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Shinjuku: The Empress Dowager of Tokyo

Brian Wood in Tokyo

Good shopping, the best gay bars and where to picnic in Sakura season

Shinjuku is 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 city.
GB 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 above.

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 in Kabukicho.

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.

Photos: Hanami 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.

More Bars and Places to Go

© Brian Wood 2002

Shibuya No Techno

... if I try to understand everything about Shibuy
a, then I would not be really experiencing something that, by nature, defies understanding.

Brian R Wood in Tokyo

Harajuku: The Culture of Kawai -
Brian Reed Wood
Harajuku 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..

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