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The Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku

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We had seen a lot of Tokyo’s different faces: cute, modern, weird, beautiful, historic, confusing. But until our visit to East Shinjuku, we hadn’t experienced the famously seedy side of Tokyo. The Golden Gai, Kabukicho and Piss Alley are three areas which forever changed our impression of the city. (A change for the better? I’ll leave that unanswered.)

Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku

It’s surprising that Tokyo’s seediest area is so near the administrative offices and corporate skyscrapers of West Shinjuku. But even as I’m writing that sentence, I’m thinking that, actually, it’s not so surprising at all. Politicians and corporate moneymen, after all, aren’t exactly celebrated for their puritanical rejection of all things seedy. Rather, the opposite.

With flashing neon lights, narrow alleys, sketchy bars, drunk people of indeterminate gender, pachinko halls, and musty smells emanating from dark alleys, East Shinjuku is a sailor’s dream. “Want you pretty lady? Want you drug?” There are underground bars which expressly forbid foreigners from entering, and places I’d never enter even if I were allowed. You’re thinking, “I’m sure it can’t be all that crazy.” But then you do some research and learn: yes, it can.

Golden Gai
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku

We began our Saturday evening tour of East Shinjuku at the Golden Gai, a small and compact sub-neighborhood packed with ramshackle two-story houses. There are six small alleys criss-crossing the Golden Gai, all connected by even smaller alleys barely wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Nearly every building has two bars, one at street level and one on the second floor; there must be over a hundred drinking establishments here. The Golden Gai offers an architectural glimpse into the recent past of Tokyo, before skyscrapers and modern apartment buildings began replacing the older homes.

Despite the shabby, almost slum-like condition of the area, this is an expensive place to drink, and unwelcoming to foreigners. Its bars cater to a well-off Japanese clientele, and are popular among artists and intellectuals. Often, you have to be a “regular” before you’re even allowed in. We wanted to grab a beer, but felt like intruders every time we poked our heads into a bar. And so we left, not wanting to impose.

Kabukicho
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku

Walking to the northeast, we entered the neighborhood of Kabukicho (“Kabuki District”). Following the 1945 firebombing, the city wanted to establish a new theater in Shinjuku. Although the plan was never realized, the name has endured. And who cares if there’s never been Kabuki in Kabukicho? There are plenty of other ways to entertain yourself here.

Kabukicho is Tokyo’s non-stop party zone. The reigning red-light district in the world’s craziest city. It’s sensory overload from the moment you enter, until whatever early-morning hour you manage to straggle out. Kabukicho is aggressive about its fun, and you’ll need a thick skin to resist the pleasures being proffered by every neon advertisement, and by the sketchy guys on every corner.

One such pleasure is offered by the glamorous boys of Kabukicho’s host clubs. These are clubs for women who want the companionship and attention of attractive young men. Ladies pay exorbitant amounts to sit on the sofa with their preferred boys. Nothing too sordid goes on. The hosts will listen to the women talk, tell them jokes to make them laugh, compliment them, maybe hug them when appropriate. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and the subject of an excellent documentary called The Great Happiness Space.

Piss Alley
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku

After having had enough fun in Kabukicho, we crossed the train tracks and arrived at the foot of a picturesque street sloping gently downward, illuminated by paper lanterns and filled with people seated on stools at yakitoris, or grill joints. It looked like a scene straight out of the 1920s and, indeed, the alley’s name is “Memory Lane.” That’s a lot more romantic than the name by which most locals know it: “Piss Alley.”

In years past, this alley was a place in which to get smashed. People would come to the bars, drink themselves into oblivion, and relieve themselves in the street. Today, “Piss Alley” has cleaned up its act, and is home to an unbroken lineup of restaurants which specialize in various sorts of grilled meat. Even if there’s the occasional rogue tinkler (and I’m sure there is), the smell of urine is no match for the clouds of smoke wafting from every open window.

