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Unsung heroes of Japanese culture - Downtown wonders

Updated: May 21, 2021

Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.

Downtown wonders

What has charmed me from the moment I first laid eyes on it and will forever continue to do so is the general street scene of Japanese cities. Of course there’s the usual suspects such as the Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto and Asakusa in Tokyo which are, of course, famous for a reason. But in my opinion nothing elicits that feeling of adventure and wonder, of being in a different world altogether than a walk ‘downtown’ in any given major Japanese city. Especially if you’re mostly used to European cities like I am.

The first thing that struck me was the general clutter and shabbiness of streets, the contrast this has with the Japanese image of ‘slick and clean’, the clash of the old and futuristic in a single view, the lack of architectural uniformity. Unsightly grey apartment complexes stand next to semidetached houses with a European air and right opposite true castles of traditional Japanese mansions. Every skyscraper can have centuries old temples lurking in its shadow. Dead smack in the middle of the bombardment of stimuli generated by pachinko parlors, endless light signs and seas of people there may be an oasis of tranquility in the form of a Japanese garden. On the 4th floor, above an adult video store and behind a massive billboard one may find the best restaurant they’ve ever eaten at.

While presentation often equals the message in Japan, buildings are a very important exception to this rule: what you see outside holds no bearing on what you may find inside, especially as every inch of every floor tends to be packed with different establishments. The result is just so much to accidentally stumble upon that there’s always room to wander and wonder; far more than I’m used to in Europe at least. The little alley that you never even noticed before holds what will become your new favorite Izakaya. By going to the second floor of an unassuming concrete slab of a building from where you heard some strange noise, you might wind up in an arcade with installations that baffle the imagination.

Perhaps my favorite are the super niche hole-the-wall bars you may find downtown in big cities like Osaka and Tokyo. One example is Mittera Kaikan, a particularly seedy-looking building in Amerika Mura of Osaka. While there’s some signs sprinkled around it with occult names, nothing else implies that it houses over 20 crazy theme bars, each the size of a shoebox, deep within its bowels. In most countries entering a seemingly abandoned, dimly lit building in the middle of the night would be a recipe for disaster; not Japan! During my time in Osaka almost every step off the beaten path was rewarded. And even as I grew to know the city better, that feeling of constant enticement remained, always pushing me to be curious.

This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on April 19, 2021.

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