I’ve been a big fan of Japanese pop culture since high school, it’s hard not to be really. Most Indonesian kids grew up watching Candy Candy, Doraemon, Dragon Ball, and the like. For me it continued as I grew older, with doramas and Japanese bands eventually replacing the manga and anime characters of my childhood. I always had a list of places in Japan that I wanted to visit, so after a really bad break up with my then fiancé, there seemed no better place to have fun in than Japan!
I had a hard time deciding where exactly to start my journey in Tokyo as it’s divided by districts, with every district having its own charms and attraction. To make things easier I divided it by geographical locations – north, east, south, west, and central Tokyo, before listing out the wards and districts in each place. Wards of the west that I visited included Shibuya and Shinjuku, and I also explored two districts, Harajuku, and Roponggi Hills of the Roppongi district. They’re located quite close to each other and are well within walking distance, but I was there in March – April, so I ended up using the Japan Railway (JR) and alighting every stop or so whenever I moved around.
Home to Shinjuku Station, the busiest railway station in the world, you can imagine the number of human beings passing through these streets every single day. I explored most of the East Shinjuku area, where Kabukichō and Golden Gai is located, and forayed to Omoide Yokocho, which was a fascinating area for me.
Here’s a fun fact! Before it was known as a red light district, and got famous for its bars and restaurant – Kabukichō was a duck sanctuary! Ha! Although known as Tokyo’s red light district, it’s wildly different from… say… Amsterdam’s red light district, which has working girls parading goods in the windows. Nope, Kabukichō has a sh*t ton of nightclubs and bars, and sex related establishments like ‘love hotels’, massage parlours, hostess clubs, etc. A friend of ours actually told us that staying at a love hotel might be cheaper than other types of inns, and they’re perfectly clean. You might even stumble on a novelty room with spinning beds and disco balls. Although I never got to see the interior of a love hotel, colour me intrigued.
Golden Gai is as different from Kabukichō as night is from day. While the latter boasts bright neon lights and endless illuminated advertisements, Golden Gai is muted somehow. Its light shining less bright, but no less entertaining. It’s where you can go to see the tortured creative souls of Tokyo, I say tortured creative, but… well. It’s famous for bars with movie poster covered walls, if you know your Japanese figures well, apparently you might bump into musicians, artists, journalists, actors or directors at the bars and clubs there!
Shinjuku seems like a study of contrast, with each area refusing to kowtow to the vibe of the areas adjacent. Omoide Yokocho is also starkly different to the bright, modern feel of Shinjuku Station which is only a stone’s throw away. The noise is not of Japanese pop blaring from stalls like in Kabukichō, but the sizzling of barbeque food stalls and the chatter of their visitors, both local and international. Although the streets are narrow, and I brushed against people’s back as I searched for my own place to eat and drink, it never felt claustrophobic. Getting lost in the onslaught of sounds, smells and sight felt somewhat comforting. I was alone, but never lonely.
Dog lovers will of course be familiar with Hachiko’s touching story, as one of Hachiko’s many fans, I visited his statue and took pictures of the loyal K-9. The place was packed, friends and lovers used the spot as a meeting place, and tourist milled about with their many sized cameras. Hachiko’s statue along with the Shibuya crossing where droves of people cross a huge intersection, are two of the most popular photo-op spots in the area. But honestly, if you like to take photos, just about every spot in Shibuya will offer something interesting.
My memories of Shibuya is coloured with fondness and admiration, not only was it a fun district to explore, it was also one which made me appreciative of certain aspects of Japanese culture. Considering the number of tiny bars and clubs around Nonbei Yokocho (also known as Drunkard’s Alley), it’s of no great surprise that I spent some time there completely drunk.
I’m not super proud of this, but I once woke up at the police station with my friend, we weren’t arrested or anything – the police simply found us wandering the streets, too drunk to be able to name our hotel, so they brought us to the station to keep us safe. Once we were sober enough to be able to navigate our way back, they let us go. How amazing was that!? Another time I was so exhausted and absentminded, I left my bag on a bench. I only realized when I got to the hotel, and when I went back… there it was! Untouched and safe!
It seems that no matter which part of Tokyo I visited during the day, I’m always drawn back to Shibuya by nightfall. There’s something about the hustle and bustle of it all that has my heart wrapped up around its obnoxiously lit little finger. Ending the day amongst the tired masses reminded me a little of home, I’m just one of millions looking for a little relief at the end of a long day.
Just 15 minutes from Harajuku Station is NHK Studio Park, which houses one of the major broadcasting stations in Japan, and there are tours that take you to its live broadcasting studios, its production sites and recording studios. They also usually have exhibitions around to coincide with whatever it is they have going on. When I went, a Doraemon exhibition was up in preparation for the release of a new Doraemon movie. You can imagine how happy I was! Not quite at the levels of giddy I would feel at going to amusement parks – but close enough.
My walk though past loves also brought me to Tokyo Tower, still located in West Tokyo. Lovers of old school dorama will of course know of Tokyo Tower! I was actually excited to go there because Tokyo Love Story was one dorama I was super into when it aired in Indonesia, and even years later when VCDs and DVDs started popping up, it always brought a smile to my face when I saw it. Actually, most doramas released around that time featured Tokyo Tower in one way or another, and they always made it super romantic when the two leads end up there. I was there alone, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
To continue the theme of romance, I have to say this. Yoyogi Park felt like my perfect romance story with Tokyo! It’s such a beautiful park, and I spent many afternoons there, with a packed meal for lunch tucked securely in my bag as I searched for a picnic spot. Sometimes I people-watched, sometimes I just sat there with nothing really going through my mind. But it felt like I was forging a connection with Tokyo, and I fell a little bit more in love with it.
Read more about Takeshita Dori, Harajuku; here
Ropongi Hills is less of an area, and more of a mega-complex where in the centre of it all stands the proud 54-story Mori Tower, which offers a view of Tokyo from up-top. If you have cash to spare, the observation deck is worth a visit. But honestly there are several observation decks in Tokyo, some with admission prices, and some completely free. I didn’t really spend a lot of time at the Roponggi Hills as the restaurants and bars were a little pricey, and while Mori Garden at Roponggi Hills is pretty – my heart was already taken by Yoyogi Park.