Today was a good day. It started early - 4:45am - and… No, let’s start yesterday.

Yesterday, a team of us from the English Service went down to Osaka, to Dobutsukoen station - where the zoo is. We had a wander round, and I’ll tell you about that in a moment, and then we checked into Spa World, the biggest hot springs complex in Japan. It’s eight floors of baths, saunas, relaxation rooms, restaurants and general chilled-out stuff. We had discount tickets which allowed us to stay there all night, enjoying the various spas before crashing out in the big comfy chairs in the relaxation room. A cheap and fun way to spend the night.

Then my alarm went off, time to get up and enjoy one last dip in the baths, before getting changed and walking one block east, back into the area we walked around last night. Kamagasaki is one of the largest slum areas in Japan, with a large homeless or unstable-housing population.

One of the first things to notice about Kamagasaki is that nearly everyone there is a man, and most of them are middle-aged to elderly. Many of them are homeless. The majority of Japan’s homeless are men in their fifties and sixties.

The next thing to notice is that there are some extremely cheap “business hotels” - 1200 yen a night down to maybe 600 yen per night.

One man stopped us in the street and told us his story, which seemed to be typical: he came down from Hokkaido to Osaka in 1970 for the Expo as a construction worker, and stayed on in Kamagasaki after the Expo finished. The area was then a center for day-labourers: construction companies during the boom times would need to pick up short-term contract labourers and send them all around this part of Japan for construction jobs, so it was easy for him to pick up work. The hotels were places where the day-labourers could stay cheaply without having to commit to a monthly lease.

But the construction bubble burst and the work dried up, and like many others, our man from Hokkaido had nowhere to go. Now he’s getting old and he can’t work so well any more. He says he prefers living in Kamagasaki - he can’t go home now, and he finds people there open and friendly. But he still needs to eat.

We got to Kamagasaki’s Triangle Park at 6am, and started work, chopping vegetables for the feeding programme run by an ecumenical organisation in the area. There are many charities operating around Kamagasaki, some providing feeding programmes every day, some running health and social security consultancy, some providing a warm, safe shelter for people to hang out. All of them are volunteer run, and, as our guide told us in rather laboured language, “neither the city, the prefecture nor the national government provides any support to them at all.” We were with the “Kachitoru Kai” (“Win-back organisation”) which for fifteen years has provided lunch every Tuesday and Saturday, and every day during the Christmas-New Year period.

From 5am, people line up to receive meal tickets. This morning, 500 meal tickets were handed out. Those who do not receive a meal ticket are not turned away, but they also have to line up until those with tickets are fed.

Most of the volunteer staff seemed to be homeless or thereabouts themselves, joined by occasional helpers. It’s a predominantly Catholic organisation, with the Catholic church and particularly the Catholic schools involved both in coming to help and providing donations of vegetables, rice and so on; more food comes in from a left-over donations bucket in Osaka South Central Market.

After the lunch was distributed and the washing up done, we headed off to the nearby Human Rights Museum, for a look at some of the other areas where people in Japan struggle for freedom: descendants of Koreans excluded from Japanese society and the indigenous Ainu people integrated into Japan struggling to maintain their own identity; those from Okinawa and Ryukyu; the buraku tanner outcaste; those with AIDS and sexual minorities; those affected by industrial pollution and accidents; and the homeless.

And there we found out that the official government estimate of the number of homeless people in the whole of Osaka is 150-250. Well, we fed four times more than that in one small park in one region of town, and homeless activists claim that the real number is more like 6,000.

(Bonus Spa World photo: these guys are not homeless.)