The question has been asked, repeated, mimicked, and joked about many many times: How deep does the rabbit hole go? Well, everyone usually ends up at some point finding one for themselves, whether you choose to follow it down is your choice. The rabbit hole I discovered was in Tokyo, Japan in a special part of the Shinjuku ward called Kabukicho. This is my tale of chasing that rabbit…
The Shinjuku Ward
First off, if you come to Tokyo there’s a few must-see’s, some may be obvious like Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Odaiba, Disney Land, etc. The pictures you see above are in the “downtown” section of Tokyo that falls within the Shinjuku ward, but NOT near the Kabukicho area. Now depending on who you talk to, what kind of websites you visit for research, or what kind of entertainment you’re looking for when you come here, you may or may not end up hearing about the Shinjuku wards deepest depths called Kabukicho. Personally, I hadn’t even heard of Shinjuku before, but found the name when looking for good sakura festival parks without realising how much of the downtown area is in the Shinjuku ward. I returned to my capsule hotel that night and decided to find out where a specific movie was filmed because some of the locations just seemed way too unreal; this movie is called Enter The Void. I learned that by coincidence most of it was filmed in and around Shinjuku (I was pleasantly shocked considering I just stumbled upon it earlier that day), including the Kabukicho area specifically, so since I had already brushed the surface of the area I already knew how to get there and made this my next area to check out after I got my heavy dose of parks celebrating the sakura season. I still wonder if venturing any deeper into Shinjuku was a good idea or not…
“Buy the ticket, take the ride”
– Hunter S. Thompson
I arrived at Shinjuku station by JR train as the sun was setting, my daytime visit previously had been brief and wandering around near the Kabukicho area during the day doesn’t seem too different than most of Tokyo, I found the park pretty quickly anyways (after realising I went in the opposite direction, Kabukicho is north of the station and the park is south and pretty far from Kabukicho) and I enjoyed the sakura festival it had going on, so I was excited to see the rest of the place at night! My curiosity was strong so I threw myself right in, walking straight into the beast, at this point I’m still not sure if this was a good or bad decision, but it’s always easier to regret something you did do, rather than something you didn’t do. Tokyo is an intense city; it’s fast, complex, bright, and dense, holding a world record population of over 38,000,000. And it’s no shock to anyone about the work ethic here, it really is unmatched, so you should also be aware that the common phrase of “work hard, play hard” is very true here. It’s also a breathtaking and awe inspiring city, but like any other city in the world it has its weirder side and in a city this big, it’s weird side is bound to be on a level you have yet to even imagine.
Walking down the narrow streets I’m greeted by countless bright signs, neon lights, and vendors advertising their food and/or beverages. This is normal almost anywhere in Tokyo, but I’m also greeted by something else; sex, and a lot of it, but I’ll get to that later, let’s start out with what makes this place so unique. First off, it’s probably the brightest part of all of Japan, and I’m guessing followed closely behind by Akihabara, a place we’ll get to further down. The amount of shops and restaurants here is unimaginable, from what I understand the restaurant count (according to many different sources) alone is over 8,000 (NOT A TYPO). To put things into perspective, take the one single picture to the right and see how many places you can count in this one section of this street alone! Mind you, every single different sign going up the side of the buildings is a separate place, and many places don’t even have signs that stand out like these!
Next, the entertainment level is very high up on the scale here. I was getting handed countless flyers for things ranging from chiropractics, massages (they specifically advertised highly attractive women giving you the massage), bizarre foods, oxygen bars, pachinko & slot places, gaming rooms, DVD shops, adult DVD shops, and more. Now, most of these things I mentioned can be found in other places around Tokyo, but the concentration of the variety of places here is unrivaled. The people you’ll find around here also vary greatly; there’s the over-worked business man, gothics, cosplayers, gamers, tourists, human dolls, and some pretty far-fetched outfits. It reminded me a lot of Fremont St. in Las Vegas, just…. bigger. Much, much bigger.
The Heart of the Beast
So now we enter Kabukicho and welcome the prostitution scene of Tokyo, and I’m not talking in small doses, every block I walk I get approached by several female AND male prostitutes along with countless pimps. I’ve read online where people ask if there’s really a red light district in Tokyo and I see many people say there isn’t, and these people have obviously never been here and have no right to answer the question since they obviously don’t know any better. I can assure you 100% that it is very VERY real. Now, the male prostitutes give it one pitch and give up, the women are a bit more aggressive (1-3 pitches) and will follow you maybe a block sometimes, but the pimps are worse than the most persistent car salesman you’ve ever encountered, I had one follow me for 3 blocks before he actually grabbed my hand and tried to lure me into a shady love hotel wanting to show me some of his girls. Now, I did notice that if you’re with a couple people they are less aggressive, so I recommend coming with at least one friend or more if possible. My advice is whatever you do, never ever acknowledge their existence, just keep walking, if you make eye contact you could be in for some annoying sale pitching.
