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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Day-laborers give way to budget tourists

Western-style inns offer cheap, clean lodgings amid Airin's fleabag row


Staff writer

OSAKA -- The Airin district in Nishinari Ward here is well known as a hub for day-laborers. It's a working-class neighborhood that is quite unlike Osaka's upscale Umeda district or the neon jungle of Shinsaibashi.

News photo
Hotel Raizan is one of many new-type inns in the Airin district in Osaka's Nishinari Ward that cater to foreign tourists, especially backpackers on a tight budget.

And that's exactly what has been attracting foreign tourists of late.

"About five years ago, we began to notice that more and more foreign tourists, especially from Asia, America and Australia, were interested in renting a room. Most were backpackers in their 20s," said Kaoru Imanishi, an employee of Hotel Mikado in the heart of the Airin district.

The hotel and several others like it are not your average flophouses. Those still exist, but Hotel Mikado, along with Hotel Raizan just a few meters away and several others are modern with clean bedrooms and new facilities. Their shared shower rooms are bright and cheery, and their toilets are Western style.

The new-style hotels are managed by Osaka-based real estate agent Chuo Group and are surrounded by traditional flophouses. Both hotels sit on land once occupied by similar fleabags.

But Chuo Group decided to build modern, Western-style hostels several years ago in the hope of attracting younger Japanese and young backpackers who couldn't afford high prices of most hotels but don't want to stay in flophouses.

A single Western-style room at Hotel Mikado or Hotel Raizan, with only a bed, a television set and a video player, goes for 2,100 yen a night, well below the prices of most business hotels.

The two hotels contain information on the facilities in English, Chinese and Korean. At Hotel Raizan, guests are invited to borrow a video or two from the library in the lobby, while Hotel Mikado rents videos for a nominal fee.

"The Airin district is centrally located. You're just a few minutes away from the major train lines that can take you to most places in Osaka. We remodeled our hotels in the hope that single tourists from abroad who don't want to spend a lot of money, especially backpackers, will drop by," Chuo Group President Suminori Yamada said.

Perhaps surprisingly, the hotels, located in the middle of an area where lots of homeless people are walking the streets at all hours, have become popular with Japanese women. This is partially due to the fact that, in the case of Hotel Mikado, there is a ladies-only floor.

"Obviously, the last thing you want if you're a young woman is some old guy drunk on sake banging on your door in the middle of the night. This floor has proved extremely popular with both single Japanese and (other) Asian women," Imanishi said.

While foreign tourists want to spend the night in someplace nice, it's the Airin district's slightly rough atmosphere, as well as an abundance of facilities like coin lockers and cheap clothing stores, that are attracting backpackers by day.

"A lot of my Japanese friends said this area was too dangerous. But compared with other cities, it's quite safe and very convenient, especially for those who need things like coin laundries or a place to buy cheap shirts and pants," said Jack Watts, a 23-year-old Australian who spent a weekend last month at Hotel Mikado.

The influx of foreign tourists into an area Osaka bureaucrats and tourism officials have traditionally ignored has caught the neighborhood's residents by surprise.

While welcoming the tourists, some also expressed concern for the more usual residents.

"It's really nice to see young foreigners come in, and my business has certainly benefited. But many who live in the Airin district are wondering if these new hotels will mean the traditional flophouses, which are a lot less than 2,000 yen a night, will be driven out of business, forcing more day-laborers onto the streets," said Mihoko Kato, who runs an eatery offering cheap yakitori near Hotel Mikado.

"Especially if other hotel owners decide to renovate their hotels in order to cash in on foreign tourism," she added.

Of roughly 120 economy inns in the Airin district, about 10 are the nicer hotels run by Chuo Group.

The new hotels admit that not all of the locals are happy.

"We've had lots of day-laborers express concern about the new hotels. Their attitude is 'the cheaper, the better,' " said Imanishi of Hotel Mikado.

In the meantime, though, Chuo Group is working with city officials to promote more foreign tourism to the area.

Their plans include further renovation of area hotels and an increase in the amount of foreign language information about the Airin district, according to Yamada of Chuo Group.

"Major Asian cities like Bangkok have hotel districts where backpackers gather. But Osaka still lacks such a place. Hopefully, the Airin district will develop into such an area," he said.



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