Shinjuku North Side: Kabukicho; Golden Gai; Hanazono Shrine; Skyscraper District
Almost two decades ago, I landed in Japan on what was to be a three-year overseas adventure from my home in Canada. I’m still here, but that’s another story…. Those first days in-country, while my then-partner — I’ll call her Achan — attended orientation training at the Keio Park Plaza hotel before being posted to rural Hokkaido to help “internationalize” the countryside (but that’s still another story…) I spun out a jet-lagged fugue through the neon canyonlands and narrow sidestreets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood. You know: the setting for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray? That was me. Minus the hair. And Scarlett Johansson.
After three years Achan returned to her family in suburban Calgary. After another year, in central Hokkaido this time, I relocated to Tokyo for some big-city adventure.
Now, thirteen years later, I live in a comfortable if un-cinematic neighbourhood in west Tokyo. Every day, on the commute, I pass through labyrinthian Shinjuku Station.
“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” to paraphrase The Naked City. And more than three million of them pass through Shinjuku each day. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Shinjuku Station as the“world’s busiest station”. Channel5’s recent documentary “World’s Busiest: Station” gets it right: “a perfect storm of busy-ness.”
Every once in a while, I step off the train and out of the station, pulled into the “bright lights, big city” of this city-within-a-city. There’s no better place to get a handle on the feeling of 36 million people living together Blade Runner-style than to spend time in this commuter hub.The sights! The sounds!
Out the East Gate, giant screens mesmerize with ads for cellphones and an animated PSA about earthquake safety. Karaoke bars blast J-pop into the streets. A pair of electronics superstores battle for customers with chirpy welcome songs and sidewalk displays of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. Trucks blare more J-pop, and tow larger-than-life bikini-clad robots. Pachinko parlours are already hard at it, cascades of small metal balls triggering flashing lights and bleeping, blipping, blooping alarms. The crossing signal twerps for a green light. From somewhere in the core a siren wails. And all this noise is channeled, amplified by the 10-storey urban wall that presses in.
Northeast of the station, a 10-story urban wall of shops, restaurants, and karaoke bars, featured in Kanye West’s video Stronger, confronts the walker.
A couple of dim, narrow archways lead to a warren of side streets and narrow alleys. Welcome to fabled Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s blue-light entertainment district – largest in Asia. Photographer Watanabe Katsumi documented life in Kabukicho circa the 1960s and 1970s in the collection Gangs of Kabukicho. In 2009, Mizoguchi Atsushi published a long essay on the history of the area titled Kabukicho — Yabasa no Shincho, “Kabukicho — The Truth of Its Dangerousness”, which explores the historic events and social conditions that transformed Kabukicho into anakosha, bad area.
Kabukicho has been the setting of several novels and movies by Western and Japanese writers and directors, including In the Miso Soup by Murakami Ryu, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, and the inspiration for the setting of the cult classic cyberpunk dystopia Blade Runner. 2009 was a banner year for Kabukicho in culture: Jake Adelstein wrote his memoir Tokyo Vice about his time as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, Jackie Chan released Shinjuku Incident, and Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic melodrama Enter the Void premiered at Cannes.
“There’s an anything goes feeling to the place,” reports Murakami’s narrator, Kenji, a thoughtful young sex tour guide. According to Kenji, in Kabukicho there’s “no ‘normal’ standard of behavior to live up to and illusions of glory or shame.”
Not that Kabukicho limits itself to sex and crime. Couples young and old also frequent the bars and restaurants in the area, and sometimes pop into one of the love hotels in the area. More recently, Chinese tour groups have started to navigate the narrow streets, Nikon and Canon DSLRs and cell phones snapping madly.
Never fear: there’s an oasis of calm next to the highrise hostess clubs and karaoke bars and other distractions. Next to a Mister Donut on the corner of Yasukuni Dori, a flagstone path leads to a six-lane warren of some 200 tiny bars double-stacked in ramshackle buildings. Long the haunt of intellectuals and artists — Wim Wenders filmed part of his 1985 Tokyo-Ga in the legendary La Jetee bar for film aficionados — the Gai is currently undergoing a transformation which includes open doors and welcomes to visitors in places once reserved only for regulars.
Across, or in this case under, the tracks, lies the Skyscraper District. Here, starting in the 1970s and growing along with the infamous Bubble Economy of the 1980s, a former working class neighbourhood and student ghetto were razed to make way for a new generation of skyscrapers and international hotels.
Not everyone likes what’s happened to the old neighbourhood. Keizo Hino describes the area in his story, “Jacob’s Tokyo Ladder:”
Some particularly grand skyscrapers… were built in the latter half of the sixties and into the seventies, during the flood tide of rapid growth, and are nothing less than massive parallelpipeds, constructed with absolutely straight lines and planes, utterly without embellishment or a light touch. The steel shells of these buildings are massive and the walls thick as fortress walls, and even the relatively small rectangular windows, fitted with tempered glass from top to bottom, are set in perfect alignment vertically and horizontally.
One building, in particular, the head office of a bank, has massive walls, all a dark taupe, making it look as if the whole edifice had been carved out of a mountain of volcanic rock. This night particularly, its dampish walls were almost black. They were far darker than the night sky — purple-tinged with a blush of pink — over the heart of the city.
The Bubble has burst long since, but today architect Kenzo Tange’s computer-chip-inspired Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building still towers over the area.
A later addition, perhaps, a sign of the times, are the homeless-proof gratings over sidewalk-level exhaust vents, and smokers shoaled at public ashtrays now that smoking indoors is forbidden in public spaces.
All this is just one part of Shinjuku, which is just one part of the megalopolis that is Tokyo. Perhaps that’s one reason I’ve stayed so long: to try to get a handle on what Tokyo Time Out magazine recently called “the greatest city in the world.”