Locations on our Map: Golden Gai | Kabukicho | Piss Alley

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Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
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Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
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More Golden Gai Photos
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Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
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Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku
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More images of Kabukicho
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More Photos From the Piss Alley
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July 6, 2014 at 6:40 am Comments (4)

The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

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Widely considered to be one of the prettiest spots in Tokyo, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden has long been a favorite spot for weary Tokyoites looking to escape the city’s concrete jungle. However, if it’s crowds you’re hoping to escape, you might want to look elsewhere.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Like many of the city’s traditional gardens, the Shinjuku Gyoen charges a small entrance fee. But considering the size of the place and the great expense which must go into its maintenance, this is hardly unreasonable. At 144 acres in area, these gardens are massive. You could easily spend hours touring the various sections. There’s a greenhouse near the entrance, an English-style garden with cleanly manicured lawns, a French-style garden meant to replicate the courtyard of a palace, and of course the Japanese section.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the garden, at least while we were there, was the sheer number of visitors. Dispiriting, but not surprising. After all, it’s right next door to Shinjuku Station, which is the busiest transportation hub in the world. Plus, it was the warmest day of the still-nascent summer, and a Saturday to boot.

The land was originally the property of Lord Naito, a powerful shogun from Tsuruga, who built the garden in the late eighteenth century. It became the property of the Meiji Empire on their ascension to power, and would host hanami flower-viewing parties for the emperor up until the outbreak of World War II. The gardens were largely destroyed by bombing, but rebuilt after the war and given over to the public in 1949.

With its backdrop provided by Shinjuku’s skyscraper district, the Shinjuku Gyoen Garden is nice, but we didn’t love our time there. The park was no more charming than others we’d seen in Tokyo, and far less peaceful. Better were Fukugawa’s Kiyosumi Shirakawa Gardens, those of the Nezu Museum, and the gardens of the Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa. But still, Shinjuku Gyoen has a reputation as one of the city’s highlights. Try showing up early on a weekday, and you’ll almost certainly have a wonderful experience.

Location on our Map

-Great Collection of Bosai Trees

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
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July 5, 2014 at 3:47 pm Comments (0)

The Skyscrapers of Shinjuku

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Although it’s considered Western Tokyo, Shinjuku can legitimately claim to be the new center of the city. Shinjuku Station is busier than Tokyo Station, serving nearly four million passengers a day. The city government has moved here, and Shinjuku boasts not only Tokyo’s most infamous entertainment district, but most of its tallest skyscrapers.

Shinjuku Skyscrapers

Shinjuku Station is easily the busiest train station in the world. It serves four separate railway companies and its labyrinth of underground passageways is bewildering, almost impossible to navigate. One day, having decided to tour the neighborhood’s skyscrapers, we had been careful to follow signs for Exit A2. After a lengthy underground odyssey, we emerged into the daylight and realized that we were at the wrong exit A2; there was another with the same name on the other side of the station, administered by a different company. We felt stupid, until learning that Shinjuku Station has over 200 exits. Yeah, there are going to be a few mix-ups.

Eventually, we found our way to the western side of Shinjuku and began our introductory course to some of Tokyo’s largest buildings. Between the station and Shinjuku Central Park, the skyscrapers are packed tightly together, one after the other. Many of them have free observation decks, although not all are accessible to visitors. We were stopped at the door of the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, which has won architectural awards and is one of Tokyo’s most distinctive buildings. Three universities are housed inside, and the building’s cocoon shape is meant to symbolize the nurturing of the students within.

To get a view of the Cocoon, we ascended to the top of the neighboring Shinjuku Center Building, which was built in 1979. We also scaled the nearby Shinjuku Nomura, Mitsui and Sumitomo skyscrapers, each of which offered a slightly different perspective over the neighborhood. Our favorite building happened to be the smallest we entered. The Shinjuku NS is only 30 stories tall, but has a glass elevator on its corner and a hollow atrium with a hypnotizing water-clock designed by Seiko hanging on the wall.

We now made our way to the Metropolitan Government Office, built in 1991 by Japanese star architect Kenzo Tange. Featuring two towers that stretch up to 242 meters and a facade inspired by the Notre Dame Cathedral, this has become one of Tokyo’s most emblematic buildings. Each of the towers has an observatory, and depending on when you’re visiting, one or both might be open. We ascended the southern tower, and enjoyed the best view we’d had all day.

