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Friday, May 21, 2004

Osaka's west side story

The Nishi Ward area of Japan's second city has an odd history in its modern bohemian air


Staff writer

In the cult-film classic "Death Ride to Osaka," there is a scene in which tough Tokyo yakuza drag a Western hostess kicking and screaming out the door. The hostess has just been banished from the bright lights of Tokyo's Ginza to the foul backwater of Osaka.

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Quieter than Osaka's other green spaces, long and narrow Utsubo Park (above) was once an airfield; the large, recently completed garden adjoining Utsubo Park.
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Visitors to the real Osaka often come away with images that, while less sensational those provided by Hollywood, are not always a complete picture.

Local tourism officials compound the image problem by printing brochures of ugly, drab architectural monstrosities they think people will visit, or of obvious tourist-traps where you are more likely to be fleeced than have a good time. It's as if they are so embarrassed about the city they feel they can do little more than provide visitors with a plastic, theme-park like experience because the "real" Osaka is too down and dirty.

But, hidden away in the back streets, are some very interesting neighborhoods that defy the stereotypical image of Osaka.

Tourists, tourism officials and even many locals who think they know Osaka would do well to take a look at the city's western district, the Nishi Ward and the area south of Nakanoshima Island and west from the main artery of Midosuji to Naniwasuji Street. Among all the office buildings there are excellent restaurants, quiet cafes, interesting shops, the city's only hot-spring resort -- and a park with an unusual history.

Best of all, it's all just a five-minute subway ride, or 15 minutes on foot, from Umeda, and about a 10-minute walk from Osaka International Convention Center.

At the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Nishi Ward was home to a small settlement of Western traders, including English, French, Germans, Dutch and Americans. Although a lack of interest in their products by Osaka merchants saw the foreigners relocate to Kobe by the mid-1870s, their brief stay influenced the area architecturally. Until World War II, many Western-style wooden buildings could be seen in the area, and even as late as the early 1990s, one or two were still standing.

They've bitten the dust now, but the atmosphere remains decidedly different from other parts of the city, with a marked concentration of international restaurants and cafes. Just south of the old Sumitomo Bank headquarters, with its Romanesque design, is the city's only Belgian restaurant, Cafe Barrel. The cherry-flavored beer on tap, followed by a plate of mussels, will make you feel as if you're in Brussels.

Around the corner from there is a little slice of Olde England: The Royal Hat. Japan's major cities have lots of English-style pubs these days, but Royal Hat's convivial atmosphere makes it unique. If you're in the mood for Earl Grey instead of Newcastle Brown Ale, there are two English country-style tearooms right beside Royal Hat that serve all manner of cakes, scones, and cookies, as well selling as knick-knacks for your kitchen or garden.

After a pint, or a spot of tea, how about a walk in the park?

Osaka is notorious for its lack of green, quiet spaces. But if you head west from the Royal Hat to Yotsubashi Street, cross over and turn south, after about five minutes you'll come to Utsubo Park on your right. Utsubo Park is long and narrow, and for good reason: It was once an airfield. In the final days of World War II, kamikaze pilots trained here and immediately after the war, it was briefly used by the Occupation authorities to shuttle VIPs into the center of town. Utsubo is quieter and less crowded than Osaka's other major parks -- with far fewer homeless -- and it is also far more beautiful, especially since the recent completion of a large adjoining flower garden.

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Among Nishi Ward's other varied delights are the retro-music, flea-market-style Loco George shop (above) and an English-style pub, The Royal Hat .
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On the north side of Utsubo Park, just behind some tennis courts, lies one of the city's more unusual stores. Loco George is a combination flea market, pawn shop and used-record store. If you're in need of gaijin-size shoes, cowboy boots, granny dresses or fringe leather jackets, this is the place to browse. Fans of vinyl will be especially pleased with Loco George's collection of 33 rpm and 45 rpm records -- and the used record players to go with them. The selection is heavy on '70s American hard rock, which is good news for those of you desperate to find a copy of "Kung Fu Fighting" or early albums by Kansas or Styx. Sorry, no eight-track tapes.

West of Yotsubashi Street and south of Utsubo Park lie several excellent international eateries. La Verdure du Vietnam is one of the finest Vietnamese restaurants in Japan, specializing in northern Vietnamese cuisine. One block east and two blocks south from here is the Nepalese restaurant Kathmandu Cafe. Though the food is Nepalese, the entertainment is from all over, and on any night you might hear live jazz, Latin or folk music. On the other side of the street from Kathmandu is Caipirinha, a hole-in-the-wall Brazilian restaurant that also occasionally features live Brazilian music and other cultural events.

Osaka may not generally spring to mind as an onsen resort, but a few blocks north of Utsubo Park, at the corner of Naniwasuji and Tosabori streets, is the the health spa Mitaka Club. Its prime draw is its baths, which are fed from a hot spring nearly a kilometer underground. If you just want to use the baths and hit the steam room and showers, it costs 2,100 yen. Services like shiatsu massages, facial treatments and other beauty services are available at additional cost.

If you're in Utsubo Park and need to head north back to Umeda, a great place to stop for dinner is La Porta, an Italian restaurant on the west side of Yotsubashi Street a five-minute walk north of the park. There are more expensive, and far more pretentious, Italian restaurants in Osaka, but La Porta does all of the basics (fresh pasta, warm bread, no skimping on, or overdoing, the Italian spices) just right. It is a hidden gem, always packed with those who understand true Italian country cooking.

If you need to head south from Utsubo Park, then you would do well to stop off at Mughal, Osaka's only Pakistani restaurant, which is just off Yotsubashi Street, one block north of Honmachi Street. Beware, though. The curries are strong, and filling.

All in all, the two great things about Nishi Ward and the Utsubo Park area are that they are close enough to the main transportation hubs of Umeda and Honmachi to walk to, but far enough away to ensure that it's never too crowded, and interesting new shops and restaurants -- attracted by the relatively low rents -- are constantly opening up.

It just goes to show that -- in contrast to misleading Hollywood portrayals of Osaka and the clueless efforts of tourism officials -- the real Osaka can be delightfully at odds with its unfortunate image.



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