Shinjuku Area

Shinjuku is where to see all the neon, all night long

Shinjuku and the adult entertainment district known as Kabukicho are filled with stylish host clubs, bars, and all kinds of entertainment that’s definitely not for kids, but it’s also where you can visit one of the most beautiful gardens in Tokyo.

First, let’s walk in the park. Shinjuku Gyou-en is huge, and it’s pretty spectacular year-round, but I especially like it during autumn leaf season and in early spring for the plum blossoms. It’s famous for cherry blossoms too – huge old cherry trees are everywhere – but it gets crowded, so during hanami season, it’s best to go early in the morning when the gates open at 9:00.

Huge cherry trees reflected in one of the ponds at Shinjuku Gyou-en Garden
Huge cherry trees reflected in one of the ponds
The Hanazono Shrine is kept bright and shiny with donations from the many lucrative businesses in Kabuki-cho.
Dinner at the haunted prison restaurant could be just what the doctor ordered
Dinner at the haunted prison restaurant could be just what the doctor ordered…
When the sun goes down, Kabuki-cho becomes one of the most fascinating red light districts in the world.
The Kabukicho gate in Shinjuku at night
Walk through this gate…

It’s a riot of neon, thronged with hosts inviting women into their clubs.

Hosts calling in customers in Kabukicho
It’s easy to spot them, with their extravagant hair and elaborate outfits.

Countless host and hostess clubs line the back streets of Kabuki-cho.

If you’re a foreigner, this area is perfectly safe to wander around – even at night – but the businesses and clubs in this district cater to Japanese only. Nobody minds us walking around and looking, but we need to make special arrangements if we want to visit a host or hostess club.

But Kabuki-cho isn’t the only playground in Shinjuku – next door is a warren of small streets called Golden Gai, with alleyways lined with tiny bars that seat 8-10 people each.

A typical street in Golden Gai. Funky, yes. Fancy, no.
A typical street in Golden Gai. Funky, yes. Fancy, no.

Some of these bars welcome foreigners without an accompanying Japanese person, some don’t. If you want to go into one, pause at the entrance and get a feel for whether you’d be welcome or not. If it feels like you’d be welcome, ask the bartender, “Is it OK to come in?” Even if they don’t speak English, they’ll understand and tell you. There’s often a ¥500 – ¥1000 cover charge at these small bars, so if it’s not posted, ask.

Bars in Golden Gai tend to have themes: Goth-Lolita, Cowboy, Elvis, etc. and most have regular patrons warming the small number of barstools.

Another way to get the low-down on things you’d otherwise completely miss is by taking the Tokyo Realtime Kabukichō audio tour. You can download it and listen on any MP3 player or iPod/iPhone. It’ll guide you around the neighborhood for about an hour, taking you inside the places it’s OK for foreigners to go and telling you all about the places where it’s not. It’s narrated by my friend Max, and he really discovered a lot of wild stuff about the neighborhood that I didn’t know!


The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

 For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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