Shinsekai: A Guide to Osaka's “New World”
June 12, 2021
Even though “Shinsekai” literally means “the new world,” it’s certainly the most retro place in Osaka. With its flashy neon lights and its gaudy Tsutenkaku Tower, it became one of the most famous tourist spots for anyone coming to Osaka these last 10 years. How did this district become what it is now and why is it so famous among tourists?
What is Shinsekai? A Short History.
Designed in 1912, Shinsekai was supposed to become a showcase of the Japanese industrial revolution and an attraction for tourists from all over the world. The district had two parts: North and South. The North part resembled Paris, with the Tsutenkaku Tower, based on the Eiffel Tower, at its center. In contrast, the South part resembled New York with a Coney Island staple, Luna Park amusement park, in the center. Shinsekai had several bustling shops, attractions, and even the first sky tram ever built in Japan. In two words: tourist heaven. But after 10 years and tourists numbers declining, Luna Park closed in 1923 and the surrounding area abandoned.
During World War II, the district suffered as a victim of American bomb raids. Japanese authorities tore apart Luna Park and Tsutenkaku Tower for scrap metal supplies. After the war, Shinsekai became one of the poorest areas in Osaka. Its reputation got worse and worse as the crime rate skyrocketed. It soon became a place to avoid and a center of organized crime.
In the 90s, This bad reputation slowly started to fade away. Shinsekai became the scene for popular stories in manga, anime, movies, and novels. It is now a well-known tourist spot boasting its retro atmosphere and its place in popular culture.
What To Do in Shinsekai
First built as the showcase of Japanese modernity, ironically, Shinsekai is now famous for its retro image and as a post-war era symbol. With its shotengai, a shopping street in Japanese, arcade rooms, pachinko slots and flashy neon lights, Shinsekai will please anyone who loves kitschy places. But, apart from admiring its gaudy looks, there are a few other interesting things to do in Shinsekai.
Shinsekai's Famous Tsutenkaku Tower
The Tsutenkaku Tower is the emblematic, Eiffel Tower-looking tower in the center of Shinsekai. First built in 1912, torn apart during the war, and rebuilt in 1956 with a new design, it’s one of the most famous attractions in Osaka. With its neon lights and live advertisement screens, it’s impossible to miss. The colours of the neon lights at the top of the tower change depending on the weather forecast. They turn white for a sunny day, blue for a rainy day and orange for a cloudy day. The colours of the tower itself change every season. Also, if you pass under the tower, don’t forget to look up and see the colorful fresco painted on the ceiling.
The tower is split in different floors with multiple souvenir shops, cafes and an observation deck at the top. From the observation deck at the top of its 102 meters, there is an incredible view of the city. You can see the nearby zoo and the recently built Abeno Harukas building in Tennoji.
Nanyodori Shotengai (Janjan Yokocho Alley)
The Nanyodori Shotengai is one of the most famous shopping streets, and probably the best, in Shinsekai. With its multiple cheap but delicious restaurants, old arcade game centers, and karaoke boxes, it’s a great place for a fun night with friends.
Known by locals as Janjan Yokocho, the street offers a real dive into the heart of Osaka, where Shinsekai's specific, retro atmosphere reigns. Strolling around these shops feels like stepping back in time a few decades. The street is as lively as ever, although the vibrant colors of the shop fronts seem to have faded with time.
A large avenue runs through Janjan Yokocho and cuts it in two different parts. If the first section, closer to central Shinsekai, is full of tourists, the second one is less shiny and a bit shady. There are a lot of snack bars, typical small Japanese bars with karaoke, that don't usually host many foreigners. It is better to avoid these places if you are not comfortable with speaking Japanese.
Tobita Shinchi, the Shinsekai Red Light District
A few streets away from Janjan Yokocho is Tobita Shinchi, the largest red-light district in the Kansai Area. Although prostitution is illegal in Japan, Tobita Shinchi is one of the few places where it still exists, hidden in plain sight. After prostitution was banned in 1958, the brothels in the area reopened as "restaurants.” The owners of these shops circumvented the law by serving food and beverages to their customers. Most of the buildings in the street have an open ground floor, with girls sitting on tatami in full view of passers-by, resembling Amsterdam's Red Light District.
Taking picture of the street is forbidden and it is better not to try to avoid trouble.
Photo Credit: Lucas Sauriat
Billiken, the American God
Billiken is a chubby, smiling baby statue that became one of the icons of Shinsekai. It is nearly everywhere, from the inside of shops and restaurants to the inside of the Tsutenkaku Tower itself. The Billiken design originated in 1908, created by American illustrator, Florence Pretz. It came to Shinsekai as part of Luna Park and became a local icon. The Luna Park statue earned a reputation as the “God of things as they should be.” Touching his feet is supposed to give better luck, so why not give it a try ?
