Everything is weird and wonderful in Tokyo. There are dozens of unique neighborhoods full of distinct character, but one of my absolute favorites is definitely the infamous Kabuki-cho.
Before going to Tokyo I spoke with a few people, told them where I would be staying at a hotel and asked for suggestions in the area. More than one person was shocked that I would be staying in the immediate vicinity of Kabuki-cho, long known for its brothels and drunken Yakuza henchmen.
I was actually warned not to walk around the area at night and expressly told not to take pictures, because the aforementioned Yakuza henchmen might take offence. Well, the first thing I did after arriving in Tokyo? I went to Kabuki-cho with a camera in my hand and a smile on my face.
In reality the neighborhood, located at the edge of the lively Shinjuku, turned out to be utterly harmless. It is gaudy, loud, somewhat filthy and full of exotic dance clubs (titty bars), but I definitely didn’t see anything dangerous there, day or night. Worst case scenario: someone’s moral code might take a hit.
At the edge of Kabuki-cho you can find another popular neighborhood, this one not at all infamous. Golden Gai is known for its endless array of tiny bars, most with only a few seats. The area is reached through a calm promenade filled with lush greenery, offering a small respite from Tokyo’s endless rush.
From above Golden Gai looks like a shabby slum, a cluster of dingy old shacks. However, wander into these narrow alleys and you’ll find lots of interesting things on offer. Don’t expect too much life during the day, though.
Kabuki-cho and Golden Gai really only wake up at dusk. Just as daylight disappears into the horizon, the endless neon lights begin to flicker one after the other. Slowly but surely a vast array of creatures crawls up from their basements and the streets begin to fill with loud people out for a good time.
It is true that you can run into all sorts of characters in Kabuki-cho’s night. That being said, I’ve never felt any fear or threat while wandering the streets at night. Maybe it’s just because I can be the scariest character on almost any street.
The reason for Kabuki-cho’s infamy remains somewhat of a mystery to me. The area is filled with wonderful and atmospheric restaurants, completely innocent bars as well as great shops and boutiques. I got some great green tea at a lovely tea shop, although it did sort of taste like mushrooms and I was really happy for a while after I drank it.
Shinjuku and Kabuki-cho – as well as pretty much any disctrict in Tokyo – has an abundance of ways to spend an evening. One surprisingly popular pastime are arcades. I tried forever to win a stuffed animal – an athletic mouse – but was forced to leave the arcade empty-handed and filled with shame. Just as I was leaving the guy next to me won a sack of potatoes and was happier than anyone I’ve ever seen. I guess Japanese people love potatoes.
If you’re looking for a memorable and fun night in Kabuki-cho, I would stay away from the generic titty bars (for once) and head to Robot Restaurant. They have a robot cabaret that is exactly as weird as it sounds. It will completely mess up your perspective on life.
If you’re looking for cocktails, head back to Golden Gai. The streets are filled with thirsty tourists and sleepy Japanese businessmen – my two favorite types of people. The bars might seem unapproachable from outside, but there’s really no need to be nervous – most of them are very intimate and small, but also very relaxed, and you can’t really embarrass yourself there any worse than anywhere else!
Be brave and go to Kabuki-cho!