While I found the pimps to be very annoying, I’d say this was the only downfall about Kabukicho. Also, I would never recommend bringing a kid into the area under any circumstances; this is probably the only non-family friendly part of the city. The prostitutes are never much of a problem; they won’t waste much time on you if they can tell you’re not interested. The reason at one point why I was getting approached by so many male prostitutes is because there’s one street that seems to be rather dedicated to it and I wandered down it without realising.
So; is Kabukicho worth visiting? Yes! Despite the extreme level of prostitution here, this area is one of the most colorful and exciting places I’ve ever been to. You might be asking; what about it is so great and amazing? Let’s view these next few pictures to get us started.
You can see early on that these places are made to really jump out at you, plus you can have a short rest at one of the many love hotels here. What is a love hotel? Fancy hotels that offer rooms “by the hour”, there’s also the “4 hour” deal, and I believe a “10 hour” deal as well. So if you wanted, you could just do a 10 hour deal by yourself to get some quick shut-eye, though I never did check to see if you can go in alone or if you need to be accompanied by someone. So now you might be wondering “where does it get REALLY interesting at?”, I now present to you REN:
At this point I felt like I took MDMA and it was starting to kick in. It was like a mix of the Wizard of Oz where we see “a horse of a different color” meets Alice In Wonderland, and what we have as a result is a horse of a different dimension.
This place featured television screened walls that showcased an aerial flight around Las Vegas (of all places), and a really good jazz band. No floating drummer performed though on the elevated drum set. So, is this the only place this trippy? Nope!
There’s also the famous Robot Restaurant! While I didn’t end up taking nearly as many pictures as I wanted of Kabukicho, it’s a place that can’t be experienced through photos anyways. Unless you visit it yourself, you won’t really get to feel what kind of strange energy this place has. However, my journey through the weirder areas of Tokyo weren’t over yet!
Akihabara; the Electric Town
Electric Town is not a name I came up with, it’s actually referred to as that, even on JR station signs, so it’s kind of an official nickname. Apparently it earned that name for being the “go-to” area of Tokyo for electronics and black market goods back around WW2. Akihabara is a district in the Chiyoda ward and the nickname still fits as it’s now filled to the brim with gaming places, SEGA owns some serious property here for example. The amount of neon signs is higher here than throughout most of Tokyo (except for Shinjuku), and there are some rather bizarre places here as well. And if you check out Club SEGA you can have even more fun using the toilets! I’m serious… You can play a game while using the urinals…
The above picture shows one of the more interestingly themed places called Maidreamin. I had heard from another fellow traveler that it was kind of a weird place, so of course I decided to check it out! And yes, it is weird. I don’t have any pictures to share with you as pictures are forbidden, but I can explain what it is pretty easily. Maidreamin is a themed restaurant and to no surprise, the theme here is… well…. maids. But, it gets a bit weirder than just all the waitresses being dressed as maids. In addition to the costumes the maids explain when you enter that you are their “master” and if you need something you need to use their pet call. My maids call was “meow meow”, yes, I am being completely serious. When you call them they come up to you and will then get on their knees next to the table and ask “yes, master?”. Whenever they bring you your food or beverage they ask that you say with them a cute but strange phrase that I never really understood, and there’s also usually random hand movements that accompany these phrases. They put on a performance as well every so often where they sing, dance, and run around the restaurant and the customers are encouraged to participate as well. If you get a combo you have the chance to have your photo taken with your maid along with a souvenir.
I certainly consider my night in Akihabara and my meal at Maidreamin to be one of the stranger nights I spent in Tokyo as well as in addition to my night in Kabukicho. But we’re not done with the Electric Town just yet! While not as depraved as Kabukicho itself, Akihabara does have its own little red light area as well which lies more closely right between Akihabara and Taito, called Nakacho. Thankfully it’s much tamer than Kabukicho; there are no pimps or prostitutes chasing you around here. The advertising is cranked up a bit though as a result. Starting off with these pictures we have yet another love hotel.
I fully enjoyed every aspect of Tokyo I explored, even the parts that were strange and a bit uncomfortable at times I still liked simply because it was all something different than the environment I’m accustomed to. It feels almost like a game where you’re exploring an area that doesn’t exist in the real world, except in Japan it does! You never know what you might find, and if you go down the wrong kind of alley like I did in Kabukicho, you can always make a turn at the next intersection, just turn around, or keep going to see how strange it gets. While I knew before the night I explored Kabukicho that it was also a red light district, I wanted to explore it anyways because I had heard of the Robot Restaurant and wanted to see where Enter The Void was filmed. Nakacho however just looked like an interesting and bright street, so I went down it and didn’t find out until I started seeing certain advertisements that it also catered specifically to the “adult entertainment” crowd.
To finish off this strange article, I present to you some of the most random advertisements, artwork, and more that I saw during my stay in Tokyo.
Thanks for reading! I hoped you enjoyed this article. Check back soon as I write about more of my visit to Japan.