Two days ago I published a post about the wonderful izakaya restaurants of Omoide Yokocho that were part of a free walking tour of Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward operated by Tokyo Localized. This post covers the rest of the tour including Shinjuku Kabukicho, Japan’s most famous red-light district, and the bars of the Golden Gai.
The Shinjuku Ward is a major commercial and administrative center. It houses the busiest railway station in the world, Shinjuku Station, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Slightly more than 1.5 million people use Shinjuku Station daily. The station is a mind-boggling maze of entrances, shops, restaurants, and rail and metro platforms.
The meeting point was a short walk from our hotel, the Tokyo Hyatt Regency across from the government building. The two-hour tour begins at the Shinjuku Tourist Information Center on the ground level near JR Shinjuku South East Entrance. Tours are limited to no more than 30 people. There were only about 10 – 12 people on both tours I took last year.
Because the station is enormous, the meeting point can be hard to locate. Once the group assembles, the guide explains the itinerary and leads the group to the opposite side of the station for the first stop.
The tour begins in earnest at Omoide Yokocho, a small alley lined with tiny izakaya restaurants.
See this post for more photos and explanation.
After checking out the izakayas, the tour proceeds back under the tracks to the neon glory of Shinjuku Kabukicho, a mecca of adult entertainment.
This kabukicho gets its name from Kabuki theater, a traditional Japanese dance/drama art form. There is no kabuki theater here though. During reconstruction after WWII, the area was slated to host a Kabuki theater. That never happened. The name stuck anyway.
The area assumed its present status beginning in the late 80s when laws regarding nighttime entertainment were changed. Now the area is renowned for host and hostess clubs, love hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, pachinko parlors, and nightclubs.
Godzilla serves as your unofficial host and goodwill ambassador. He bellows and lights up from time to time. He is part of the Gracery Hotel, and you can book rooms with a good view of the show. Every town deserves a friendly neighborhood, prehistoric, flame-throwing, atom-bomb spawned kaiju, right? Right.😄
One of the popular tourist activities in the Kabukicho is taking in the cabaret show at Robot Restaurant. See that post or drop by the restaurant for an entertaining look at modern Japanese fantasy unleashed. The tour guide for one of the tours was a performer in the show. The tour doesn’t stop there, but it is worth coming back for a visit. Just eat before you go. The menu is limited.
Hostess and Host Clubs
Hostess and host clubs are one of the main Kabukicho activities. These clubs employ young, good looking, well dressed, men and women to entertain the opposite sex with conversation, flirting and, most importantly getting the customer to buy expensive drinks. There is no dancing, nudity or sex.
A number of love hotels are located in a secluded area of the Kabukicho close to the nightlife. Love hotels offer rooms with double beds that can be rented for short stays or overnight. The process of selecting a room and checking in and out is anonymous. There is no authorized prostitution in the Kabukicho; so most of the patrons are couples who are otherwise attached.
Rooms are equipped with a large double bed, a television offering erotic videos, and a private bathroom. Some love hotels and rooms are themed ( caves, dungeons, spaceships, etc.). Some come with props and costumes to rent or buy.
The whole process is very discrete. Check in is mostly automated.
Is Shinjuku Kabukicho Safe?
That depends on your definition of safe. Ha ha! Crime is not a problem. Beware of touts. If you are lured into an establishment, your wallet probably will be much lighter before you are able to leave.
The Golden Gai
This is the last stop of the tour. Sequestered from the bright lights of Kabukicho central is an area of many very small bars known as the Golden Gai. It is unique and charmingly old school.
While surrounding areas are modern and brightly lit, the Golden Gai retains an early post-war ambiance. They say each night in the Golden Gai is an adventure into the unexpected. Cool!
The Golden Gai (there are six alleys and about 200 bars) has a vibe similar to Omoide Yokocho, but the emphasis here is definitely on booze with a capital B. Each bar typically seats no more than 10 customers. Note: Some bars have signs saying “no tourists” or “regulars only.” With space for only a few customers, some owners prefer to avoid bar-hopping tourists and reserve seating for regulars who will spend the evening.
Check to see if there’s a price list or anything in English posted out front and you’ll be good. Most of the bars have a cover charge, though a small number are free to enter. Unlike izakaya, the cumulative effect of drinks and close proximity to other customers means socializing with strangers is common.
The tour ends here. The tour is free but this is the time to provide a generous tip to the guide. Both guides I had spoke excellent English. Tours in Spanish are also available.
You Can’t Travel? No Problem
Tokyo Localized tours is offering one-hour virtual tours via Zoom. You can book a tour here.
The Free Shinjuku Walking Tour is one of the most fun tours I’ve had the pleasure of taking. The guides have been knowledgeable and fun, the sights are interesting and varied. You can’t beat the price. If you are in Tokyo, I highly recommend it. And afterward, go back for a meal at an izakaya, a few drinks in the Golden Gai, or both. It you try the virtual tour, I suggest having a glass of your favorite beverage at the same time.
Cheers! Or as they say in Japan, kanpai!