By Azusa Sawamoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterOSAKA — The Airin district of Nishinari Ward, Osaka, long known as a place where day laborers live, has turned into a town of backpacking foreign tourists in recent years.
Budget-conscious travelers from around the world are attracted by the cheap and simple lodging facilities originally built to house day laborers, whose numbers have dramatically decreased in recent years.
The facilities have been renovated and become popular for their affordable prices and convenient locations. I experienced one such facility firsthand.
When I arrived at JR Shin-Imamiya Station near the Airin district, I saw foreign travelers carrying large suitcases. Some were heading to Hotel Toyo, a five-story hostel with about 120 rooms, where I was planning to stay.
The hostel is an old, dingy building. But inside the pleasant aroma of incense filled the air, and an ethnic tapestry adorned the wall of the lobby, which was bathed in soft lighting. The reception desk provides information in English, and I saw a young woman giving a foreign traveler directions to Osaka Castle in fluent English.
I chose a single room without an air conditioner that was priced at ¥1,700 per night — the hostel’s cheapest room charge. A futon took up most of the room’s five square meters, but the tatami mats were freshly green and clean, providing a sufficiently comfortable place to stay.
A hostel employee showed me a comfortable-looking common room, which had a large TV and sofa. Guests relax there and cook in a kitchen space where utensils and seasonings are available.
“This hostel offers private rooms at inexpensive prices and is close to Kyoto, Nara and Kansai Airport,” said Yang Kwok, a 30-year-old woman from Hong Kong who was on a weeklong trip to Japan. “It’s great for young people and backpackers.”
The shared bathrooms and shower rooms were also spotless.
Yasuhiro Asada, the 39-year-old president of Hotel Toyo, said his family had operated the hostel for day laborers since his grandfather’s generation.
“However, the number of guests had been decreasing as laborers were getting old,” he said. “I took over the business about 10 years ago and have since shifted our focus to travelers.”
Hotel Toyo has become so popular through the internet that foreigners now account for 90 percent of the 40,000 guests who stay at the hostel every year. The hostel hosts events in which guests can learn calligraphy, make takoyaki dumplings and participate in other hands-on experiences.
“We try to communicate with our guests as much as possible and create a cozy atmosphere,” Asada said.
Hannan University Prof. Yoshihisa Matsumura, a 50-year-old specialist in tourism geography, told me about folk plays and jazz performances at night that visitors to the Airin district enjoy. He took me to a live jazz performance at a stand-up bar near Hotel Toyo.
Such performances are held in the district almost every day and have become known as “Nishinari Jazz.” The performances are likely to become a tourist attraction.
I asked a 24-year-old Frenchwoman who was staying at Hotel Toyo to join me for a drink. She said she plans to stay at the hostel for a year while teaching French.
“Procedures to rent a room are complicated, and a deposit is required,” she said. “People seem to have a negative image of the Airin district, but I have no safety concerns. I feel comfortable.”
When I woke up early the following day, I heard people speaking Chinese through the thin walls of my room. Apparently some Chinese tourists were preparing to leave the hostel. In the common room, guests from various countries were toasting bread and cooking eggs. I said, “Good morning” and had an onigiri rice ball.
While some traditional lodging houses for laborers, called doya, still remain in the Airin district, the community is changing and now welcomes travelers from around the world.
The Airin district was home to 20,000 to 30,000 day laborers in the 1980s, but the number has dropped to between 5,000 and 7,000, according to Matsumura’s estimations.
In 2005, operators of hostels in the district set up a committee to work out ways to survive in the business. As a result, there are now about 20 lodging houses for travelers around JR Shin-Imamiya Station that accommodated about 300,000 overnight stays by foreign guests in 2015.