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 were able 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. In 2016 the laws were finally amended, marking a cultural shift in how Japan views its own nightlife. With this in mind here’s our guide to Tokyo nightlife, some of the best places to enjoy a totally legal drink, dance or robot show in Tokyo.
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.
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 sometimes women-only, but check the schedule as men are also welcome most nights.
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 - and it's place in the Tokyo nightlife scene – irrevocably.
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.
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.
Satoko runs the Shibuya, 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 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.
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