Shinjuku: The Empress Dowager of Tokyo
Brian Wood in Tokyo
the best gay bars and where to picnic in Sakura season
commonly considered the downtown of Tokyo. It is an area easily seen from
almost anywhere else in this huge metropolis because of her towering clump
of skyscrapers in Nishi-Shinjuku (West Shinjuku). Skyscrapers are unusually
scarce in a city this size and I was surprised to see very few dotting
the skyline. A big reason for the lack of these modern metropolitan signatures
is probably the high frequency of small earthquakes that jolt the city.
Shinjuku is one of my favourite downtowns because I a great fan of cities
and their towers. Skyscrapers can be a beautiful identity creator for
a city or they can make a city look rather gloomy and give it a personality
bypass. This second scenario is unfortunately more like Tokyo. The few
skyscrapers that are in the city are very depressing slabs of reinforced
concrete with rain stained facades. These 70's era buildings actually
blend into the grey, hazy Tokyo sky making them practically invisible.
Luckily the 60's and 70's modernist-utilitarian mood is just ending -
a decade or two late, but better late than never. Recently there are newer,
glass encased prisms sprouting from the fertile ground of farm Tokyo.
Some of these are in Shinjuku and now spreading to other hubs around the
Business Hotel T Building B1F 2-12-3 Shinjuku Shinjuku-ku Tel: 03.3352.8972
Description: Where the boys are Hours: Open from 8 p.m. till 2 a.m.
Monday to Thursday, till 2:30 a.m. on Friday, till 3 a.m. on Saturday,
and till 1:30 a.m. on Sunday Charge: No cover
Shinjuku is another
shoppers' paradise. One of my favourite pastimes is to stand outside of
the South Exit of Shinjuku Station and count how many Louis Vuitton bag
owners I can count in one minute. It is surprising how big of a number
I can get to in jut 60 seconds. Unlike youthful Shibuya and Harajuku,
Shinjuku is more matriarchal yet more youthful than the elegant Ginza
district further into central city. Shinjuku Station, perhaps the busiest
station in the world, is guarded by steeples of attached department stores
with names like Keio, My Lord, Lumine, My City, and Odakyu. This Cathedral
of shopping and mobility is basically a gigantic above and underground
mall with a few train lines running through it. Many times I have lost
my way in the intricate consumer catacombs that spread their way a kilometre
or more eastward. These shopping hallways are very convenient for those
rainy or cold winter days. One can shop for hours in dozens of department
stores throughout Shinjuku without ever stepping foot outside.
One place you do have to step outside to go to is the giant department
store Takashimaya. It is 14 floors of shops, restaurants, and even an
IMAX theatre. Department stores in Japan are like mini malls. Other brand
name stores rent out space from the big department stores. This is a bit
confusing sometimes because I never know when the department store ends
and the other stores begin. These department stores cater to the female
population much more than the male. Usually there are at least 5 floors
of women's clothing and only about one or two for men. So, you know who
has the buying power in Tokyo!
There are department stores that take up entire sections of an area. Stores
like Isetan and Marui (O1O1) are separated into different buildings, which
makes it even more confusing. Marui has separate buildings for men, women,
and youth. They are all on separate blocks but in the same general area
of Shinjuku. Talk about segregated shopping.
There is more to life than shopping in Shinjuku. There is also seedy sex.
In the north eastern part of the area is infamous Kabukicho. This is Tokyo's
answer to a red light district or more euphemistically, an entertainment
district. To be honest I never really walked around Kabukicho because
it is a straight man's playground of which I am not a member. Here is
where you find the massage parlors and other such establishments where
sad old salarymen come to cheat on their wives who are usually home preparing
their meals. Of course the wives get their revenge by spending their husbands'
money in those grand, and expensive, department stores that I mentioned
Kabukicho is also the most crime-ridden area in Tokyo. The Japanese mafia
(Yakuza) call Kabukicho their capital. Many stabbings (guns are illegal
here) occur on these streets. But usually you have to be mixed up in the
mob to have any worries about that. To many Americans, Kabukicho is not
very dangerous at all. It does not compare to similar areas in American
cities, but to Japanese, where Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the
world, it is very dangerous indeed. Many 'ordinary' Japanese sometimes
confuse Kabukicho with its gay, but much, much, much safer neighbour Ni-Chome.
Because anything gay is considered very strange (not immoral, like my
disowned country of USA), These 'ordinary' or straight Japanese automatically
think Ni-chome is dangerous just like Kabukicho. But it is the farthest
from the truth. Ni-chome, east of the station past the shopping district,
is a very quiet little nook in the city. During the day it is very quiet
and unassuming, but on weekend nights it comes alive with men kissing
each other on the cheek and freely holding each other's hands down the
streets. This gay district of Tokyo is only about 2 blocks in area and
is mainly populated by bars with a few gay book/video shops and restaurants.
Yes, it does have its seedy side, but much more discreet and hidden than
There is a mix of Japanese and foreigners at the bars, but not all bars
are foreigner friendly here. When I first arrived, I heard that you needed
to know a Japanese to 'get in' Ni-chome. I needed a guide to show me which
bars where friendly and which ones were not. Before I met my partner,
I would often go in the day to walk around because I was frightened to
go at night and go into the wrong bar. I would not have been attacked
or anything to that degree, but I could imagine the unwanting stares I
would get by walking in the wrong place. So, I do not know if this rumour
is true or not. I was too self-conscience myself to test it.
