Shinjuku Walking Tour: skyscrapers, old-time alleyways, and Kabukicho red light district
If it’s your first time in Japan‘s capital and you want to get straight to the heart of the action, try this walking route through Shinjuku (from Tochomae Station to Shinjuku Sanchome Station) taking in skyscraper city views, atmospheric old-time alleyways, and a glimpse of the city’s seedy underbelly in the neon-soaked twilight zone of Kabukicho.
Start things off at the imposing Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, more simply known as Tocho (都庁), where you can go up to one of the observation decks on the 45th floors of the building’s twin towers. The observation decks are free and have awesome views of the Tokyo cityscape; the south tower shuts at 17:30 but the north tower is open until 23:00, and the best timing would be a little before sunset. Mt Fuji is sometimes visible, but only on the clearest of days. To get there, Tochomae station (on the Toei Oedo line) is located directly under the building; you can also walk on foot from the main Shinjuku Station’s West Exit, from where there’s an underground walkway replete with moving walkways for the benefit of all the Tocho commuters (some 10,000 people per day):
At the end of the moving walkway keep walking straight a bit further past the Keio Plaza Hotel and under the elevated roads, and you’re looking for this:
The observatory elevators are in there. They whisk you up to the top in 50 seconds, and the views are great day or night:
Alternatively, head to the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Shinjuku Park Hyatt (the hotel from Lost In Translation) for a pricey cocktail (plus cover charge after 8pm), or try the restaurant floors at the top of the Shinjuku NS Building, a boring looking office tower from the outside but with a pretty amazing hollow interior featuring a huge water clock and a space station-like walkway at the top of the atrium; the restaurants are reasonably priced cheap to mid-range rather than the Michelin-starred madness often found in the upper floors of Tokyo skyscrapers.
Shinjuku NS Building:
Once you’re done there, walk to the west exit of Shinjuku station around 10 minutes away – you can do this at street level or down in the underground walkway. If you go at street level, you’ll pass through this area:
Map of the route (click for larger version):
Once at the station, from the street level west exit head north and walk for a few minutes until you reach the large Uniqlo store on the right; turn right into the side street there, and almost immediately on the left you’ll see the entrance to Omoide Yokocho, 思い出横丁 (Memory Alley), better known as Shomben Yokocho (Piss Alley!), a wonderfully atmospheric alleyway tucked in next to the train tracks and still pretty much as it was in the immediate post-war years.
This is a great spot for some photography, and also where I suggest grabbing a meal from one of the tiny, steamy little joints lining the alley. For more detail on Omoide Yokocho’s history and the food and drink options there (and how to find it!), see this post.
After a pit stop there, it’s time to get right in the thick of it and head over to Kabukicho. Leave Omoide Yokocho by the northern end, and immediately turn right to take the underpass beneath the railway tracks. Once on the other side you’re walking east on Yasukuni-dori, and Kabukicho is over on the north side of the street; it’s a fairly compact grid of side streets leading down off Yasukuni-dori and the alleyways between them, and you can see the entrance signs on Yasukuni-dori looking like this:
The most major (and least seedy) road in Kabukicho is the fairly wide street leading to the Gracery Hotel & Toho Cinema building (easily recognisable by the Godzilla statue on the roof):
The businesses lining this street are standard izakayas, karaoke places, ramen shops, and so on, so even if you feel a bit nervous about walking through a red list district, simply walking down to Godzilla and back up again will be absolutely fine. For those who do want to delve a bit deeper, you can turn off into the smaller side streets and alleyways where you’ll see various forms of establishment involved in the drinking and flesh trades; some are legit bars, some are dodgy, some are outright criminal. It’s hard to distinguish what’s what, but it’s all very neon and loud and there’s plenty of good people watching to be had; one particular point of interest in here is the Robot Restaurant, a gimmicky place where you pay to be served by scantily clad waitresses driving in around in big ‘robots’:
Not something I’ve ever personally felt like parting with money for, but even just the outside of the restaurant is worth a look – a more garish facade you will never see, and I once actually put my sunglasses back on (even though it was night) just to be able to look at it without squinting!
