Shinjuku – Third Eye of Tokyo
Taking off from where we left the last time, (click to read part 1 of Tokyo Extremes and Eccentricities) the next extreme of Tokyo is the mind boggling locality of Shinjuku.
When I think of it, I cannot help thinking of Shinjuku as the third eye of Tokyo. It’s that part of the city which lends Tokyo its true character, its Enigma.
Crazy, loud, serene, vulgar and artistic, all in one breath, when the third eye comes alive at night, it will leave you dazed.
From being a major administrative and official hub of Japan, to flaunting Japan’s biggest and wildest red light district, from blinding neon signboards luring you from the tall buildings to the dark alleys of Golden Gai, Shinjuku takes you on a wild roller coaster ride of various experiences. Let’s take a look at some of them…
The busiest railway station in the world
For starters Shinjuku is the busiest railway station in the world!! It has some 200 platforms! Which support more than a dozen railway lines, like we have the Harbour, the Western and Central local railways in Mumbai…. More than a dozen in Tokyo! More than two million passengers get on and get off on the station everyday!
Right on top of the railway station, there is large bus terminal called Busta Shinjuku, where you could get a bus for almost any part of Japan. So, if you are planning to get to Fuji, remember, this is where you can head to.
To the west of the station you will be craning your necks up to see the end of sky kissing tall buildings. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building and some of the top hotels chains of the world, like Keio Plaza, Hilton, Hyatt Regency (made famous by the movie Lost in Translation) are found here.
By the way, the twin towers of the Metropolitan Government building also have observation decks on its higher floors, which allow public viewing for free! So, I would recommend you don’t spend a fortune on the tickets for the observation deck of the Skytree, where travel agents love to take tourists to, instead head up to this building, for the exact same view of the city from high up, for free!
Starkly opposite to sophistication and officialdom on the west, lies the Kabukicho, the biggest and craziest red light area, to the east of the station.
With countless restaurants, bars, night clubs, gaming parlours and love hotels, this part of the city is temptation land. A word of caution too, the cover prices of these establishments are exorbitant, and it’s not difficult to enter here as a rich man and leave a pauper. But on the (very) bright side, you will not find crude and vulgar sights shaming your sensibilities here and so a stroll to explore and see this facet of the city would actually be a good idea.
Apart from this, there are umpteen number of super specialty restaurants around the area. A high rise shopping centre called Mylord has some three floors of restaurants above seven floors of shopping.
But, the place to experience would be Golden Gai. Golden Gai is a small part of Shinjuku.
Left alone in a corner, it has some six alleys or narrow gulleys, through which even a car cannot pass. It has a very old world charm and is actually an architectural wonder. Against the backdrop of tall sky scrapers these old wooden structures are a reflection of the forgotten eras of Japan before earthquakes, wars and later the monstrous urbanization changed the way the city looked forever.
Darkly lit, these gulleys of Golden Gai have a very special character. You will find more than 200 bars and restaurants, crammed up against each other. Very creative and artistic signboards showcase what the bar offers. With spaces so small you will barely get space to hold your drink in your hand without brushing shoulders with another.
Every bar caters to a different variety of customers. Some of these places only serve their regular guests or guests referred to by their regulars. But you can make out which restaurant will serve tourists. They generally have their signboards in English and display their menu outside.
Golden Gai is a prestigious hangout for a lot of Japanese celebrity and creative people, especially given its unique characteristics. If you are in Shinjuku, you must go to Golden Gai to experience this unique place.
Neon mania and electronic glitz
Shinjuku is also dotted with huge electronics shopping malls like the Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera buildings on either sides of the Shinjuku station. The gaming parlours and robot cafes and Karaoke parlours make sure there is no dearth of entertainment in this part of the city that comes alive at night, and how!
And of course, to calm the senses it has two of the biggest parks of Tokyo on either side of the station, the Shinjuku Gyoen and the Central Park which are always open.
