In 2010, I went to Kyoto and Osaka with two friends (we’ll name them ‘Bunny’ and ‘Dragon’) over Winter Break.
Kyoto was gorgeous and traditional – old shrines and temples seemed to live in harmony with the present. Shoe store, Shrine, Cheap Clothing Store, Temple, Shrine, Drugstore, Shrine, Shrine, Temple…
Whereas Kyoto had a calm, serene feel to it, the bustling streets of Osaka were very different. It was a much larger city that radiated a gritty personality from every turn. I can recall watching people brush by me on the street and gauging which of them could beat me up if they wanted to. Quite a few seemed more than able.
Our hostel was located in a not-so-stellar part of Osaka. As we wandered through the neighborhood, relying on our phones as maps, we watched the area around us become less savory. Vending machines full of cheap sake and beer stood brightly on one corner and cast shadows on the dilapidated buildings around us.
After we found our hostel, Bunny came to the realization that it was located not too far from Osaka’s shady red-light district. We never questioned why or how she knew this, but she was right.
Prostitution in Japan was outlawed in 1958, the internet told us, but as is the case with several things, loopholes do exist. Several brothels still operate in the exact same area they once did. However, they do so now under the guise of Japanese-style ‘restaurants’.
After reading unsettling ‘reviews’ online (presumedly written by straight, white, male foreigners), we discovered that the neighborhood was indeed a short walk from our hostel.
We decided that we wanted to take a stroll through this seedy district of Osaka and see it for ourselves. Even though none of us had any desire to partake in what was offered there, it sounded like an interesting chance to see ‘Real Japan’. We giggled about how crazy it was sure to be and made plans to go the following evening.
It had rained for most of the next day but as we set out on our search that night, we were greeted by chilly, damp air without a drop in sight. Using Bunny’s phone as guidance, Dragon and I followed her through the dimly lit neighborhood of our hostel, feeling a tinge of unease the further we went.
We wandered through poorly-lit back streets, past boarded-up stores, through an eerily quiet shopping arcade and under highway bypasses that were covered with graffiti.
Before long, we caught sight of two young men walking briskly side-by-side. They were talking and laughing to one another and seemed rather out of place in the run-down area. After all, out of the handful of people we had strolled past that evening, these two were the first we had seen that appeared to be under forty. We deduced that we were getting closer and decided to follow them from a distance.
As we turned a corner after them, the area seemed to transform in to something completely different. We watched them disappear down the road and realized we had found what we were looking for.
Round streetlights were perched high above us, their warm glow contrasting the chilly winter air. Paper lanterns swung peacefully in front of slatted wooden store fronts that lined the street one after another. The store fronts themselves were open for all to see – their soft light spilled out and reflected off the narrow, wet road. We started walking down the street, feeling as if we had stepped back in time.
Suddenly, I saw it. My heart gave a little flutter, like I had just seen Bigfoot or a ghost. This was it: proof that what we had come to see really did exist.
‘Guys,’ I muttered quietly.
They had seen it too. A hush settled over us.
Inside the entryway of the ‘restaurant’ was a young woman sitting on a large floor pillow in seiza. She was glowing – every aesthetically-pleasing detail highlighted beneath the brilliant light. Her makeup and hair were styled to perfection. Her fashionable clothing was form-fitting and immaculate.
She was the main attraction.
Her eyes watched us intently and curiously as we slowed our gait. Long eyelashes met and parted again. The demure smile that she wore on her lips never quivered, never gave any indication as to what she was thinking. She must have been only nineteen or twenty.
“Kawaii desu neeee,” a voice croaked suddenly, making us all jump. ‘Isn’t she cute?’.
A figure shifted off to the side and I realized that the sound had come from an old woman. She was seated precariously on the side of the tatami mat, partially hidden in the shadows from the light that filled the entrance. Her hair was frozen in a crispy old-lady perm and her frumpy clothing starkly clashed with the girl on the pillow’s.
“Douzoooo,” The woman leaned forward and gestured to us – palm down. Her gnarled fingers bobbed up and down in sync with the lackadaisical flicks of her wrist. ’Come on in’.
Judging from the looks on our faces, I can imagine we did not appear to be potential clients. Dismissively, she shook her head, sat back and gave a laugh that sounded like crunching gravel.
Each ‘restaurant’ we passed seemed to be slightly different than the one before it. In one, a girl was dressed as a French Maid and looked bored out of her mind. Another sat surrounded by a mountain of plush animals – I spotted Stitch and Hello Kitty amongst them. Yet another was dressed in a disturbingly authentic-looking school uniform. One ‘restaurant’ even featured a garish neon Christmas tree next to an annoyed-looking girl.
For all of the slight variations, though, the formula seemed to be the same. Every place had a nicely decorated entryway where a pretty girl was seated and advertised by the mama-san. Some of the mama-sans would call out to us and one even addressed us in English. A handful, however, shot us wary, unfriendly glances. What are you doing here? They seemed to say. Leave this place.
Bunny, Dragon and I did not spend much longer in the area. We walked back to our hostel mostly in silence.
“Yeah…I didn’t like that,” Dragon said after some time. “I really didn’t like that.”
We all agreed.
I recalled with embarrassment the previous night – how we were laughing to each other about how ‘craaaazy’ a trip to the red-light district would be. None of us had really known what to expect. We had based our opinions of the ‘wild and crazy’ stories of the famous red-light district in Amsterdam (which I can’t imagine is any better).
The reality, we found, was much less fun than we had anticipated. Instead of sexy, dancing pin-up babes writhing in the windows, we found a surreal, unsettling place where young girls who posed like mannequins were being hawked by old women.
I don’t think that we really knew what we were looking for. We just wanted to see something that would make for a good story. ‘Remember that time we went to Osaka’s red-light district? Crazy times, mannn’.
The story that this experience gave me, however, is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while. Sometimes, things that sound good on paper or as an abstract thought can be entirely different when seen in person. When you look in to the eyes of a girl sitting on a pillow, waiting to be rented out, it becomes less of a ‘crazy, awesome’ idea and more of a very uncomfortable reality.