Shinjuku is a major metropolitan transit hub inside of Tokyo with over 3.64 million commuters per day at the Shinjuku station as well as the city’s predominant redlight district. The stacked fluorescent neon strata fantasy worlds of new Tokyo japanimae and the glittery underworld of the Yakuza often depicted in movies finds its inspiration here. Huddled at the edge of the city’s skyscraper district, Shinjuku offers refuge to the hordes of black suited salary men marching drearily into the shiny skyline of modern day Tokyo. Old world meets new world. Claustrophobic alleyways packed with 10 seat noodle joints, 5 seat micro-bars stacked one on top of the other, jigsawed into a more modern techno-distopic landscape of 10 story pachinko joints and massage parlors dotted with African street criers strong arming hapless tourists into dark and questionable basement spaces ripe with ruffied drinks and mob plots. Huge megaphones on every corner spurt out warnings to tourists about prostitution and crime in a gritty over-amplified voice, reminding me of North Korean propaganda.
In Tokyo I wanted contrast. I wanted the ear splitting over-indulgent over-stimulated megalo-urban fantasy experience that can only be found in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood. In a week I would be meditating in a traditional Japanese house in the quiet old world of Kyoto. But today I wanted robots and neon and suit choked intersections at a scale that can only be found here. For my first week in Asia, I chose to dive headfirst in and see how far my sense of adventure could take me.
I also chose Shinjuku for the neighborhood of miniature bars called Golden Gai and the small neighborhood of traditional eateries called Omoide Yokocho (literally memory lane) or “piss alley” by the locals.
It didn’t take me long to discover I stand out in Tokyo. At 6’2″ I stand often a head above the nearly entirely Japanese crowd packed onto sidewalks. There was no blending in for this guy. So I had to embrace the foreign white guy tourist vibe that I was throwing off. Though in retrospect a local guide would have opened a lot of doors for me and I plan to seek such services upon my next visit.
Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley)
Piss alley is a collection of yakatori joints clustered just outside of the Shinjuku station. A series of tiny restaurants with limited seating and space so tight there’s no way to get in without slithering past the other cramped seats. Admittedly I had a little trouble navigating. The eateries do not cater to tourists. The signs are Japanese-only and the seats fill up quickly. You have to be pretty headstrong to fight your way in and claim your spot.
Similarly elusive, Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district is a couple of blocks square neighborhood stacked with more than 200 micro bars catering mostly to regular local customers. Tiny doors open to ladder like stairways into claustrophobic spaces offering food and drink. Photos are prohibited. Tourists are discouraged. If the sign doesn’t have English, you’re probably not welcome. And to hammer that home, these bars charge covers and higher drink prices to the the tourists who do stagger in, or simply refuse to take your order. I didn’t so much consider this practice rude as protective. But it did inhibit my documentation of the area. But it was charming none-the-less and I was enchanted by Golden Gai and returned several times. Next time I’ll try to find a local guide to get me into the less welcoming spots.
My first Tokyo ramen and the joy of ramen vending machines.
I don’t speak Japanese. And I’m hopelessly foreign looking on the streets of Tokyo. I tend to be pretty fearless in foreign places even when language is a barrier. But Shinjuku is another animal. The good places are often many floors above ground level and the signs are primarily for locals. That mixed with many traditional customs inhibited me from moving freely from sushi joint to kaiseki restaurant. But ramen on the other hand is welcoming to everyone. The area is loaded with street level ramen places catering to all variety of travelers. Most conveniently ramen joints typically employ a vending machine style mechanism to handle the money which are located outside of the restaurant. And these machines often have pictures. So you can easily figure out what you want to eat, pay, and simply hand the vended ticket to the cook without much small talk and receive a delicious bowl of ramen.
There was one such joint a block from my airBnB and on my first night I got the courage up to give it go. I made a couple of mistakes but the use of a good smile, a humble, apologetic demeanor, and profuse bowing, seemed to make things right.
On another day I tried a ramen joint a bit down the road. Also excellent ramen but the place was so hot I was dripping with sweat.
More ramen ticket machines around Shinjuku.
So I knew about this place before I visited. And I chose my hotel room to be somewhat near it because this was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for in Shinjuku. Over the top robot madness with lasers and giant lizard monsters and kabuki bands and scantily clad Japanese techno-cheerleaders serving beer and snacks. There are signs all over Kabukicho for this place, it’s not hard to find. You can make reservations but I stopped by on a whim and got tickets for a show 15 minutes later. It’s supposed to be a dinner spot but the dinner is pretty sad. It’s really about the show.
Shinjuku at night
I loved walking around Shinjuku (particularly Kabuchiko) at night! This is the neon fantasy of Tokyo. Delicious sensory overload. The only downside to being a tall single white guy wandering the Tokyo red light district at night is that you get hassled quite a bit. In particularly two ways. The first are these street criers that stand in front of the Yakuza massage parlors. They’re the only dark skin guys on the street and they’re relentless. They physically try to muscle you into a place and you have to be pretty aggressive to make them go away. I would have one guy follow me for a full block or more only to be handed off to the next guy. The shortest path from my AirBnB to Golden Gai was through the massage section of Kabuchiko but I took a longer route after a while just to avoid these guys. The second happens late at night particularly on side streets. Massage girls gather in small groups at the intersections and hard sell a private hotel room “massage” as you pass. I first was all “no-thank-yous” but these women can be aggressive, following for a block or more. I eventually picked routes away from the Kabuchiko edges to avoid the hassle.
I also made time to eat at a grill at your table place and ordered the tasting set.
It’s worth mentioning that there are convenience stores everywhere in Tokyo. Sometimes three on one block. You have Lawsons, Family Mart, and my personal favorite 7-11. Although unlike the states, 7-11 here has a decent selection of food and beverages. In comparison, this food may be subpar for Tokyo but compared to the United States, the food here is fresh, minimally processed, and delicious. I was especially fond of the tamago sandos (egg salad sandwiches on milk bread) paired with local beer or small bottles of Japanese whiskey. I kept the fridge stocked with them to ease away the morning headaches of long nights.
Also as is my hobby, I sampled and documented a few fast food joints to see the local flavor.
Pachinko parlors and Shinjuku arcades
I would be remiss to mention the ear splitting ever-present perplexity that is pachinko. Pachinko is a gambling game that is very popular in Tokyo. It’s hard to explain but you feed money into a machine that looks kind of like a cross between a slot machine, an arcade game, and a pinball machine. I tried one of these out and it was absolutely hypnotizing in a creepy way. The flashing lights and sounds lulled me into a dreamlike state that took over an hour to really come out of.
In addition to pachinko Tokyo arcades are packed with claw machines with every sort of interesting prizes and other faux betting contraptions like virtual horse racing and other gambling outlets. These arcades are often 10+ stories tall and packed at all hours of the day.