Amerika-mura: Osaka' funky town
|Camo-clad bicycle couriers take a
Photos by Simon Rowe
It is said that even
Tokyo bows to the creative ideas that hold sway in Osaka's Amerika-mura street fashion
district. Simon Rowe heads to Kansai to confirm the hype.
The view from Banco Illy in
Osaka's Amerika-mura is outrageous. Lithe office ladies sporting cat's-eye contact lenses
saunter to my left, teenagers with tongues pierced like pin cushions and multi-colored
stereo plugs woven through their kinky hair swagger to my right. Riding collapsible
two-wheelers, skinny young men with bleached hair and yakuza-style shoulder tattoos weave
recklessly through them all.
Banco Illy is a tiny corner cafe, vaguely Bohemian in decor and music, which sits smack in
the middle of Osaka's Amerika-mura, or "American village" precinct. The
espressos are as thick as crude oil, and the Campari and sodas full of zip; but that's not
the reason to visit. Banco Illy is a prime scoping spot from which, under the cover of a
large blue awning, you can witness street fashion in the making.
"Amemura," as Osaka's laid-back youth call it, is a mecca for the fashion fiend.
It begins west of Shinsaibashi subway station (Midosuji line) and stretches all the way
from Nagahori-dori down to the Dotonbori river. Sheer chaos reigns on weekends when more
than 200,000 cashed-up and clothes-hungry youths flood the maze-like streets and alleys to
pick through some 3000 shops purveying everything from Balinese sandals to Boston bowling
club jackets, zippo lighters to zebra-stripe g-strings.
|Hair colors change with the seasons
Amerika-mura was not always
so colorful. Once a shadow land of department store warehouses, factory dormitories and
low-cost housing for restaurant staff, it was only after merciless exposure to American
pop culture during the'70s that the neighborhood began shaping itself into something more
vibrant. Weekend marketplaces sprouted to cater to young people wanting to buy, sell and
exchange their old bell-bottom slacks and skivvies for new ones. Today, the area lures the
fashionista from around Japan, and it's not uncommon during the discount ticket periods
for Harajuku high school students to jump aboard weekend trains to Osaka to do a whirlwind
shopping tour and get back before Monday classes.
The multi-leveled OPA department store, Tower Records and a Step shoe chain store have
recently established respectably cool-looking outposts in the precinct. Even the
human-like lamps, which line the streets outside the OPA, are in keeping with
Amerika-mura's funky image: each one can be manipulated into a different pose, with facial
expressions to boot.
|Kawaii culture reigns supreme
To fully gauge its unique fashion spectrum, you will have to venture into Sankaku Koen
(Triangle Park), a wedge of tiered concrete south of Banco Illy, which serves as both a
meeting place and an impromptu catwalk for weekend hipsters. But be warned, says Hirofumi
"Sam the Man" Asai, 27, on Sundays the crowds are oppressive. Heavy foot traffic
doesn't deter him, however. He often makes the one-hour train ride from his hometown of
Himeji, west of Osaka, to rifle through the clothes racks off Sankaku Koen where bargains
sometimes lurk. As he shows off his latest acquisitions - a used suede jacket and pair of
deerskin pants which together cost him under JY20,000 - the smile of a happy shopper beams
from beneath his bleached mohawk.
Fads, trends and crazes ebb and flow like the tides of the Seto Inland Sea. It's a tough
call even for Amerika-mura's rag traders to say what the next fashion tsunami will be. The
white "floppy socks" (retailing at JY300-JY500) and chibi Tees (tiny T-shirts)
crazes both originated in Amerika-mura and have become the virtual uniform of millions of
high school girls since 1996. Atsu-zoko platform boots remain a die-hard fashion item
among ganguro, whose salon tans, porn-star perms and smothered black and silver eye shadow
continue to make them the most sought-after catch of the bleached-hair boys.
Keeping one's wardrobe funky can be expensive, and for this reason Amerika-mura angles
hard for thrifty-minded youth whose monthly budget might not top JY10,000 - JY15,000.
Donde Esta Mu (1-8-5, Nishi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku) attracts its fair share. Styled on a
Mexican mud-brick house, this two-level store imports new and used skirts, tops and pants
from Latin America, Spain and France for JY2900-JY3900, while groovy Osaka-designed
T-shirts go for JY1800.
|Two views of the heart of
Ethnic designs have muscled
into other parts of Amerika-mura. From tiny hole-in-the-wall stores like El Rodeo
(2-10-22, Nishi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku), to vast cluttered emporiums like Rastro (1-5-13,
Nishi-Shinsaibashi), you can find anything from Nepalese incense burners and native
American Indian bracelets to cosmic-colored zippo lighters and Muslim skull caps.
Another place to soak up the street life is from a bench seat outside Big Step (1-6-14,
Nishi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku), a seven-level department store that houses 80 fashion
boutiques, several restaurants and cafes, and a mini-theater. Around sundown, excitement
levels click up a gear and hormones start doing the conga-line as the sidewalk seating
becomes a lively pick-up strip for horny youngsters.
Exploring Amerika-mura demands dogged footwork, and by day's end the sidewalks will have
taken their toll. What better way to dissolve the aches and pains than to wallow in a hot
tub at the Shimizu-yu sento (1-4-18, Nishi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku), a local bathhouse
located across from OPA department store. Since 1968, when a 5:30am bath service was
introduced, it has become an institution for both locals and all-night revelers seeking
respite from their approaching hangovers. The admission charge is JY300, though once
you've stripped down in the second floor change rooms, you must undertake that curious
ritual of riding an elevator naked to reach the baths located on the third floor. It beats
taking the stairs, say the wrinkled regulars.
|Takoyaki vendor near Triangle Park
Once inside, you can ponder
your tub options, which include warm, hot and cold water baths, an eyeball-frying denki-buro
(electric bath) and sauna. A ritual of a far more mind-soothing kind should be undertaken
at Shimizu's first-floor vending machines after your bath. Here ice-cold beer and oolong
tea flow at the drop of a coin and can keep flowing - if time and money permit. The
perfect end to a long day on the fashion beat.
Where to stay
Hotel Nikko Osaka, 1-3-3, Nishi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0086. Tel: 06-6244-1111,
fax: 06-6245-2432. Situated in the heart of downtown, close to Amerika-mura. Room rates
are JY18,500 single, JY28,500 twin. Website: www.hno.co.jp
Hotel California, 1-9-30, Nishi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0086. Tel: 06-6243-0333.
The ultimate in kitsch accommodation in Amerika-mura, this place feels like a time capsule
from the Florida Keys, circa 1975. Room rates are JY7000 single, JY11,000 double.
|The eye-catching facade of the
Platea Dotombori Hotel
Closest subway station to Amerika-mura: Shinsaibashi, Midosuji Line (red). The Kansai
Tourist Information Center (Tel: 0724-56-6025) is on the first floor of Kansai
International Airport. It provides Osaka accommodation listings, city maps and train
timetables. Staff can also recommend restaurants. The Osaka Tourist Association also has
offices at both Shin-Osaka (Tel: 81-6-305-3311) and Osaka (Tel: 06-345-2189) train
stations. Website: www.tourism.city.osaka.jp/en/index.htm