Tsuruhashi Koreatown 鶴橋, 大阪
While walking down Tsuruhashi main street, lined with shops selling everything Korean from instant noodles to bridal gowns, my friend informed me of Hiro's relaxed policies. Hiro was the owner of the place. We would have to buy our drinks at the café, of course, but we could bring in our own food purchased from the shops nearby.
The café, once we got there, was a space located at a busy corner right next to a Korean style town gate. It had no walls separating it from either one of the two adjoining streets - you could just walk in freely from the outside.
We put our bags down on a table next to a shelf with a large selection of international books and went shopping. We bought a variety of carefully matured kimchi from the store next door and freshly fried spicy chicken from a store a little further down the street.
Sitting next to the bookshelf, enjoying our food and some beer with it, my friend went on to explain that that was a kind of book exchange place for English-language books. Visitors put books in that shelf they have already read and are free to take books out to read on their further travel.
The shelf was crammed with all kinds of books - I instantly donated a tome of 1980's erotic fiction I had found at a used book shop the other day.
When he finally got some time, Hiro came over to our table. He was a third generation Korean-Japanese who had grown up in the neighborhood, he told me in fluent English. He had traveled quite a bit internationally and he had studied Korean in Seoul.
Most young people in Tsuruhashi can't speak Korean anymore. They all converse in Japanese. But Hiro wanted to connect to the original culture that had shaped the Korean heritage so forcefully on display in Tsuruhashi.
He wanted his guesthouse / café to serve as an intersection between traditional Korean-Japanese culture and the outside world as represented by young adventurous travelers, he said.
When we left, I told myself that if I ever got the chance I got to check out that guest house and Tsuruhashi a bit more in detail in the future.
Forward two or three years. I was going to Osaka again and somehow, for the first couple of days, I couldn't stay at the Japanese friend's house where I always stay.
Finally, the time for more research on Tsuruhashi had come. I still had Hiro's business card and gave him a call.
Sure, I could book into his guesthouse, he answered my inquiry. 9:30pm, the time I figured I would arrive, seemed a little late to him - but he agreed to wait for me. Almost everything in the neighborhood would be closed by then, he informed me. Though some restaurants would still be open.
The area around Tsuruhashi Station was still busy once I arrived that evening but indeed, the streets of Koreatown proper were deserted when I made my way to Hiro's hostel. Hiro gave me a short run-down on how to use the facilities at his guesthouse and pointed out a few still open restaurants nearby. I had some good, spicy and inexpensive garlic ramen that night at a place called Tenyou Ninniku Ramen. Ninniku means garlic - and garlic ramen are the trademark of the eatery.
I bought a can of beer or two and returned to the guesthouse. Guesthouse means that it is a place mainly aimed at backpackers who don't mind dormitory-style rooms as long as they are cheap and clean.
I just had to open a sliding door and I could step out onto the balcony. Out there, I could smoke, have a drink and enjoy the quiet night scenery of Tsuruhashi.
When I got up in the morning, Tsuruhashi Koreatown seemed totally transformed. All the shops were open and the main street was very crowded. I did a long walk taking in the scenery.
While the actual Tsuruhashi neighborhood covers a relatively large area that includes Tsuruhashi train station and the roofed-over vintage market lanes close to the station, the real Tsuruhashi Koreatown is actually not that big.
Strictly speaking, you enter Koreatown proper when passing below its traditional-style Korean gates. But that is sort of an artificial border. There are many traditional Korean businesses outside the gates and they are certainly worth checking out just as well.
But within the gates, Korean enterprises dominate. Within the gates, you feel like being in a strange Korean-Japanese twilight zone. The food and everything on display are decidedly Korean while the language spoken and displayed at all the store advertisements is Japanese.
Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945. At that time, Korea was extremely poor and many Koreans migrated to Japan in their search for a better life. Many of them chose Osaka as their place to settle in Japan. Osaka was heavily industrialized and its factories depended on low-pay labor. The first Koreatowns in Osaka formed then.
During World War II, Japan recruited a great number of Koreans to do forced labor in the coal mines and the industries considered important for the war effort.
After the war, many Koreans went back home but a considerable number stayed on in Japan. Since Korea was by then not part of Japan anymore, the resident Koreans in Japan lost their Japanese citizenship. They had to choose between a South or North Korean citizenship - and both received special permanent residency in Japan.
The roots of Tsuruhashi were laid in those pre-war / post war days. But the neighborhood got its real start with a very bloody episode in South Korean history.
In 1948, a rebellion broke out on the southern-most Korean island of Jeju. It was to a good part instigated by agents from North Korea - but on the other hand, Jeju islanders didn't feel that they wanted to be ruled by a dictator from Seoul. They wanted to live their own way.
The dictator from Seoul, American-appointed Syngman Rhee, cracked down on the rebels harshly - and successfully. Thousands were killed in Rhee's anti-rebel drive. The ones who made it out alive fled to nearby Japan.
It was those Jeju islanders that took over the halfway abandoned postwar Koreatown of Tsuruhashi and made it their own.
Horrified by the brutality of Syngman Rhee's South Korea, most of them opted for close relations with North Korea. Tsuruhashi became a mainstay of pro-North Korean activity in the 1950's, 60's and 70's.
When the International Red Cross began its ill-conceived Repatriation Program in 1959, thousands of Tsuruhashi residents opted to move to North Korea.
The by now most prominent of them became Ko Yong-hee, a neighborhood girl who went on to become a famous dancer in Pyongyang. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il set his eyes on her and soon made her the mother of several of his children. The current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was born as a result of their liaison.
If you set out for Tsuruhashi today in the hope of acquiring some weird North Korean propaganda items, though, you will be sorely disappointed. There aren't any to be found at all.
Today's Tsuruhashi is about keeping Korean traditions alive in modern-day Japan. Korean food is the most obvious of those traditions - and there is plenty of really traditional Korean food on offer in the restaurants and shops of Tsuruhashi.
But certain old-style communal traditions have also been carried over from the old days on Jeju Island and are still prevalent today - like the early closing times of the shops. Market streets on Jeju closed at dusk at the time the ancestors of the current Tsuruhashi shopkeepers left the island and the current generation still follows that tradition.
Tsuruhashi Station is a network of three separate stations, served by three rail operators: the JR Osaka Loop Line, the Sennichimae Line of the Osaka subway and Kintetsu Railway's Osaka and Nara Lines.
Tsuruhashi Koreatown and Hiro's Guest House are about 10 minutes' walk from Tsuruhashi Station. Turn right after leaving the main exit of JR Tsuruhashi Station and right again at the first major intersection.
Hiro's Guest House: Osaka-shi, Ikuno-ku, Momodani 4-9-7
Tel: 090 6676 7393 (English or Japanese)
Website: hirosguesthouse.com (in English)
The website features a video showing how to walk to the guest house.
Rates: bunk bed in dormitory room: 2500 yen per night, Japanese tatami room: 3500 yen per person per night.