Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Day or Two in South Osaka

Although I've spent two years in Japan, I've only been to Osaka twice. Once, for the job interview for my most recent employer. The second time was this past week, to obtain my Thai visa.

I forgot what western Honshu was like, having spent so much time in Kyushu this past year. I don't claim to believe that Japan is a superficially beautiful country, with it having so much concrete laid down and flashing pachinko parlors in every obscure corner, but islands like Kyushu and Shikoku (possibly Hokkaido too, but I've never lived there) are greener and more rural by comparison. Easy to forget the Sanyo Line running from Shimonoseki to Okayama, the subtle changes in the air that come from urban pollution... even the pace of daily life is more rushed, more fluid.

Osaka itself is not a pretty city, an expanse of apartment and office buildings over a flat, grey landscape that seems to have no end. But... I can see the appeal. It is a comfortable life, full of amenities and a dialect few in Japan can understand.

If you happen to be in Osaka for a day or two, feel free to check out the attractions on the south end of town around Tennoji (天王寺).

Shinsekai (新世界)

This district, located just west of Tennoji Koen, is a yakuza-controlled nightlife area which makes one feel as though he's stepped back in time some forty-odd years. The streets are narrow, the pachinko machines lack video screens and computer controls, and old men play mahjong in glass houses near ramen shops.

There are quite a few fugu restaurants in this area, as are there billy-ken statues. I have no idea of the significance of billy-ken, who has the appearance of a great golden Buddha with big feet, but apparently, there's even an image of him atop the Hitachi Tower, also in Shinsekai.

Photo courtesy of David M. -

Spa World (スパワールド)

Spa World, occupying the bulk of Shinsekai, is one of the world's largest indoor baths, and it shows.

I have been to sento around the rails.
I have visited onsen ryokan in Kurokawa, Beppu, and Kagoshima.
I have soaked in waters with nothing between me and a smoking volcano.

That being said, this place is nothing short of amazing in terms of Japanese bathing locales. 2400 yen will get you in for three hours, 2700 for the day (although they will charge an extra thousand if you check in or out after midnight).

The lobby and entrance area isn't remarkable different from your average super sento. But once one rises to the 4th floor, things become clearer. A decently-stocked gym. Massages of every kind (extra charge, of course). A rooftop pool in the shadow of a neighborhood roller coaster. And of course, the baths.

Men and women alternate each month between the 4th and 6th floors. The 4th Asian themed, the 6th European. Until the end of May, men have control of the fourth floor, and let me tell you - that 2400 yen was worth every last cent, if you'll pardon the currency crossover.

Spa World of Osaka is probably the closest anyone in the world will ever get to experiencing a true ancient Roman bath. And unlike the Romans, the Japanese incorporate modern features and a variety of styles.

You begin your journey in the Islam baths (イスラム, I don't quite get it, either - just reading the katakana), boiling hot water flowing from three different lions' heads to provide a temperate back massage. Once completed, guests can enjoy the same H20 in a central marble bath.

From here... where to go... where to go... perhaps to the left, where three different medicinal baths lay awaiting aching muscles. Or even further, to the salt sauna.

No... straight ahead, to three Japanese-style rotemburo sitting adjacent to a Japanese restaurant. All the styles of the world at my fingertips, and I still see the appeal of outdoor bathing; especially tonight, as the rain gently cools my sweating brow.

Next up, the Persian baths, a mixture of silt and milky-gold waters in a room in which Darius would have no problems feeling at ease, Alexander the Great probably discarding his sword to indulge a leisurely soak.

And you can have all day and night. Sleep. Eat. Exercise. Bathe. Repeat as needed.

New Japan Sauna and Capsule Hotel

This isn't actually in south Osaka, but I thought it was worth mentioning as this is the original capsule hotel, still running smoothly since 1979.

Located near Umeda Station. I believe if you check in after midnight, they only charge 2600. Before that, 6500.

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