The Asahi Theater
With its 300 seats, the Asahi Theater is one of the biggest theaters in the area and is a meeting place for popular theater fans. It offers traditional Japanese performances throughout the year with seasonal events. It’s a great experience, even for those who usually don’t enjoy going to the theater. Although the performances are all done in Japanese, knowing Japanese is not needed to have a good time.
Food and Drink in Shinsekai
Tourists visit Shinsekai to enjoy its cheap, simple, but above all, delicious cuisine. There are two popular dishes in particular: kushikatsu and doteyaki.
Kushikatsu is the signature dish of Shinsekai. They are skewers of fried meat, vegetables or seafood. But before enjoying a delicious kushikatsu, you must follow a basic but important rule. Paired with cabbage leaves, kushikatsu are to be dipped in a sauce used by all customers. Because everyone shares the sauce, diners cannot dip their kushikatsu in the sauce a second time after taking a bite! For more sauce, you can use the cabbage to scoop from the shared tray.
The most famous kushikatsu restaurant chain in Osaka is Kushikatsu Daruma. The first shop opened in Shinsekai in 1929. It is famous for the little angry chef statue placed in front of all the restaurants of the chain. The shop legend says the chef is angry because of the people breaking the double-dipping rule. So, try to respect this rule to please the chef!
The second specialty of Shinsekai is doteyaki, a dish made of beef tendons simmered in mirin or miso, which are typical Japanese ingredients. It is delicious but not as attractive as other famous Japanese dishes. Doteyaki can be difficult for people unfamiliar with traditional Japanese cuisine.
Although it is not a dish specific to Shinsekai, it is possible to eat some fugu in the district. But what is fugu? Fugu is a type of blowfish famous for being delicious… and poisonous! But rest assured, there is little risk to eat it as only licensed chefs can prepare it. Shinsekai visitors can try fugu dishes in the famous restaurant, Tsuboraya. The restaurant is easy to spot thanks to its typical Japanese looks and the huge paper blowfish hanging in the street in front of it. Tsuburaya is one of the oldest fugu chain restaurants in Osaka with shops in other tourist areas, such as Dotonbori.
Coffee & Mixed Juice
People looking for tasty drinks in Shinsekai can also find their happiness. With its multiple cafes, bars, and pubs, anyone can find something worth their time. For example, the famous Sennariya Coffee cafe brews delicious coffee from fresh coffee beans. But the most interesting and tasty beverage they make is the “mixed juice,” a delightful fresh fruit smoothie perfect for hot summer days.
Finally, what would be a trip to Shinsekai without eating some takoyaki? Takoyaki, an octopus dumpling topped with sauce and bonito flakes, is one of the two signature dishes of Osaka. It is perfect for a small snack while strolling around any tourist spot. Locals calls it “tabearuki,” which literally means “walking and eating.”
How To Get To Shinsekai
Shinsekai was originally built as a showcase of Japanese industrial and touristic power, so, naturally, it was built in the heart of Osaka, the Naniwa district. The Naniwa district is a great place for locals and tourists to have some fun during weekdays and weekends. It is lively and animated, with a lot of bars, pubs, restaurants, and cafes. Shinsekai is easy to access by train or metro as it is close to the Shin Imamya station, one of the stations of the famous Osaka circular line. It is also possible to access Shinsekai by stopping at the Dobutsuen-mae station on the Sakaisuji and Midosuji lines.
The best way to access Shinsekai as a tourist is probably to walk from Tennoji, another great area of Osaka. It takes around 20 minutes by foot and passes by some interesting buildings and parks on the way, such as the Tennoji Zoo and the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts.
Shinsekai is one of the most interesting places in Osaka. With its short but eventful history, it managed to become one of the key tourist areas in the city. Its vibrant retro image and numerous shops and cafes are making it a must-see district. It can feel like a real trip to the past and offers an incredible experience. Some people will visit Shinsekai for the atmosphere, its restaurants and flashy shops. Others will travel there for their love of history. Everyone can find something special in Shinsekai. As the area is full of neon lights covered shops and signs, the best way to enjoy it is to stroll the alleys in the evening. Why not enjoy some takoyaki while doing so?
Like any city neighborhood, some of the streets in the area can still be unsafe and should be avoided. However, the area is mostly safe. Just stick to the main roads and alleys.
Since Shinsekai is in the heart of Osaka, it is really easy to visit other places from there, like Tennoji and its malls, the Tennoji Zoo or the Shitennoji temple.