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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001

Striking out at playtime on a plate

Staff writer

OSAKA -- It's a hot and humid night in the Kujo district, but nobody seems to mind. That's because just a few blocks away, at the Osaka Dome, the Kintetsu Buffaloes are locked in a battle with the Seibu Lions for the Pacific League pennant.

Downtown Kujo in Osaka is home to art-house cinemas and yakiniku shops.

The game sold out long ago, but about 100 locals have gathered in front of a closed pachinko parlor beside Kujo Station to watch the game on a wide-screen TV that somebody put up. Someone else is selling beer for 100 yen a cup, and children run around.

The Kujo district is located on the western side of the Kizu River, one of the last remaining vibrant shitamachi areas of Osaka. Small shops, some offering yakiniku for as little as 300 yen a plate, are still plentiful, and the area contains a number of traditional wooden buildings.

Art-house cinema buffs know Kujo as the home of movie theaters that show films too controversial or bizarre for the upscale theaters elsewhere. Several years ago, a documentary about Aum Shinrikyo titled "A" was an underground hit nationwide, but Kujo's Cine Nouveau was the only place in Osaka that showed it. Small-scale films that tackle social taboos such as child abuse or Japan's burakumin have found a home at Kujo theaters, as have low-budget movies from places like North Korea.

Kujo, however, is under growing pressure to change. The opening of the Osaka Dome in 1997 brought visitors from all over the Kansai region, many of whom arrive via Kujo Station and walk through the old neighborhood.

"The area has been spruced up a bit," remarks resident Gen Yoshimura. "Fast-food restaurants are replacing some of the old snack bars."

One area of Kujo, however, has remained unchanged: the Matsushima brothel district. While families and Kintetsu Buffaloes' fans gather beside the station, the only people visible in Matsushima are men of all ages who peer through the open doors of brothels at scantily clad young women inside.

The district is marked by signs that say Matsushima Cuisine Union, but don't expect a Michelin three-star meal at any of the establishments. The brothels are officially registered with the ward and the city of Osaka as restaurants. For newcomers, signs recommend the "dinner course" -- 16,000 yen for 30 minutes with a hostess.

While police have not yet closed down the Kujo district, some in official circles say its days are numbered due to growing concerns about the presence of a brothel district so close to one of the main Osaka Dome access stations.

"The Kujo brothel district is close enough to the Osaka Dome to create concern about its effect on tourism. There are many people in City Hall who want to tear the old Kujo down and redevelop it as a shopping complex," said a Nishi Ward official.

For baseball fans like Yoshimura, that may be a welcome change. "The brothel district will always be there, but 100 brothels is too many. If Kujo cleans up its act, maybe the Buffaloes will move here permanently," he says, with an optimism fueled partially by the Buffaloes' more frequent appearances at the Osaka Dome -- but mostly by the 100 yen beer.

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