Shinjuku was the next train stop north of where I was staying in Shibuya – and a very different sort of place. First off, there were a LOT more lights and people out to have a good time.
It’s amazing how many people were out even on a weeknight. Shinjuku on the west side of the tracks is a lot of large skyscrapers and shops that I didn’t get to visit during my short time. On the east side…well…it’s very different. This area is a complex of streets with all manner of diversion available. And by all manner, think a cross between the drinking centers of a large downtown area meets Vegas meets red-light district. I only spent a few short hours here and barely was able to cover half of it. And by ‘cover’ I mean just walk around. Actually going into half these places would have been all-night adventures in themselves…
First you see some classic and themed bars and restaurants – even a standby or two like this Mister Donut and fast food places like McDonald’s/Burger King. There were so many themed bars that I couldn’t even begin to know where to start.
Since it was November, there was already Christmas trimmings available for you to purchase. That certainly felt odd and out of place.
But go about 2-3 blocks and you find the area called Kabukicho. Like the rest of the area around Shinjuku station – it had been destroyed after the WW II bombing raids. It was slated for the creation of a Kabuki theater in the 50’s. The theater never appeared due to financial problems, but the area exploded in development. This development was led mostly by foreign Chinese investors. Now it is a world famous red-light district complex that houses over three thousand bars, arcades, nightclubs, love hotels, massage parlors, host/hostess clubs and similar businesses. Because of the near constant activity of all sorts – it’s sometimes called ‘Sleepless Town’. A person could spend weeks investigating all the different venues, drinking establishments, arcades, and…er…shows and still not see it all.
First off, there’s some pretty standard stuff: karaoke, bowling, pachinko parlors, and buildings full of more innocent diversions. Many of the buildings here had a whole different experience on each floor. After passing blocks of buildings like this, one wondered exactly how long it would take to just visit each place once! There were hordes of young people and businessmen coming and going constantly – which certainly help it earned its name ‘Sleepless town’.
Here was the really strange ‘robot restaurant‘ that has become somewhat famous. I wanted to attend since I heard it was pretty crazy (but mostly innocent) fun, but it looked like I was between shows or they weren’t starting till later and there was nobody to talk to when I passed by. Most of the action apparently happens downstairs, but the upstairs alone put the gaudiest Vegas casino to shame.
While they weren’t doing a show at the time I came by, this video can give you an idea of the madness that is usually inside (disclaimer: not my video or anyone I know).
It wasn’t the only place done up in crazy lights. I just blindly wandered past this place too.
This is one of the manga-kissa‘s that have recently popped up. Manga kissa’s (cafe’s) are usually open 24 hours and they let you rent out a small cubical for as many hours as you’d like. They have different kinds of cubicles depending on what you’re looking for. Some come with a computer and internet access, others with just a TV to watch shows, and some cafe’s come with amenities like a shower. A number of them have huge libraries of manga to read, anime, and movies you can rent and watch. From what I could tell, the cubicals were barely 8×8 little rooms. But they were fully enclosed and had doors. You rent the rooms by the hour.
While they do have plenty of manga and other fans that just come to enjoy some quiet, they have also become something of an alternative place to crash for late partiers that have missed their last train and can’t get into one of the capsule hotels. The hourly rates are so low, they actually can make for extremely cheap lodgings if you don’t mind sleeping in an office chair. I always kept these in mind in case I ever missed my last train (thankfully it never happened).
Many people think such things as capsule hotels and manga-kissa’s are strange. In fact, most of the things Westerners think of a strange actually make a lot of sense when you understand the context. Living space in Tokyo is hard to come by and every square foot expensive. Not only that, but hotels are often booked up weeks in advance (as I found to be the case. Hostels were booked MONTHS in advance at times).
Also, Japanese trains shut down at midnight and don’t start back up until 4am. So what happens if you go drinking and miss your last train? You could pay for an expensive cab – which might be impossibly expensive if you live 50 kilometers or more away from the downtown core (very likely!). You are left either with staying up drunk with little to do until 4am and then fight morning crowds to get home/back to work. Maybe you try to get lucky finding a hundred+ dollar a night hotel but could wander around for hours trying that. All you really need is a friend’s couch really. So as an entrepreneur, why not make a couple of small places for people to crash at for a few hours until the trains start? It really isn’t that strange at all. If all you need is a place to crash – a capsule hotel is just a little more formal than a friend’s couch.
Speaking of capsule hotels – the capsule hotel of Shinjuku appears to have shuttered – quite literally. This doesn’t surprise me considering it’s surrounded by a very seedy red-light district and was likely used for all kinds of … activities. It was also surrounded by love hotels – but more on that in a little bit…
As I worked my way north and away from main drag, things thin out a bit and become…seedier. You definitely run into the red-light district aspects as you wander around. Strangely marked nondescript buildings with guys standing around front with cel phones. Some saying ‘Japanese only’ and others advertising girls with pictures outside. The very shady looking guys outside these establishments were constantly asking you if you’re looking for some fun. I’ve been told most of these guys are yakuza and judging by the way they dressed, acted, and looked like they’d just assume stick a knife in you as look at you, I tended to agree but never felt in real danger. I shuffled along through this area and then ran into something I knew about, but didn’t know I’d see. Host clubs.
More towards the main street of this Shinjuku, you saw lots of hostess and themed bars catering to men. There were lots of pretty ladies advertised outside and many were themed much like maid cafes or the robot bar.
There were tank girls bars, maid cafes, singing bars, etc. If you could imagine a theme – it probably existed. Based on what I was told about by two ex-pats I met, these bars are actually quite fun with friends. The girls are very friendly and hang out, talk, and drink with you – for a price. Often a very HIGH price – so you have to be careful or you might find you accidentally drop hundreds of dollars in just an hour or two. The understanding is this is all this opposite sex company is very platonic, there is no sex/physicality. As you move away from the main areas, the ‘Platonic-ness’ quickly fades to blatant sexuality. Go even further, and closer to the love hotels, and you run into the flip side.
Hostess clubs are not just for men. There is an equivalent for women as well. These are called Host clubs.
For a price, many very attractive young men (all looked in their 20’s) will hang out and drink with female patrons. Again, it’s completely platonic – there is no sex or even physicality to it. Again, it’s purely emotional company. Here’s a good video that described the trend. The male equivalents with women (hostess clubs) are almost the same – just with genders reversed. In another video I saw, one of the hosts admitted he earned well over $200,000/year.
Love hotels also seem strange to westerners at first, but again, they fill a need. Japanese apartments are very small and expensive. Young people especially often share apartments and many of them still live at home. In families, parents may share rooms with their kids. In such conditions, it’s very difficult to enjoy intimate time with your significant other. Some crafty business people saw a need and filled it. These fancy hotels can be rented by the hour or by the night. To distinguish themselves, many of them become themed. And, well, you have love hotels as you see them today.
This was all tremendously fascinating – but I was somewhat sad because I didn’t have a local guide to help me experience any of the bars and crazy stuff of Shinjuku safely. Up until a few years ago, this area was notoriously dangerous. All manner of red-light district scams would take place: most of the drug your drink and you wake up with no wallet and all your cards have been maxed out variety all the way to yakuza street justice. While the area has been apparently cleaned up a lot, it wasn’t a place I’d like to go drinking on my own. But I was heading to an area called Golden Gai anyway. I’d been there the night before to check it out, and was coming back to celebrate the bar’s 4th anniversary – which just happened to be happening while I was in town.
So, enough of the Vegas-style Shinjuku – and off to Golden Gai.