were like travelers. After the bursting of the economic buddle the number of day laborers decreased. And now foreign tourists are coming here as guests but they too are travelers so this area was welcoming and offering hospitality to travelers so that was a big reason.
Tashiro: So the hotels are working together. What do you think about that?
Matsumura: In this area, there are over 60 hotels and of course there is competition. But when you come to this area there are a lot of hotels here so even without a reservation you can come here and find a place to stay. So there is a sense of relief. As a hotel area, they've managed to establish their position. So as a hotel area, the area's potential has been enhanced. In economics we call this "the strengths of accumulation" and they've utilized this.
Tashiro: So they have been able to maximize their strengths as a community. I wonder if this can be seen elsewhere?
Matsumura: Yes, areas where day laborers come together. There are lots of areas like that in cities across the world. And in several cities, there are a variety of issues. One big characteristic of this area is they've used the existing hardware. The hotels have been utilized. They've incorporated tourism and without excessive redevelopment they've utilized the existing hardware and gradually changed.
But there are future issues. As a hotel area, the image has been established. But the next issue is, the foreign visitors who stay here, they need to get out more and find things they can enjoy, stay here, enjoy themselves and move on to their next destination. So for foreign visitors, this needs to be a place where people can come together. That's the next issue. Once we succeed in that, then globally, it will be a rare example.