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Osaka's once rough Airin neighborhood now a tourist hot spot

District formerly known for riots and day laborers draws budget travelers

Osaka's Nishinari Ward, of which the Airin district is a part, is popular with budget travelers. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

OSAKA -- International visitors to the western Japanese city of Osaka have been choosing some unusual accommodations, flocking to cheap flophouses in the Airin district, an area that until recently was known as a rough part of town.

Airin, formerly known as Kamagasaki, was long synonymous with day laborers eking out a precarious living at factories and nearby construction sites. In the past, the district was a hotbed of worker unrest and occasional riots. In 1966, it was rebranded Airin ("love your neighbor"), but despite the name change it had a reputation as a crime-ridden no-go area.

That began to change in fiscal 2013, after the city government designated the surrounding ward of Nishinari as a special district. Police and residents worked hard to spruce up the area and improve security. That brought in foreign travelers seeking cheap accommodations. Many flophouses were renovated and began taking in tourists -- hiring bilingual staff, installing Wi-Fi and offering bicycle rentals.

"The number of foreign tourists has grown rapidly in the past five years," said a 68-year-old resident of Nishinari Ward. "Nishinari became a tourist site before we knew it, as businesses started providing duty-free services and putting up English signs."

On a day in mid-September, many travelers could be seen walking round Airin, suitcases in tow. They were there despite a drop in the number of foreign visitors after Typhoon Jebi temporarily shut down Kansai International Airport.

One, Octavio Solano, a 24-year-old tourist from Mexico, was trying on yukata light summer kimonos at Shichifukuya, a 50-year-old secondhand kimono shop. Solano and a friend came to Airin for a nine-day stay after hearing about the district's inexpensive food and accommodations on social media.

Kazuki Kawamura, who owns Shichifukuya, said the number of foreign visitors to his shop has doubled over the past decade. "The crowd of foreign tourists has created a virtuous cycle, pulling in more Japanese customers," he said.

The story is similar at Self Tacoyaki Bar Iduco, a restaurant where customers can cook their own takoyaki octopus dumplings. Around 80% of the clientele is non-Japanese. The restaurant has become a place for international exchange, where foreign tourists learn how to make the regional delicacy from locals.

Hoshino Resorts plans to open a 600-room hotel in the spring of 2022 just three minutes' walk from Airin Labor and Welfare Center, a job placement center for laborers. A 55-year-old day laborer who lives near the district said Airin's dirty, crime-heavy image is fading.

One health and welfare officer in Nishinari Ward, however, expressed concern that the area's sudden transformation could isolate elderly day laborers from the larger community. The number of such workers has dropped by about two-thirds from its peak of around 30,000 during the bubble economy years of the late 1980s.

Japan has struggled to accommodate the surge in foreign tourists. Occupancy rates at hotels and inns in Tokyo was 80% in 2017, a rise of 13.6 percentage points over the past decade, according to a survey by the Japan Tourism Agency. Basic accommodations, including tiny "capsule" hotels and youth hostels, are popping up in big cities to meet the demands of penny-pinching visitors.

As of the end of August, there were 553 basic accommodation facilities in Osaka, a popular jumping off point for tourists visiting Kyoto and Nara. That is up about 370% compared with fiscal 2014. Kyoto had 2,291 such establishments in fiscal 2017, roughly a fivefold increase compared with three years earlier. As of March 2017, there were 1,058 basic accommodation facilities in Tokyo, up about 10% from three years earlier.

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