Tobita Shinchi 飛田新地 山王３丁目 西成区 大阪
The Kabukicho district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district is by far Japan’s largest and most famous red-light district.
However, despite the ubiquitous, garish advertisements and the many touts on the streets, the actual action takes place inside closely guarded clubs.
Though, according to a multitude of sources, the Kabukicho outlets offer sexual services catering even to the strangest fantasies, straight, full intercourse is not on the menu, at least as long as the club is trying to stay within the tolerated gray zone of Japan’s legal limits. Foreigners are barred from many, if not most, of Kabukicho’s establishments.
After many centuries of a legal open sex trade in the respectively prescribed pleasure quarters of the Edo Period, Tokyo’s colorful Yoshiwara being the most famous of all, prostitution was finally outlawed in Japan in 1958.
The historic Yoshiwara, along with similar zones reserved for erotic entertainment across the country, were forced by law to close down.
It didn’t take long before the red-light businesses bounced back, however, operating under the disguise of massage parlors, “Turkish baths,” men’s health clubs and the like. Thriving businesses to this day, to be sure, but by nature operating behind a veil of opaque secrecy.
Walking to Tobita Shinchi
As so often, however, things are a bit different in Osaka. The Tobita Shichi red light district still works very much in the same way as the old Yoshiwara did. Here, the businesses still openly display their working girls to casually strolling, potential customers.
Let’s start walking towards Tobita Shinchi slowly, taking in a bit of the surroundings on the way first.
The Dobutsuen-mae Station exits to the north lead towards the old Shinsekai entertainment district. The main exit on the south side brings you onto a wide boulevard lined with very cheap hotels, the homeless district of Kamagasaki is just a 5 minute walk to the right. Head into the vintage Shinkaisuji shopping arcade (新開筋商店街) and keep walking.
The shopping arcade (shotengai) feels like walking through ghost town Japan – the stores and restaurants here have hardly changed since the 1970’s, just that their owners have grown older over the years and their stores with them. The arcade is quiet, many shutters are closed and the prices for the wares offered are at the lowest end.
Peek into the side streets towards the left. Once rows of small buildings adorned with many little white signboards come into sight, turn left. Pass through under the elevated Hanshin Expressway and you enter Tobita Shinchi.
Experiencing Tobita Shinchi
Entering Tobita Shinchi you penetrate a different but very vibrant world. The streets of Tobita Shinchi are lined with Taisho-era-style 2-storey buildings, one attached to the other. Each building is marked with a little white sign, lit up at night, spelling out the name of the business it houses.
The ground floors of each building have wide doors revealing a large genkan (entrance area). The floors of those genkan are covered with mats, the decorations vary widely – from classical Japanese to Hello Kitty dolls. All of them are however designed to look cute.
Places awaiting business have two women sitting in the genkan: a more or less young girl, dressed up in sometimes revealing clothes, sometimes as a school girl, a nurse or a manga character. These are the working girls. Some of them are said to be former Adult Video starlets.
On a little stool more to the front sits the mama-san, the manager of the business. She is older and usually dressed more like a woman at a market hawking goods.
That’s exactly the mama-san’s job. She will call out to passers-by words like “Oni-san, oni-san, dozo.” (“Elder brother, come in please.”)
While foreigners were hardly accepted as customers here until a few years ago, they are now welcomed by many of the businesses. If the mama-san directs her “Oni-san, dozo.” at you, it means that she wants you to spend your money at her place.
If you show interest, she will then tell you the prices of the services on offer. Those prices are fixed and also displayed in writing on a signboard on the wall of the genkan. There is no haggling and no bargaining here, at the same time, every customer will be charged exactly the same rate, no matter if they look rich or poor.
The general rate for full intercourse in November 2015 was 15,000 yen for 15 minutes, 16,000 yen for 20 minutes and 41,000 yen for a full hour.
The working girl will stay perfectly quiet during the negotiations between the mama-san and the customer though she might give some sly, encouraging glances towards the potential customer.
If you arrive at a deal with the mama-san for the service of a girl you find attractive, you will have to remove your shoes before stepping up the step to the actual genkan, then you proceed with the girl up the stairs to the second floor.
In a 15 or 20 minute span for a full intercourse, there is no time to waste. Thus, there is no shower available before or after the playtime. But you will inevitably be served hot tea and a tray of assorted sweets.