Eccentricities of Crazy Tokyo
While the troika of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Tokyo will make sure that your days in Tokyo city are packed with Must- Sees and Must-Dos, it’s the eccentricities that this city is teeming with that will make this trip unforgettable.
The Japanese truly have a weird way of dealing with their boredom. They take specialty outings to a different level…
Robot Restaurant of Shinjuku
If you want to experience Tokyo at its craziest, the Robot Restaurant is where you head to.
Taking up prime realty space in the seedy alleys of Kabukicho, Tokyo’s famous red light district, the Robot Restaurant is this huge, colourful, gaudy out and out entertaining place. It is quite unlike a regular restaurant where you can order your meals spend time with your friends. This place sweeps you off your feet from the word GO.
The concept of the restaurant is built around its 90 minutes show, which runs three times a day. And might I add, it runs to packed houses, three times a day. So, remember to book your slot in advance.
Right from the entrance, mirrored walls and stairwells splashed with a riot of colours lead you up from one hall to another. While you wait for your show timings, a cute bar tender with her ‘pet’ robot will keep you entertained with free shots of the most potent Sake, which , if you volunteer, you have to gulp down at the count of three!
For your show, there are a flight of steps that take you around in a circle, and then down through narrow passages making you wonder if you are not actually entering a Mafia den.
Your little ‘journey’ transports you to a completely different world of make-believe, with scantily clad ushers, tin machines, loud music and a riot of colours. The Robots here are not quite robots with Artificial Intelligence, but they are these tin contraptions, which probably work on electricity. Some of them are actually humans dressed as robots.
The 90 minute extravaganza is a loud, over the top drama of evil versus good, where these huge good and bad ‘robots’ wage a war armed with transformers-style rides, laser fights and what not techno-drama. With huge cannons blazing and gun toting cartoon characters and nubile damsels, the show gets more and more glitzy and kitschy by the minute.
It is so difficult to describe the show in words, suffice to say, it is the wildest show on earth!! And love it or hate it, if you ever go to Tokyo, this is one show you just must go for.
Cat and other crazy cafés
There are these crazy themed cafes all over Tokyo, especially in areas like Shibuya, Takeshita Dori, Shinjuku, etc… One such café is the cat café. So what is a cat café? Well, cats have attained new heights of favour in Tokyo. They are commercially pampered like gods in these cat cafes. You will see at least a dozen spoilt brat cats of all makes and sizes, lounging, purring or just perched on their special cat friendly furniture. I went to one such cat café, and came back with a prayer, I want to be born a cat in Japan.
You need to ‘sanitise’ yourself before entering, take off your shoes, get into special cat slippers and pay through your nose to enter the café. Inside, there are these most beautiful Persian, Siamese and other fur balls of feline beauties demanding or rejecting your attention.
If you want to feed them, you can buy their feeds and have them eat out of your palms. Or you can just sit and pet them and cuddle them, if they let you. When I visited, they were celebrating one of the cats’ birthdays (or I guess, it must be a regular routine) and all us lowly mortals sang the birthday song while, the birthday gal purred her thank you note.
There was the birthday cake to be shared among all cats. And boy! Do they enjoy birthdays! You can take cake pieces and feed them and soon they are all over you.
Ahem! There is nothing on your plate in here. It is a cat café, remember?
And just like a cat café, there are owl cafes. And goat cafés. And maid cafes. What’s a maid café? Maid café s have waitresses dressed as maids and they serve you with a lot of personal attention as if they are at your beck and call. Mind you, there is nothing vulgar or hanky-panky about it, except the idea is not so pleasing to our sensibilities.
If cafés can be so crazy, can dining out be any less? Two of the craziest theme restaurants are the Alkatraz ER and Lockup.
