Guesthouse Review: Cocoroom, Osaka, Japan

I’m staying at Cocoroom – a guesthouse bursting with colour and pattern. There are pictures, patterns and drawings pervading every surface and lurid designs painted directly onto the walls, floor, ceiling and banisters.

This guesthouse in Kamagasaki, the most densely populated area in the whole of Japan, is using art to help the huge number of homeless people in the neighbourhood.

osaka cocoroom sculptures

Sculptures at Cocoroom

As we have our breakfast, the residents of the area – who created these designs – begin to arrive. One elderly gentleman, hunched over and laden with shopping bags, shuffled in to sit by us. A wry smile came to his lips when we commented on his heavy bags. “My old age is heavier than my shopping,” he laughed before cracking open a can of beer.

He is one of the 9,000 people claiming welfare benefits in this 0.62km area of a population of around 20,000 and one of many who have learned to express themselves through art therapy at Cocoroom. I wondered which of the dots, squiggles and lines around the walls might be his.

floor painting cocoroom osaka japan

Floor painting

The Location: Kamagasaki

“My parents used to tell me never to visit this neighbourhood so I was a little concerned when I first saw where you were staying”, my guide informed me as we wandered down an alley trying to find my guest house.

We were in the Kamagasaki district of Osaka, an area which has a reputation amongst the Japanese of being ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’. In the 1960s Japan’s economic boom caused the town, which used to be farmland, to became a doya – where lots of cheap lodgings were built for day labourers. The conditions were poor but the mafia had a stronghold and paid the police to turn a blind eye so many of the labourers’ troubles went unreported.

Resentment brewed and riots broke out. Construction workers with families moved away and were replaced with single male labourers, which cemented the area’s dangerous reputation.

In the 90s, the economic bubble burst. Jobs became scarce and many of Kamagasaki’s residents – who had already been struggling – lost their jobs and became homeless. Many turned to alcohol or drugs. As they became older, with even less chance of finding labouring work, the district’s residents had nowhere to turn.

cocoroom osaka

Faces on the wall

Starting with a line

Philanthropist Kanayo Ueda was moved by what these now elderly men had been through and wanted to give them a safe space to express themselves through art – and so, Cocoroom was born. Under the guise of serving coffee and food to guests, the homeless begin to visit and take part in art lessons and singing as a way of sharing the struggles they’ve been through. The project became the Kamagasaki Geijutsu Daigaku (Kamagasaki Art University), providing free classes for locals, and its name has spread across the country.

Many of the men, at first, find it difficult to draw and may not even know how to hold a brush. So, at first, Kanayo-san asks each of them to simply draw lines. She believes that if anyone can draw a line, then anyone can be an artist. Then, putting ‘obstacles’, such as a leaf, in the way to force them to break up their line, she begins to encourage them to make patterns.

These are the patterns you’ll see all over Cocoroom: thick and thin, long and short, straight and wavering. Some drawn with a confident hands and others, perhaps, less certain.

Eventually, some graduate to much more complex pieces; such as the intricate paintings of birds, butterflies and flowers on the accessible bathroom block or the swishing tail of a cockerel trailing down the bathroom door.

Accessible bathroom wall

Cocoroom: the Guesthouse

When the café project had been running successfully for some time, Kanayo-san realised just helping these men come together to share their incredible stories with each other was not enough. Sadly, they were now nearing the end of their difficult lives and many were dying alone.

Moved by their experiences and how badly they had been treated throughout their life, Kanayo-san wanted them to be treated them well in their final years. So, in April 2016 – fifteen years after she founded her not-for-profit – she set up Cocoroom Café Garden Guest House. The guest house provides a place for the men of Kamagasaki to meet with international visitors, interact with people from around the world and even try to overturn some prejudices.

Bedroom

The Design

The design of the guest house is an assault on the senses from the moment you spot the fingerprint-sized dots of every colour covering the front porch in lurid stripes. There are bright colours, bold lines and striking shapes covering the hardboard walls everywhere you look: every inch of the walls but also the floors, stairs and ceilings. Mirrors in the bathroom reflect the patterns back at you to make them seem even more all-encompassing. The ledges are crammed with sculptures and pieces of art and every inch of the library walls is plastered with newspaper cuttings.

The “room for lines” is a little nook originally intended for storage space, but while Kanayo-san was curled up in it thinking about how to turn it into a cupboard she realised it was actually the perfect spot for quiet contemplation.

Faces on the wall

As I first arrived, I thought a tour of the property would take a few minutes. Instead, we talked for hours as we poured over each room (each of the guest rooms are themed by different types of poetry) and each the story of each piece of artwork on the shelves. The most unsettling of the rooms was covered with iconic paintings and posters in which the artist had replaced the subjects’ features with his own face!

One of her most prized pieces was a moving metal sculpture of a husband and wife pushing all their belongings uphill as they move house. A motor and magnets hold the whole piece together in a fine balance as they bend and struggle to heave their belongings.

a man and wife sculpture osaka cocoroom

Man and wife sculpture

Other Projects

As well as its art therapy, Cocoroom helps the community in many other ways: It has a vegetable garden and grows its own crops for lunches and dinners, which guests all eat together; Lost property, if not claimed, is redistributed and donated to homeless shelters or orphanages nearby. Recycling is left on the doorstep each day to be collected by local homeless people who can earn money by turning in recyclable items. Lots of different products can be recycled in Japan – for example, milk cartons can be turned into material to make business cards.

Kanayo-san has worked with Streetwise Opera in London on a performance project for the Rio for the Olympics (where a song they composed was performed with the homeless in Brazil) and, in Kamagasaki, takes the men to speak in schools as a way of overturning the area’s unwholesome reputation. These school visits give the men the refreshing opportunity to engage with the younger generation and helps children, who will have often been told not to go to that district, realise the area is safe.  

Cocoroom garden

What Next for Kamagasaki?

While Kamagasaki historically had a reputation for being a less than wholesome part of town, its tainted image is slightly unfair. Across Japan, there are very few homeless people and an incredibly low crime rate. So, while the slightly run down alleyway Cocoroom sits on might not feel as blindingly clean as other areas of Japan, it’s still quite safe. Kanayo-san hopes its reputation will continue to improve as more tourists are attracted by places like Cocoroom popping up in the area.

When the next big earthquake hits Osaka, Kamagasaki will be the first area with its lights back on, my guide had told me as we arrived at the guesthouse. She said this because of the huge concentration of skilled men living there, all with years of experience from their past jobs as construction workers. With so many of these men now succumbing to old age, this seems unlikely. However, with more tourists discovering the area and encouraging regeneration, perhaps the future for Kamagasaki will be brighter than its past.

Cocoroom front

When to visit

Osaka has a temperate climate but, like much of Japan, the best time to visit is during spring or autumn. As well as being a more pleasant temperature, late March to May is the stunning Cherry Blossom season. Summers can be uncomfortably hot and humid – although the festivities of the annual Tenjin Matsuri festival in Osaka (24-25 July) are a sight to see. Typhoons are most likely in June, July and September but from September to November, temperatures dip again, it’s less muggy and the red autumn leaves are totally picturesque. January and February are the coldest months, although snowfall is unlikely.

For more information, visit the Cocoroom website.

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