OSAKA - Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”) is a hidden labyrinth of about two-dozen small bars and restaurants near Noda Station in Osaka’s Fukushima Ward.
It began as one of the many black markets that sprang up throughout Japan after the end of World War II. Squatters moved into an empty lot formerly occupied by a police station and cobbled together shacks from scrap materials. These flimsy structures were replaced by sturdier two- and three-story buildings over the years, but still retain the postwar atmosphere of the Showa Era (1926-89).
There are four paths that lead into Jigokudani, none of them very noticeable from the street. I prefer to go in through a 70-centimeter-wide alley located inside Noda Shinbashi Street, a covered shopping arcade near Nodahanshin Station’s exit No. 7. To find the alley, look for a store selling eyeglasses on the right side, about a block and a half in, with a blue sign that says Bigan Kougaku in English.
Walking through this extremely narrow passage during the day is not that bad, unless you suffer from claustrophobia.
As dusk becomes night, the bar signs underneath the dangling entanglements of cables and wires light up.
The varied shapes, colors and hues create a magical ambiance that transforms Jigokudani from a hidden world of shadows into an inviting place where the sounds of laughter and merriment escape from closed doors.
I slide open the doors to the area’s oldest establishment, Nakagawa Shuzo Tosen, a small izakaya bar that has been in the area since 1948. Fans of the Japanese series “Shinya Shokudo,” which has developed a cult following on Netflix as “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories,” will recognize the layout: a central, square counter with barely enough room to squeeze by other customers.
The proprietor, Keiko Nakagawa, 79, is the daughter of the original owner, and the izakaya is named after an old sake brewery that her relatives still own in Katsuragi, Nara Prefecture. Nakagawa hasn’t raised her prices in years: Most of the small dishes she prepares from old family recipes are around ¥300, and a small bottle of Tosen — a good junmaishu (sake made without added distilled alcohol) produced by the family brewery — is only ¥270. Nakagawa Tosen opens early in the morning, and is often full of colorful neighborhood characters.
Casual drop-ins are always welcome at all of the bars, provided there is enough space. Stand Toyo is a tiny karaoke bar opened in 1980 by Toyoko Nakagawa (no relation to Keiko), 76, a beloved figure in Jigokudani with a radiant smile who loves to talk to her customers. I order a bottle of beer (¥600) and a dish of simmered mackerel and Chinese cabbage (¥300) and strike up a conversation with the only other customer inside, Kazuaki “Kumamon” Fujiwara, 55, who has been coming to Jigokudani three times a week for over 10 years.
Toyoko recalls that there used to be over 50 bars inside Jigokudani, packed with revelers who used to drink until the wee hours of the morning. However, many of the old bars started closing in the new millennium as Japan’s economy took a downward turn.
During the latter half of the Heisei Era (1989-2019), a younger generation of business owners moved in and revitalized the area with new establishments that, while still preserving Jigokudani’s retro feel, re-forged a strong sense of community.
One such addition is Chaica, a stylish bar and cafe, and the only place to get coffee (¥400) in Jigokudani. Chaica’s owner, Chiyo, goes by only one name, like Cher and Madonna, and treats all of the customers who walk through her door as if they are longtime regulars: Within minutes, perfect strangers are laughing and chatting like old friends. Try her amazing spaghetti Napolitan (¥600), a Japanese pasta dish made with ketchup, sausage, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and Tabasco sauce.
The newest bar in Jigokudani is Charon, which just opened in 2018. It’s run by Azusa Nakashima, 29, and her mother, Miyoko, 58, whose family owns a specialty chicken store in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. I order an exquisite chicken liver dish prepared with green onions and sesame oil (¥480).
The bar is named after the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the dead across the Styx and Acheron rivers. Since almost all of the drinks are just ¥380, I wish Charon were here to ferry me to the next bar, because I feel legless.
Charon is not the only bar with a name that embraces the netherworld. The Jigokudani Maid Bar is an intimate, non-smoking cocktail bar that sits seven, but there are no maids in frilly outfits working inside. The name is an intentional play on the Japanese word for maid, “meido,” which, when spelled with different kanji, can also mean “the world of the dead.”
Its sole bartender is Kazuhide Yokota, 54, a gregarious local from the neighborhood who makes an unbelievable lime gin and tonic. He became fascinated with stories of Jigokudani as a boy and later researched its history — after spending a lot of time drinking in bars like Stand Toyo.
According to Yokota, nobody is sure why the area came to be called Jigokudani. It was said to be haunted by evil spirits, and women and children were warned never to set foot inside. Another theory is that there were a few disreputable bar owners in the black market who didn’t let hapless patrons leave until they spent all of their hard earned money drinking themselves to hell.
Today, all of the unsavory elements are long gone, and new visitors will find that Jigokudani is a very inexpensive and friendly place to go bar-hopping — you just have to be willing to step into the darkness.
Jigokudani can be found just off Noda Shinbashi Street in Osaka’s Fukushima Ward. Hours of individual bars vary.