I did eventually get in with a group of Japanese and foreign friends through
my partner. And we frequented three bars that were friendly to mixed crowds.
The first bar is Arty Farty. It is a typical bar with tables and nooks-n-crannies.
They recently redid the interior, but the motif used to be a Western and
Safari melange. My partner and I could only stay there for an hour or
so before it became too smoky for us. It would get so bad that we could
not breathe or even see across the room. We would go on Sunday evenings
because that is when Arty has its 'Nomihoudai' or 'all the beer you can
drink' in 3 hours for only 1,000 yen (roughly $8.00US). That is a good
deal considering one beer at usual prices is 600 yen.
Another bar called GB's is, or course, close by and also foreigner friendly.
GB's is much smaller than Arty which means it is very small. It is in
a basement floor and has a large square bar with very narrow space around
it to walk or stand. The bar takes up almost all the space. It is a place
to sit, if you can get a seat, and just drink at the bar. It is known
as a pick-up bar for foreigners who want to meet Japanese and vice-verse.
But if you go there with friends or a significant other, it can be an
enjoyable experience. It is basically a neighbourhood bar that you would
find anywhere with the exception that it is all men. There are no women
allowed in GB's except for a rare drag queen or two. This is common in
many bars in Ni-chome. It is a very male dominated gay district with a
few lesbian bars scattered here and there. The two worlds rarely twine.
Even at Arty, women are only allowed on Sunday nights and perhaps another
night during the week. This segregation is bothersome to me, but it is
a problem also in the States, but a little less drastic.
A bar that allows woman all the time is called 'Advocates'. It is a corner
and basically outside bar. It is miniscule inside with just a bar and
bathroom. The majority of activity happens outside on the sidewalk and
often overflows in the street. This is a comfortable setting in summer
that is - because there are no smoke clouds hovering around me like in
Arty and GB's. On summer weekend nights 'Advocates' basically hosts small
block parties. The crowd grows and grows throughout the evening until
it consumes the small street in front with people talking and drinking
and mingling. It is the most inclusive of all the bars and it shows in
the more relaxed atmosphere it resonates.
Ni-chome is not the only place in the city that has gay bars, but has
the most concentration of gay nightlife. My partner and I are not big
drinkers nor bar goers, so we do not go to Ni-chome but rarely. We have
our circle of friends and we usually go to house parties. Actually, Ni-chome
is becoming tired. The bars are not as crowded as they once were and many
patrons are spreading out in the city and getting away from the ghettoisation
of gay life that many city dwellers are doing around the world.
Just on the southern border on Ni-chome is the one sparkling jewel in
the rusty, grey crown of Tokyo Shinjuku Gyoen (Shinjuku Garden). It is
a huge park with many places to sit, relax and have picnics, a rarity
in Tokyo parks. It is one of my favourite places in Tokyo. The park in
divided into basically three park types. The first one is a Japanese style
park with carp (Koi) filled lakes, bridges and cherry trees that bloom
in early spring. The second part is the largest. It is in the English
style with large expanses of lawn for picnics and trees scattered here
and there. The last one is in the French style with manicured rows of
flowers and trees. This last one is not really for sitting but for walking
around and smelling the roses that bloom in May and June. Shinjuku Gyoen
is the Central Park of Tokyo and is a great place to have a picnic with
friends, take a nap on the ever so rare patches of grass, or feed the
ever-hungry Koi in the ponds throughout the park. Shinjuku Gyoen is literally
an oasis in the middle of this enormously poorly planned city.
Park and Gyoen
The busiest time for
the park is Cherry blossom (sakura) season. Thousands upon thousands of
visitors come for the short weeklong season in late March or early April.
The park is sparkling with millions of pink and white cherry blossoms
that rain down on peopleís heads when a spring breeze blows through.
It is the time for Hanami (cherry viewing parties), a festive springtime
ritual where friends and co-workers pick a spot under a cherry tree (if
they are lucky to find a space in the crowds) and eat and drink a lot.
Sometimes Hanami itself can be rather ugly. It is not always pleasant
to see stinking inebriated people singing and stuffing their faces while
sitting on horrible blue plastic tarps with trash and empty bottles scattered
everywhere. Sakura season is the most beautiful and at the same time can
be in some places the most ugly time of year. But Shinjuku Gyoen is probably
the most beautiful place in the city to do Hanami. Shinjuku herself can
be absolutely beautiful with her Garden and high rises in the backdrop
and at the same time depressingly ugly with her traffic and neon billboards
competing for space.
Shinjuku is a diverse world by herself. She is a popular city destination
because one can do almost everything in this relatively small quarter
of the city: A city of contrasts in a megalopolis of contrasts. This grand
matriarch is the bright lights, big city of Tokyo. She is the busiest
hub with space and foresight to have places to sit and take naps under
cherry trees and skyscrapers.
Bars and Places to Go
© Brian Wood 2002
... if I try to understand everything about Shibuya,
then I would not be really experiencing something that, by nature, defies
Brian R Wood in Tokyo
The Culture of Kawai -
is virtually a character goods zoo. You cannot help but to participate
in being a Kawai voyeur when you are part of this human current..
< Reply to this Article