Osaka – Baika, population 5,165, is a charming neighborhood with a small-town feel near Osaka’s Chidoribashi Station. Here, restaurants and cafes are housed in antiquated buildings, and a close-knit DIY artist community has taken up residence in old warehouses and refurbished shops on lowland areas by the waterfront.
Due to its proximity to major tourist attractions like Universal Studios Japan, Baika has a handful of inexpensive guest houses and accommodations, but the neighborhood itself has remained largely undiscovered by non-Japanese visitors. It feels like it’s been untouched by time, and its slower pace and rich food culture makes it a welcome getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city center.
I start my day at Minoya, a small take-out food stall near the Konohana Sumiyoshi Shotengai shopping arcade. I can’t help admiring the faded metal sign of a beckoning cow posing like a manekineko (Japanese lucky cat). Owner Eiko Asanuma has a magnetic personality, and tells me she has been serving her special chijimi (thin savory Korean pancakes; ¥300) and buta horumonyaki (fried pork offal; ¥300) in the neighborhood for over 30 years.
Just around the corner, Tenten Saikan is a 48-year-old Chinese restaurant with colorful lanterns hanging by the entrance and ancient mismatched clocks on the walls, all set to the wrong time. The restaurant offers huge portions of shitamachi chūka ryōri (downtown Chinese cuisine) such as seafood and pork yakisoba (fried noodles; ¥750), karaage (fried chicken), subuta (sweet-and-sour pork; ¥580) and gyōza (fried dumplings; ¥270). Owner Yasuo Kurokawa recommends a tasty fusion of Chinese māpō dōfu (tofu with spicy ground meat) and Korean sundubu-jjigae (hot spicy soft tofu stew) for ¥700.
I meet up with Jerry Gordon, a musician originally from Los Angeles, who curates MIIT House, a performance space located just a few blocks away. He tells me about the area’s historical connection to the “Japanese Walt Disney”: Kenzo Masaoka (1898-1988), a legendary figure in the early history of Japanese animation who created Japan’s first talkie animated feature, “The World of Power and Women,” in 1933.
“Kenzo Masaoka’s family has owned a large amount of property and buildings in Baika and Shinkanjima since the early Meiji Era (1868-1912),” Gordon explains. “The family has long had this connection to the art world via Kenzo, so they decided to let artists use and live in these old and semi-abandoned properties around 10 years ago.”
One such property is a former tailor shop that currently houses Nooo Kitty, a three-story multipurpose creative space that includes a yoga studio, a small lending library of English books and a rooftop used for film screenings. Self-described as “a hideout for the fugitives, the anarchists and the outsiders,” Nooo Kitty is the brainchild of Kaori Yoshikawa, a bilingual artist and poet who grew up in London, and Tetsuya “Snoo” Dohgase, a hip-hop artist who often records and performs on the premises.
The bar and gallery inside Nooo Kitty is called Konohana Garan. It’s run by Kyoharu Haji, an artist with ties to the postwar Gutai art movement. Most of the food and drink prices, including beer and wine, are around ¥300; many of Haji’s creations, such as “konnyaku eros” (devil’s tongue jelly and sausages), are humorous and slightly risque. It’s the perfect environment to spend a pleasant evening chatting about avant-garde art, experimental music and obscure films.
Asked how COVID-19 has affected Baika’s artist community, Yoshikawa says that she feels everyone has “shifted to a new normal.”
“A large part of this has been embracing some more solitude to quietly continue with our work,” she says, “but it has also sparked other online projects. Like most artists, we don’t rely on donations and sales from events and exhibitions, but there’s a certain emotional encouragement that comes from gathering in one physical space together. It would be great to see more initiatives that give funds directly to the artist without taking a cut.”
“I think the artist community will survive,” Gordon adds. “Most of the artists live in their spaces, and almost everyone in this area has a survivalist gene.”
Gordon then suggests we dine at Maboya, a fairly new izakaya pub that serves exceptional tapas. It’s owned by Baika native Masahisa Miyashita, a furniture designer who specializes in artisan chairs and tables, and his wife, Minako, who hails from Kumamoto. The cozy interior was built by Masahisa himself.
The food at Maboya is prepared with the same expertise you would expect from a shokunin (craftsperson): the buta kakuni (braised pork belly; ¥450) is delicately seasoned with star anise and Chinese five spice powder; the chikuwa (cylindrical fish cake; ¥350) tempura is stuffed with curry-flavored potato salad and cheese; and the Genovese potatoes are made with olive oil and home-grown basil (¥380). Or, if you can’t decide, try the “mabosara” (¥380), a plate of four daily appetizers.
As if I haven’t already eaten enough, Gordon insists I can’t leave Baika without visiting Takoyaki Bar Tecchan. Watching Teaki “Tecchan” Kado work the grill is like having front row seats to a comedy show — he never stops riffing and making jokes. Kado, who has previously appeared on national television programs, is something of a local celebrity. His takoyaki (five for ¥300; 14 for ¥700) with sakura ebi shrimp and a gomashio (sesame and salt) topping is out of this world, and are a fitting end to a day of immersing myself in one of Osaka’s underrated quarters.
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