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Amerika-mura: Osaka' funky town




Camo-clad bicycle couriers take a break
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.

Groovesville
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

In-crowd
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 Amerika-mura

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.

Chill out
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

Tourist Information
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  

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