If you visit Kabukicho on a rainy evening it goes full cyberpunk and is pretty much as close as you can get to feeling like you’re in Blade Runner:
Although Kabukicho is no doubt seedy and full of sketchy characters, it’s perfectly safe as long as you follow one golden rule – do NOT go anywhere with any of the touts who approach you on the street, however friendly they seem, however good their English is. Just don’t do it; best case scenario is you get ripped off, worst case is you get drugged and robbed blind. It’s happened to so many people, so I’m going to say it again – do NOT go with the touts, at all, anywhere. If you’re there as a couple, they will likely not bother you anyway, but single guys or groups of guys will definitely be approached; if you’re Asian, you’ll likely be approached by Japanese and Chinese touts, if you’re black or white you’ll be approached by the Nigerian lads (usually claiming to be South African or Ghanaian, but also usually with revealingly weak knowledge of those countries’ sports teams). These Nigerian guys are very personable, usually dressed up in suits, full of handshakes and friendly smiles, and out to completely shaft you if they can; although I’ve had some interesting chats with a couple of them once they realised I wasn’t an easy mark (I even have one of their demo CDs at home – good singer but not my cup of tea), others can get outright rude and hostile once they sense you’re not falling for it. As a first time visitor to Tokyo though, really it’s best to not even talk to them at all; a curt “no thanks mate” while ignoring their outstretched hand suffices well. The Shinjuku Police know what they’re talking about, so heed their warnings:
If you’re a woman or group of women, unfortunately there’s a high likelihood you’ll be hassled; if you’re Asian, Japanese touts and junior gangster douchebags may approach trying to recruit you for the porn / prostitution industries, and if you’re Western the Nigerian guys are likely to hit on you. You may also be approached by Japanese ‘nampa artists’ i.e. pickup artists; again, just ignore them and keep walking, and though they might annoyingly persist at first they’ll quickly give up and look for another target.
You’ll be fine on Godzilla street, Sakura-dori (さくら通り, the street down to Robot Restaurant), and Shinjuku-kuyakusho-dori (新宿区役所通り, Shinjuku Ward Office Street), but might not want to linger too long in any single spot. Should you be keen to actually try a host club, starting from Mister Donut (see below) walk down Shinjuku-kuyakusho-dori for about 5 minutes, and you’ll come to an area with lots of advertising pictures on the sides of the buildings of the hosts and hostesses in the nearby clubs. The junior hosts are usually out touting on the street and will find you; these guys are safe enough to go with if you want to check a host club out, though it won’t be very safe for your wallet. Personally I think the hosts look like complete tools with their Thundercats hairdos and eyeliner, but whatever floats your boat!
(if you’re not entirely sure what a host club is, check this video out for a quick demo; and have a look behind the (shady) scenes here. As for guys curious to try out a hostess club, the only realistic way to do so is to have a trusted Japanese friend take you. One more time; do not go with any tout on the street offering to take you to strip clubs, hostess places etc)
Once you’ve had enough of Kabukicho (a brief walk through and a few pics will be enough for most), head back up to Yasukuni-dori, turn left, and walk a short distance to Mister Donut. Now you’re looking for the mysterious pathway to Golden Gai; it’s a tree-lined paved pedestrian path leading back into the block behind the Mister Donut shop. Follow it for 30 seconds and you’ll emerge in Golden Gai, the more drinking-oriented cousin of Omoide Yokocho. Like Memory Alley, the architecture is still very much as it was shortly after World War II, making it an interesting little slice of history; it’s also one of the most interesting places in Tokyo to go for a drink. See my Golden Gai post for more detail, but it’s basically a dense collection of tiny little bars packed in to a bunch of ramshackle buildings lining a few narrow and atmospheric alleyways. The drinking here isn’t particularly cheap, with cover charges common, but it’s a great spot to end your Shinjuku walk with a few beers.
Once you’re done there you could also check out the peaceful Hanazono shrine, just on the other side of Golden Gai; a subway exit (for Shinjuku Sanchome Station) is located just in front of the shrine.
Any questions about Shinjuku, Piss Alley, or Kabukicho? Leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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