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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.