You undress, the girl undresses, she will clean your precious parts with an alcoholic solution, put a condom on your member – and the rest is history.
Five minutes before your time is up, a bell will ring. Now, you really have got to hurry.
After you finish, the girl will clean your private parts again with the alcoholic solution – no traces will be left of this little adventure. Except in your memory, of course.
Tobita Shinchi History
After a large fire destroyed the old brothel district of Shinchi Otobe in the Namba district of Osaka, the brothels were moved in 1916 to their current Tobita Shinchi location just south of the then new and highly fashionable Shinsekai entertainment district.
Shinsekai, a fantastically themed entertainment zone employing the most advanced technology to entertain its visitors, had opened for business in 1912. At the same time, a large pool of male day laborers began to settle just south of Shinsekai, in a neighborhood called Kamagasaki.
Tobita seemed like the ideal location for a new prostitution area: large numbers of customers could be expected both from youths and wayward husbands trying to enhance their Shinsekai adventure as well as from the hard-working laborers of Kamagasaki in dire need of sexual release.
Thus, Tobita Shinchi was born.
The district bloomed and was able to shrug off the ups and downs of the tourist economy of Shinsekai proper, the impoverishment of the previously more or less well-paid Kamagasaki customers, as well as the bombing of Osaka in World War II. In fact, Tobita Shinchi was lucky and escaped the American bombing campaigns largely unscathed.
Just as resilient proved the neighborhood when the Japanese anti-prostitution laws went into effect in April 1958. The district closed down for one night – and opened up shop as if nothing had happened the following night, only now operating as a restaurant association.
Tobita Restaurant Association
Officially, you don’t buy sex in Tobita Shinchi. You are served tea and snacks – and whatever happens between the “waitress” and you is then your private business. That’s why customers are always being served the tea and sweets on the second floor, that’s why you don’t pay your cash to the mama-san downstairs but to the prostitute upstairs.
If you think that that would be a rather flimsy way to run a widespread and well entrenched red light district, you don’t know Osaka.
Osaka is an old merchant town. Bending the rules has been the way here for centuries. Whatever the shoguns in old Edo decided, Osakans found their own way to deal with it.
Thus, the Tobita Restaurant Association was founded to manage things in Tobita. As you may expect, the association is closely connected to the highest political levels in the city.
Current Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, a politician exercising a substantial influence on Japan’s national policies, acted as the general counsel for the Tobita Restaurant Association a few years ago and he made sure that Tobita’s day-to-day practices all meet the highest standards of Japanese law – as practiced in Osaka.
Virtually all prostitutes in Tobita are Japanese, save a few zainichi permanent residents of Korean or Chinese origin. The Tobita Restaurant Association certainly doesn’t want to lose their privileges by getting in trouble with the immigration authorities.
Taiyoshi Hyakuban Restaurant
The Tobita Restaurant Association does count a number of real and actually very good restaurants as their members. The flagship restaurant in Tobita Shinchi is without a question the historic Taiyoshi Hyakuban restaurant.
The Taiyoshi Hyukuban is located in former brothel, built in 1918 in lavish Taisho era style. It was converted into the current restaurant after the anti-prostitution laws went into effect.
The restaurant is in high demand and a seat reservation is recommended.
No Photo Policy
You will find “No Photo” signs at virtually every prostitution-related building in Tobita Shinchi. Especially photos taken of the genkan with the working girl and the mama-san present are strictly forbidden.
If a mama-san realizes that someone takes photos, she might dart out of her genkan and aggressively confront the violator of the rules.
Tobita Shinchi Video
Given today’s technology, however, the no photo policy can’t stop really determined video takers. See here a video documenting the streets of Tobita Shinchi at night, apparently taken from a slowly moving car.
The video is deliberately blurry at the beginning, it features real, clear-eyed Tobita Shinchi scenery after about the 1:40 minute mark.
Access – how to get to Shinsekai
Railway: Shin Imamiya Station on the Nankai Main Line.
Taiyoshi Hyakuban Restaurant
3-5-25 Sanno Nishinari-ku Osaka
Tel: 06 6632 0050
Reservations should be made at least 3 days in advance.
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 5pm to 11pm.
(Partly) English website of the restaurant