Prominent in the foreground when looking out from the Metropolitan is the Park Tower, also designed by Tange. The three towers of this enormous building are unmistakable, lined up like brothers of ascending height. The Park Tower is most well-known as the setting for Sofia Coppolla’s Lost in Translation (a highly-praised film which Jürgen and I both hated for its ridiculous, borderline-racist treatment of the Japanese and for its fabulously rich and petulant protagonists.)

Despite our distaste for the film, we wanted to see the famous bar where Bill Murray’s character spent his nights. But as the elevator doors opened, we were met by uniformed hosts who apparently have the job of politely truncating such sight-seeing before it gets started. Annoying, but fair enough; we were dressed in t-shirts, wearing backpacks and probably sweating, so it was a good bet that we weren’t there for a fancy dinner. And it just gives us another reason to hate that stupid, overrated movie.

Locations on our Map: Cocoon Tower | Shinjuku NS | Metropolitan Government Office | Park Tower

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Shinjuku Skyscrapers
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July 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm Comments (3)

The Robot Restaurant

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It’s hard to imagine an experience more perfectly suited to Tokyo, and one less likely to exist anywhere else, than Shinjuku’s Robot Restaurant. With a stage show that stretches the definition of terms like “elaborate” and “bizarre,” the restaurant has quickly become one of the city’s most popular venues.

Robot Restaurant Tokyo

We were dazzled by the Robot Restaurant from the moment we spotted it. The entire facade was illuminated in blinding LED lights, and towering lady robots with giant bouncing breasts were roving about the foyer. A band inspired by Daft Punk was rocking out behind the robots, and everything was flashing and loud and over-the-top. Sensory overload? Definitely. And we hadn’t even picked up our tickets yet. I suspected that the performance was going to be more like sensory assault.

The Robot Restaurant

Having arrived well in advance of the evening show, we passed the extra time in the restaurant’s upstairs lounge. You’ll want to do the same, because the lounge is unbelievable. It’s as though the world’s most outrageous interior designers were given crayons, glue sticks, glitter and mescalin, and told to go crazy. Everything is mirrored and shining. On every table, there’s a robot dinosaur. On the stage, a lady-band clad in metallic bikinis and angel wings is playing soft lounge music. The drinks are cheap and the vibe couldn’t be better. You and the people around you are in a place unlike anywhere any of you have ever been, and you’re all excited and giddy and talkative. It’s a bonding experience.

Now, however, it’s showtime. You and your new friends head into the underground theater, take your seats, and await the spectacle. Soon, the lights go out, the speakers switch on, and giant vehicles appear on either side of the narrow stage, ridden by ladies dressed as Amazonian war princesses from the year 3000. They’re pounding on drums, rotating around the stage, screaming and dancing to the music, and you’re just… confused. What the hell is happening? It’s hilarious, pointless, impressive and overwhelming in equal measure.

And that’s just Act One! By the end of the show, which stretches out across seven or eight acts, you’ll have perhaps seen boxing robots. Women riding huge mechanical cows. An alien-eating shark robot. Huge motorcycles and airplanes with pole-dancing lady passengers. A tank, I think. There was definitely a freedom-fighting panda. The shows change frequently, so you might see other things entirely, things which no sane human would ever be able to predict.

We had fun from the moment we entered the Robot Restaurant, and I’m not sure my brain has yet been able to process everything we saw. Almost as much as the show, we enjoyed watching the spectators sitting across from us. Without exception, they had their eyes wide open and huge smiles plastered across their faces. I’m sure it’s how we looked, too.

Link: Book Your Robot Restaurant Tickets Here To Save 15%

Location on our Map

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Robot Restaurant Tokyo
Robot Restaurant Tokyo
Robot Restaurant Tokyo
Robot Restaurant Tokyo
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Robot Restaurant Tokyo
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Robot Restaurant Tokyo
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Robot Restaurant Tokyo
Robot Restaurant Tokyo
Robot Restaurant Tokyo
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June 13, 2014 at 9:38 am Comments (5)
The Seedy Pleasures of East Shinjuku We had seen a lot of Tokyo's different faces: cute, modern, weird, beautiful, historic, confusing. But until our visit to East Shinjuku, we hadn't experienced the famously seedy side of Tokyo. The Golden Gai, Kabukicho and Piss Alley are three areas which forever changed our impression of the city. (A change for the better? I'll leave that unanswered.)
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