Within east Shinjuku lies Kabukicho (named after a large Kabuki theatre which was meant to have been built in the area in the 1940’s but was never completed), Japan’s most well-known red-light district, renowned worldwide for its plethora of restaurants, bars and sex-related establishments.
This is the Tokyo I’d always pictured in my mind; streets illuminated by a vast expanse of neon lights and flashing signs, the cacophonous sounds of the tinnitus-inducing pachinko parlours, tiny dark alleyways emitting the combined aroma of must and freshly cooked meat as street hustlers try in vain to usher you into their seedy underground lair, where well-dressed business men and members of the Yakuza, drunk on lust and beer throw money at girls gyrating on stage to the dulcet tones of minimal Japanese techno – well, I may have exaggerated the latter a tad (I’ve clearly watched Gaspar Noe’s ‘Enter the Void’ too many times!) Kabukicho truly is a sensory overload. Breathtakingly beautiful in its own unique way. Tokyo epitomised.
Before venturing into Kabukicho, I did a little bit of research and came across plenty of people writing about its perils – all of which you’re likely to experience in any major city you visit anywhere in the world! Don’t let the horror stories put you off people; as long as you’re relatively street-wise you’ll be absolutely fine! The streets are alive with people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so you should still feel safe at night.
However, within two minutes of stepping into Kabukicho, we were approached by a man who offered to take us to a place he ‘knew’ served great drinks and had great girls. Unless you want to lose your credit card, a simple polite ‘no thank you’ will do the trick and walk away. I thought it was amusing that he didn’t alter his ‘sales pitch’ to me – but I think in a place like this, all kinds of boundaries get blurred.
Although Japan is relatively expensive, there’s always great cheap places to eat if you keep looking. We found a fantastic little restaurant located in the heart of Kabukicho where they served a variety of tasty dishes. I had seafood with vegetables and my friend had beef and noodle soup with momofuku’s belly pork buns and a glass of beer for under £10 each – in fact, it was so good my travel companion retraced his steps the next day so he could order it again.
One of the most memorable places I visited in East Shinjuku was ‘Memory Lane’ otherwise known as ‘Piss alley’! However don’t let the name put you off!
Piss Alley is named for its early years, when it was a hub for criminals to get their drink on. The place wasn’t very gentrified back in those days, so instead of using a toilet, people just relieved themselves wherever they could (which reminds me of China).
This place is a world of its own, it has a completely unique and distinctive feel. It literally feels like you’re stepping back in time. Memory lane is tiny and cramped, barely wide enough to fit two people. On both sides of the alley are tiny restaurants and bars illuminated by paper lanterns, serving drinks, grilled meats and some ‘oddities’ which would not see the light of day on a restaurant menu back home in the UK.
Some of the restaurants there were so small, they could barely fit around 7 people inside! The intimate atmosphere is very alluring, however, people who don’t eat meat, like myself, would probably find it difficult to be sufficiently fed so I walked down the alley as though I were sightseeing. Just looking inside each open-windowed restaurant with intrigue and a pang of desire.
Athough East Shinjuku is exciting at any time of the day, I found it really came into its own at night.