Walk north from the Shinjuku Station East Gate/Studio Alta meeting spot, along a pedestrian roadway busy with commuters and shoppers and the occasional girl in kimono, plastic flower in her hair, until confronted by the ten-storey urban wall of shops, restaurants, karaoke bars, and the landmark Don Quixote discount store along Yasukuni-dori — the same street featured in Kanye West’s video Stronger and countless movies set in Tokyo.
A couple of dim, narrow archways, tired after being up all night, lead to a warren of side streets and narrow alleys. This is Tokyo’s Sin City: The fabled Kabukicho, Japan’s most famous “entertainment” district, and the largest in Asia. According to Wikipedia, the area was originally a swamp; later, it became a duck sanctuary. After World War Two, when the area was razed by American bombing, it was rebuilt — originally for mainstream entertainment (the “kabuki” in Kabukicho is a form of traditional Japanese theatre), but in practice a blue light district. 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 It’s Dangerousness”, which explores the historic events and social conditions which may have transformed Kabukicho into an akosha, 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 specializing in showing foreigners the sights, “no ‘normal’ standard of behavior to live up to and illusions of glory or shame.”
At night, between the tour groups and young couples headed for a night of it, dinner at a restaurant and then a love hotel, small groups of men move like sharks through chum-baited water.
Now, though, on a weekday morning, Kabukicho is a seedy oasis of calm after the overwhelming bustle of the east exit from Shinjuku Station.
In the narrow warren of streets and alleys, all that’s left of the busy station area is the fast-fading sound of traffic, of a train to the suburbs crossing the overpass. A gust of spring wind, cold in the shadow of ramen shops, rattles a loose sheet of metal at a construction site; a lone basketball bounces on a fenced-off court. A pair of stiletto heels click on pavement. A suitcase rolls down the gum- and spit- and cigarette-butt strewn street.
The ground floor atrium of an office building with shopping arcade is almost deserted. There’s more security guards than clientele. A display of photos of cherry blossoms around Japan, accented with sprigs of real, live cherry trees from another part of Japan. Birdsong – also presumably from another part of Japan – is piped in.
Back on the street, there’s the costume shops which service the local trade, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” stale cigarette smoke and the jangling of steel balls in upright pinball machines from the open doors of pachinko parlours at the Cinema Cite Square, where a few movie theaters still hold on to their audiences and where I once had my wallet picked clean out of my pocket. Construction workers and rough-edged hipsters in baggy pants and open-toed workshoes, towels wrapped round their heads, hang about. So do solitary guys in dark suits standing in out-of-the-way spots, talking on cellphones, customers and touts for the early starters.
Don’t make eye contact. Show no fear. But don’t linger. You’ve been to the biggest blue light district in Asia, and some of the people who call it home. You’ve seen the garish pink and yellow signs. Leave it at that. There are other, more interesting adventures to be had in Shinjuku.