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Osaka's 'day laborer town' in flux as foreign visitor numbers swell

Cheap flophouses making way for luxury hotels, tourist facilities in city's Airin district

Osaka travel agency Freeplus in April opened FP Hotels South-Namba, a hotel targeting foreign tourists, in the city's Nishinari Ward.

OSAKA -- The Airin district in the western Japanese city of Osaka has long provided housing for poor workers, but as more and more tourists come to the city to take advantage of its cheap accommodations, the seedy "laborer town" is undergoing profound change.

The unlikely tourist magnet is likely in for a further change as it has now attracted major business attention, with luxury hotel operator Hoshino Resorts planning to open a facility nearby in 2022.

This reporter recently visited the district to see the changing face of the district in Nishinari Ward, where laborers have traditionally gathered to get day jobs and live in flophouses at rock-bottom prices.

One of the signs of change I saw in the area was the Kama Pub. Opened in 2015, it is a joint where jazz aficionados gather to hear live music by local musicians, which is not exactly what one used to expect in Airin. The day's show featured American jazz pianist Phillip Strange, who played a repertoire including the standard "Just Friends." Some of the audience appeared to be foreigners.

Off stage, Strange praised the audience for their taste for music and the good vibes they created.

Several other venues for live music have opened in the neighborhood.

According to the Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau, the number of foreign visitors to the prefecture reached its highest-ever number of 9.4 million in 2016, increasing 31.4% from the previous year and breaking the record for the fourth consecutive year.

The swelling visitor numbers have prompted moves to meet tourist demand in the prefecture, and Airin is no exception. Restaurants in the district, for example, are beginning to introduce menus in foreign languages.

In April, Freeplus, a Kita Ward travel agency specializing in foreign tourists, opened FP Hotels South-Namba, a hotel specifically targeting tourists, in Nishinari. About 70%  percent of the hotel's staff are foreign nationals.

The new hotel charges 7,000 yen to 10,000 yen($62.14 to $88.77) a night -- more expensive than Airin's flophouses, but it has made an auspicious start, with its initial occupancy rate reaching 85%.

"There's demand for a broad price range of rooms, not just cheap accommodations," said a company spokesperson.

Besides FP Hotels South-Namba, other hotels in the area are making efforts to attract foreign tourists. These included using a multilingual Pepper humanoid robot to assist guests at the front desk and providing currency exchange services.

"Hotels that have had few foreign guests are now trying every means to meet inbound-tourist demand," an Osaka tourist bureau spokesperson said.

Luxury market

A potentially major factor driving change in the area is a plan by Hoshino Resorts, one of the nation's leading hotel developers and operators known for its luxury hotels. The company is preparing to open a 600-room hotel in the area.

The hotel plan was in response to the Osaka municipal government's call on businesses to put a tract near Shin-Imamiya Station to good use. The vacant land remained idle for over three decades, according to the city government.

Airin's image as a day laborer town is slowly fading. According to the Osaka municipal government, there were over 220 cheap accommodations that mainly served laborers in Nishinari in the year ended March 1991, the peak year. The number has shrunk to just 76.

Tadashi Ito, a 15-year resident in the district, lamented the gradual disappearance of familiar sights. What particularly bothers the 68-year-old is the accommodations catering to foreign tourists that have sprung up in the area, as if threatening to replace the old, familiar facilities.

"It feels like a little more of the place where we belong is being taken away, bit by bit, every year," he said.

Symbolically for the laborers, a public building that has housed a job placement service supporting laborers for the past 47 years, is slated to be rebuilt to bring it in line with earthquake-resistance standards. The job-placement function will be temporarily moved to a nearby location as early as next spring.

But Ito does not want to see it change its appearance.

"It's been a symbolic building for this district," he said. "It makes me sad to see the district change so much in just a few years."

A welfare official at the Nishinari Ward office said, "We are aware of concerns that accommodation costs may increase as land prices rise, but we are aiming to create a town where day laborers and foreign tourists can coexist."

On my way back from the tour of Airin and related locations, I bought a soft drink at a streetside vending machine. It cost just 50 yen, less than half the regular price. Such machines in the district are generally secondhand models that suppliers provide through unofficial channels. They are repainted in white to hide the original identity, according to a secondhand vending machine dealer. Some of them do not even show a phone number for the help desk, unlike the regular machines which normally do.

What also caught my eye was another vending machine, right near the other one, because it not only carried drinks priced at 100 yen each, but was also multilingual.

A spokesperson for Coca-Cola West said such vending machines will increase further in the area as the projected Hoshino Resorts hotel and other new accommodations bring more foreign tourists to the area.

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