Shinjuku is filled with stylish host clubs, bars, and all kinds of entertainment that’s definitely not for kids. But it’s also where you can pet cats by the hour at a cat café, bar hop the Golden Gai, and eat at the robot restaurant.
If you’re not allergic to cats, let’s start at the Calico Cat Café! We can drink a latte and pet the fifty different kinds of cats for an hour.
After we finish petting the cats, 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.
It’s a riot of neon, thronged with hosts inviting women into their clubs. It’s easy to spot them, with their extravagant hair and elaborate outfits. 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 club.
But if you’re in the mood for an only-in-Japan entertainment extravaganza, we can’t go wrong by booking seats at the Robot Restaurant. For sheer sensory overload, it can’t be beat.
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.
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.
If you prefer your food and drink with a little (or a lot) of Goth on the side, head over to the Christon Café instead. You’ll fit right in if you’re clad in Goth, Lolita or Steampunk finery, but regular people are allowed to order the Black Rage Of Satan pizza and Witch Girl cocktails too.
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!
Nearby destinations: Harajuku, Ikebukuro, Japan Traditional Craft Center, Meiji Shrine, Nihon Minka-en Thatch-roofed Houses, Shibuya, Yasukuni Shrine, Yoyogi Park