Some 4km due west of the Imperial Palace, Shinjuku (新宿) is the modern heart of Tokyo. From the love hotels and hostess bars of Kabukichō to shop-till-you-drop department stores and hi-tech towers, the district offers a tantalising microcosm of the city.
Vast Shinjuku Station, a messy combination of three train terminals and connecting subway lines, splits the area into two. There’s also the separate Seibu Shinjuku Station, northeast of the JR station. At least two million commuters are fed into these stations every day and spun out of sixty exits. If you get lost here (it’s easily done), head immediately for street level and get your bearings from the skyscrapers to the west.
West of the station, Nishi-Shinjuku (西新宿) is dominated by skyscrapers. The one to aim for is the monumental Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building or TMGB (東京都庁), a 400,000-square-metre complex from which the city is administered, designed by Tange Kenzō. The complex – which includes twin 48-storey towers, an adjacent tower block, the Metropolitan Assembly Hall (where the city’s councillors meet) and a sweeping, statue-lined and colonnaded plaza – feels like Gotham City. On the ground floor of the No. 1 Tower you’ll find the excellent Tokyo Tourist Information Centre; free tours of the complex depart from here. Both the towers have observation rooms on their 45th floors; the southern one is preferable as it has a café. It’s worth timing your visit for dusk, so you can see the multicoloured lights of Shinjuku spark into action as the setting sun turns the sky a deep photochemical orange.
Of the area’s other towers, the most visually striking is the new Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower. This dazzling fifty-storey cross-hatched structure, close to Shinjuku Station, houses a fashion and computer studies college.
Still on the station’s west side, squashed up against the tracks running north from the Odakyū department store, is Omoide Yokochō (思い出横丁), meaning “memories alley”. It’s also known as Shomben Yokochō (Piss Alley), a reference to the time when patrons of the area’s many cramped yakitori joints and bars had to relieve themselves in the street for lack of other facilities. Don’t be put off; there are toilets these days and the alley remains a cheap and atmospheric place to eat and drink. Enjoy it while you can, as there’s talk of redeveloping the area. A pedestrian tunnel at the southern end of the alley provides a short cut to the east side of Shinjuku Station.
Intellectuals and artists have rubbed shoulders with Kabukichō’s demimonde since just after World War II in the tiny bars of Golden Gai (ゴールデン街). For decades, this hugely atmospheric warren of around 150 drinking dens has teetered on the brink of oblivion, the cinderblock buildings under threat from both property developers and from their own shoddy construction.
Recently, though, Golden Gai seems to be undergoing a mini-renaissance as a new generation of bar masters and mistresses takes over some of the shoebox establishments. Most bars continue to welcome regulars only (and charge exorbitant prices to anyone else), but with several places now posting their table and drink charges outside the door, gaijin visitors don’t need to risk being fleeced rotten.
Champion, at Golden Gai’s main entrance off Shiki-no-michi, has no cover charge and all drinks are a bargain ¥500. The catch? You have to endure tone-deaf patrons crooning karaoke for ¥100 a song. Punk rockers will get more of a kick from Hair of the Dogs (¥800 cover charge), marked by a Sex Pistols poster on the door and a thudding soundtrack of rebellious music inside. Another possibility is Albatross G (cover charge ¥300), a dark and slightly sleazy sister bar to the arty Albatross in Omoide Okochō.