One natural western reflex is to think about Tokyo as being a capital with all it implies, including dark corners where it is not advised to hang out. If we had to absolutely find one of these places in the Japanese megacity, Kabukicho would be the most legitimate corresponding to this role. But it would be exaggerating to describe it as impracticable. This district, stuck in the nucleus of Shinjuku, is rather a pleasure place which never sleeps, even more perverted than Roppongi, but never dangerous nor mean as long as we do respect some quite obvious rules.
To be honest, Kabukicho acts just like the two sides of the same coin. During the day, the district seems very quiet and wise, with big classic theaters, batting centers, some big hotels and restaurant owners who nicely clean or smoke a cigarette in front of their doors. Up to the end of the 19th century, this district called Tsunohazu was just a vast swamp zone. Later, World War 2 bombings destroyed the residential areas. During the reconstruction, the commercial district was supposed to be built around a kabuki theater, which finally was never built. Only its name stayed in History.
It is during the nights that Kabukicho’s streets become alive, in an overbid of luminous signboards with deafening music escaping from the houses. This is the heart of the district: tons of bars (also gay and lesbian ones), night clubs, karaokes, izakaya, pachinko rooms, love hotels and other kyabakura (cabaret-clubs for hosts and hostesses). While digging a little deeper, we can even discover strip-tease clubs and soap lands where prostitution is not even hidden.
We count several hundreds or even thousands of these night institutions more or less lawful. It is obviously impossible to get official statistics of this district which tends to disturb the municipality, as the Tokyo Olympic Games are coming around the corner.
Forever alive and dynamic, Kabukicho made its name up to the popular culture. We will find it in the video game Ryu ga Gotoku, the mangas Gintama and City Hunter, or even in the novel Tokyo Vice from Jake Adelstein. A dark and sometimes threatening district is depicted, where Japanese triads (yakuza), along with their Chinese counterparts control and set the rule of the survival of the fittest. What is making authorities worrying, in reality, are the swindles organized by unscrupulous tenants, whose touts are now particularly targeting foreign visitors. The attractive receipt of the beginning can then be multiplied by dozens and at the end of the night, the clients drugged.
To prevent yourself from such a situation, one simple rule: do not accept the invitation of these pullers sometimes (too) insisting. The district police, brave but not reckless, will not be such a good help for the hurt gaijin. Entering in these institutions will therefore remain at your own risks. But Kabukicho should be without danger if you just pass by without stopping in front of the most creepy doors. Indeed, numerous are the tourists walking by its streets days and nights without any fear.
As an evidence of a district being transformed, at the beginning of 2013 was inaugurated the expensive and famous Robot Restaurant: a way too touristy attraction in the basement, where the very common bento is equal to the weird taste of its one and half hours show. Plan 5,000 ¥ (~US$ 46.40) per person to be able to attend it. Even more recently, it is Godzilla which reveals itself in the corner of a building, ornamenting the funny Gracery Hotel.
How to get to Kabukicho
- JR Shinjuku station, east exit and a 5-minute walk
- Seibu Shinjuku station and a 3-minute walk
By Tokyo Metro -- Oedo or Fukutoshin lines, Higashi Shinjuku station (E02 / F12) and a 5-minute walk
Location reachable with the JRP : order your Japan Rail Pass (from ~US$ 279)
Depending on the institutions
Get your Japanese Yens free of charge
Usually opened every day:
- restaurant from end of the morning to end of the evening
- bars from end of the afternoon to the end of the night
How long / when to visit
Best to visit at nightfall
眠らない街 nemuranai-machi ("the city that never sleeps")