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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Soemoncho & Hozenji Dotonbori


If you haven't been to seen the night life areas of Osaka when the night is in full swing or just coming to an end in the wee hour of morning, then you've been missing a slice of life that is forever interesting and these days slowly fading away.

Soemoncho, Osaka.

Mizu shobai or the water business is a part of Japan that has been around for a very long time. A business of the night that flows high and low along with the economy and indeed is very much part of the larger economy, since so many decisions and deals are clinched between drinks and small talk in the semi-darkness of an expensive club.

In previous years the business suffered badly under the double influence of the recession and the severe cutback in business expenses.
And then too, because of younger generations of salarymen, who tend to spend more time with their families and less with the guys from the office. At one time you had nearly no choice as a salaryman but to go: it was literally a part of the job, as well as being a way of letting off steam before going home. These days the clubs are changing their ways and trying their best to stay in fashion with the business crowd, but it seems they're fighting a losing battle that only a very few smart clubs will win in the end.

Osaka, like any other big city in Japan, has its fair share of mizu shobai areas. The best known are Kita Shinchi just south of Umeda and the Namba or Minami area, where things are cheaper and a lot more varied.

The fact that Namba is cheaper probably has something to do with history of Osaka's development after the war. In the late sixties and seventies with the increasing importance of Itami Airport and the expansion of housing along Hankyu's railway lines, the southern part of Osaka was lost in the swirl of progress and development that gave rise to Umeda and all its glitz. All the same the area around Dotonbori still has its original charm and a following of business people and nighttime revelers that makes Kita Shinchi look narrow and somehow ridiculous.

One particular area that continues to pull in the crowd is Soemoncho, a one-and-a-half-kilometer stretch running east west between Sakaisuji and Midosuji. What makes Soemoncho interesting is that it is dated: things looked older and less flashy, and day or night one gets the distinct feeling that the clientele who come here are more than likely the prosperous owners of the thousands of businesses that spill onto the streets of Shinsaibashi and Namba. If Kita Shinchi has a eighties and nineties feel, then Soemoncho is most definitely of the fifties and sixties when Japan's economy was like a run away train on a downhill slope.

In Soemoncho you can find everything and anything and see anyone and everyone. There are nightclubs with big facades of neon and tuxedoed staff waiting to take your car and park it. Cabarets for the old fashioned (of which there are many!). For the pampered and well-heeled stomach, there is a Korean restaurant the size of a medium-sized warehouse.

For the more elegant and sophisticated, there are glassed-in private gardens, long curving wooden counters and high-backed swivel stools covered in fresh linen. Here a polite but authoritative bar tender/waiter will serve drinks of your preference along with top quality steaks, as if you were a gentleman of note and property. And then there's every manner and kind of high class Japanese joints, that the food loving people of Osaka are famed for from Hokkaido to Kyushu. There are also strip joints and the like, with their more suspicious and questionable attendants out front beside the glossy pictures trying to get you to come inside and see the action.

Where but Japan can you buy a silk tie at 1 am or a priceless pot of blooming orchids at 2 am? Soemoncho and the surrounding streets are spotted with tiny boutiques that sell expensive evening wear, lingerie, perfume and jewelry, neckties and belts, along with high-class fruit vendors. And for the distinguished older clientele there are shops selling selected antiques and kimono accessories. These shops cater to the sufficiently rich and usually slightly drunk customers who buy something for that special lady-friend on their arm or in appreciation for a mama-san's (the proprietress of a bar or club) tactful way of making an evening with clients go very, very smoothly.

If you happen to find the doorways of Soemoncho too expensive or imposing, then all you have to do is cross the Dotonbori canal a few meters away and you’ve entered the poor man’s paradise of excitement and pleasure. Suddenly the colors are brighter and the restaurants smaller, no longer serving the best fish and meat on the market. Now it's okonomiyaki, yakisoba and the like. But all the same it is always busy here at night and even in the daytime. A kind of consumer paradise that forever serves the idle masses in search of amusement.


And yet it's not all fun and games. Just fifty meters off the Sennichimae shopping mall, you find yourself next to a small temple, incense clouds constantly billowing up and filling the surrounding air, and water flowing melodiously and constantly out of a natural spring. This temple is famous in Osaka and absolutely worth a visit.

Hozenji dates back to 1597 and has been a popular place for women to wish for a healthy and successful childbirth. Tiny as the temple may be, there always seems to be someone there lighting incense or praying to the thick and wet moss-covered Amida Buddha statue, flanked by his two equally moss covered protectors and surrounded in a halo of purifying flames.

Walk the streets of around Soemoncho and Hozenji, and experience Japan's circus of the night.

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