Until recently, running a club in Japan was a risky business. The fueihō laws, created in 1948, put restrictions on any small venue where patrons had to “actively seek out pleasure” – including dancing. Though usually these laws weren’t enforced, any club or bar owners caught by police letting their patrons bust a move could face jail time.
But in 2016 the laws were finally amended – not entirely rescinded, and not helping everyone, but marking a cultural shift in how Japan views its own nightlife. Here’s our guide to some of the best places to enjoy a totally legal drink, dance or robot show in Tokyo.
Best for perfect cocktails and secret bars: Roppongi
It’s impossible to talk about Tokyo nightlife without mentioning Roppongi; though it’s reinvented itself as an artistic hub, in most people’s minds it’s still all hostess bars, aggressive touts and overpriced drinks. Stick to the main drag and that’s what you’ll get, but you’ll find some unexpectedly chic and clever spots in the side streets, especially towards Nishi-Azabu.
One which you’ll have to try harder than usual to find is Roku-Nana, a small “secret bar” in a nondescript residential building. You can either relax in the warm, low-lit bar or head up to the roof terrace for a gorgeous view of Roppongi Hills. We’d give you directions, but we promised not to tell…
There’s a similarly exclusive feel at Gen Yamamoto, though at least the address is made public there. The eponymous owner creates a daily-changing tasting menu of four or six cocktails, adjusting it to match customer preferences, the time, the weather, or just his own intuition. It’s an opportunity to see a master at work – and as there are only eight seats and no background music, you’ll be fully focused on watching him create these works of art.
Best for a microcosm of the city: Shinjuku
This buzzing skyscraper district has long been home to some of the city’s most famous nightlife spots, including the infamous Robot Restaurant. Whether you want to make like Bill Murray in the Park Hyatt’s 52nd-floor New York Bar, find your own tiny place in Golden Gai, or check out the city’s LGBT scene in Ni-chōme, Shinjuku is the place. It’s eclectic, overwhelming and occasionally bizarre – like Tokyo itself.
One of the highlights of Golden Gai is Blue Square, with its cheery staff, friendly clientele, and S&M-inspired decor. It’s foreigner-friendly, too, especially if you make an effort with Japanese – a kanpai! (cheers!) will go a long way with your new drinking buddies. If you’d rather go somewhere big enough to actually dance, try A-Un: a favourite on the LGBT scene, this lesbian-friendly bar has an excellent sound system and holds regular events. The events are often women-only, but check the schedule as men are also welcome most nights.
Best for new trends and talents: Shimokitazawa
If you want to see Japan’s best DJs, musicians, artists and even bartenders before they make it big, Shimokita is your best bet. It’s only a few stops from Shibuya and Shinjuku, but this low-rise, low-key district feels like a different city – one filled with teenage bands playing tiny venues, international music scenes finding a new audience (Japanese grime artist MC Pakin filmed the video for Anxiety here), and Shimokita old-timers spinning records in tiny, smoky bars.
Just wander around and you’ll see how multifaceted the nightlife here is. At Little Soul Café you can listen to funk and soul records selected by the owner from the 10,000+ which line the cosy room. A few minutes’ walk away is SHELTER, a fairly intimate, always packed, live-music venue which leans towards Japanese rock music. Keep walking south and you’ll come to THREE, a live house focused on up-and-coming acts – a great spot to discover something new.
If you want to experience Shimokita’s creative, friendly vibe, now’s the time to go: a redevelopment of the central area has been in the works for a while, which would introduce an arterial road and mean replacing most buildings around the station with high-rises. There’s been plenty of local protest, but if the plan goes through, it could change the character of Shimokita irrevocably.
Best for live music: Kōenji
A few stops west of Shinjuku is Kōenji, by day a sedate area with some great cafés, by night the heart of Tokyo’s punk, DIY and alternative scenes. There are several excellent live venues, the highest-profile being 20,000 Den-Atsu. You can judge for yourself whether they actually do have “the loudest system in the world”, as they claim – but there’s no question that it’s impressive enough for some very, very loud bands and their equally boisterous fans. If you’re not keen on their listings, have at look at who’s playing Koenji High, another popular live house, which (unusually for Japan) doesn’t allow smoking in the main area.
Before heading out to jump up and down with 200 other people to a Japanese punk band, you may want a moment of calm at Cocktail Shobō. This quiet spot is a joyous blend of bookshop and bar, where you can flick through old paperbacks while sipping a cocktail.
Best for audio obsessives: Shibuya
Shibuya is in many ways the heart of Tokyo’s nightlife, with myriad clubs, karaoke joints, live houses and nomihōdai (all-you-can-drink) offers. But behind all these is a core of long-standing venues obsessed with playing really good music on really good sound systems.
At Bar Bonobo, you can dance with 50 or 60 other people to house and techno music, while at the other end of the spectrum is Lion, a classical-music shrine where conversation is discouraged (even the staff speak in whispers) so you can enjoy the crisp tone of its enormous wooden speakers.
For a more eclectic range of genres try Zubar, a tiny building hemmed in by tower blocks on a major road, which gets packed every weekend for sets from Japanese and international DJs. Forestlimit has an even broader focus – it holds art shows, live music and DJ sets of all shades, any kind of “radical and aggressive expression” – but shares the audio obsession, with its huge hand-built sound system.
For a bar set up with a different obsession in mind, try Vibe Bar Wild One. Head up the stairs by Wild One sex shop, then through a vulviform door (yes, that means what you think it does) and into a small, colourful bar absolutely full of sex toys. It’s actually far less intimidating than you might think – staff are friendly and full of recommendations, and no unaccompanied men are allowed, as the place was created to encourage women to talk openly about sex.
Best for sake and salarymen: Shimbashi
Better known for its offices than its nightlife, Shimbashi may seem like an odd pick for a night out, but there are two excellent reasons to stop off here: to meet sake sommelier Satoko Utsugi, and to party like a salaryman.
Satoko runs the Sake Kaku-uchi Style Airbnb Experience, which starts at the Japan Sake and Shochū Information Center. You’ll spend an afternoon learning everything there is to know about sake and sampling several varieties, before heading out to Orihara Shōten, a small shop/bar, for yet more tastings. Satoko is incredibly knowledgeable, passionate about introducing people to Japan’s national drink, and still charming and cogent after hours of sake-drinking – no promises that you will be, though.
With your newly acquired knowledge, you’re ready to hit the izakayas of Shimbashi. These Japanese-style pubs serve generally excellent food as well as plenty of booze, and though the menus are rarely in English, just by pointing out what looks good on other tables you’ll end up with a feast. Visit on a Friday and you’ll see a real slice of Tokyo nightlife when people pour out of their offices and straight into the izakayas crammed into every available space – down side streets, on the tenth floors of buildings, under railway bridges.
If you speak some Japanese or know a local, you could try booking somewhere, but it can be just as fun to wander the streets soaking up the atmosphere; you’ll soon find out that no one in Japan parties harder (or drinks more) than a salaryman at the end of the week. You have been warned.
Explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan, and Tokyo with The Rough Guide to Tokyo. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Rebecca’s Sake Kaku-uchi Style experience was provided by Airbnb. Thanks to Dom at House Not House records for additional recommendations. Header image via Zengame/Flickr.