No prizes for guessing, these are jail themed eateries. The Alcatraz ER, the oldest and scariest of themed restaurants, is based on a medical ward of a prison. Located in Shibuya, go there is you have the guts for horror. Because, don’t be surprised if you get fake guts served as an entrée. Blood splattered plates, cocktails served in beakers and aptly named Blood Transfusion cocktail will make you sick as never before. And while you are midway into eating, all lights will go off and sirens will start screaming. And before you realize, you have some ‘insane’ inmates who have broken the jail and are on the run. Some of them might make their way to you and poke you in your back, and get a few screams out of you.
Amazingly staged, such dramas and shows keep you ‘entertained’ while you grab a quick bite and scoot.
Lockup, on the other hand, will have you handcuffed the minute you enter and thrown into a cell with other inmates. The walls are scratched with jail graffiti to give you the real feel. You will be given your prison vessels and you bang your metal cup against the iron rods of your jail cell when you want to call your attendant.\
Designed for the very adventurous, go at your own comfort. We didn’t, of course.
Need for speed? Go Karting on the streets of Tokyo
You may have done Go Karting on race tracks, but can you imagine Go Karting on the busiest crossing of the world? That’s right, In Tokyo, you can get behind the wheels of a race car and zoom around Tokyo at a max speed of 60 km/hr! And bonus… you get to do it dressed in a costume! So Super Mario Go Karts are the most popular tourist rides in Tokyo. Select from a variety of Super Mario, Batman, Princesses, etc. fancy dresses, get behind the wheel, and step on that accelerator.
When we were there, we were so amazed to see a whole fleet of race cars zooming past us on the busiest roads of the city. Little did we know that they were on a ride. There are several companies offering Go Karting services along three routes in Tokyo. One of them actually takes you across the Shibuya crossing. With bystanders cheering you on, I bet this must be one ride, you can’t miss.
Pachinko Parlours and Karaoke Bars
Do you remember playing pinball? Vertical glass cabinets on tables with several bars randomly placed all over, and steel balls released and you are in charge of some levers that trigger the motion of the ball. The objective is to land as many balls in the hole. That’s Pachinko.
In this new age world of video and arcade games, we may have gotten over this simple game of fortune, but it has got the whole of Japan obsessed over it, especially in Tokyo. It is also a legal way to gamble in Japan. The more balls you land in the hole, the more cash you earn.
There are hundreds or thousands of Pachinko parlours all over the city. And salaried men head to it even in their lunch breaks. All neon and noisy, you will find rows upon rows of mostly men staring at their glitzy consoles hoping for the steel balls to land in the holes.
Karaoke is yet another thing that’s top entertainment and night life in Tokyo. After a hard days work, young and old alike head to these noisy, Karaoke bars, belting out their favourite numbers off a digital screen.
Shedding all stage fright, Karaoke parlours offer a crooning release to the larynx of wannabe stage performers.There are some Karaoke bars which offer special effects, a stage, special lighting and a songbook that would shame the encyclopedia.
Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinjuku are some of the places where you will find some of the best Karaoke parlours. If you are a group of friends you can also hire a private room for fixed number of hours and have your own private Karoke setup.
When you are sleeping, how much space do you actually use? One that is enough for you to turn over, can fit your body comfortably? And what if, you had whatever you need while you are waiting for sleep to arrive or if you wake up mid-night, at an arm’s reach? What else? A comfortable bad, an overhead lamp, your plugpoints to charge your devices, a shelf to keep your earrings or book or glasses?
So, in fact all we need is a 50 to 90 square feet area to help us to sleep through the night in comfort.
And that’s what a capsule hotel is! Like a hotel has rooms, this one has capsule pods of the size mentioned, just enough for your full length of body. Rows and rows of fibre or plastic made capsules provide a very cheap but very comfortable night stay options in a very expensive city. Isn’t that a blessing?
And these capsules have everything you need, in complete privacy. Some of them even have a radio or a TV. The washroom spaces are shared in the common area of the hotel and there are also lockers available for your belongings. Just take what you need for the night, and you are home!
So, if you are on a tight budget or are a solo traveler or looking for a hostel accommodation or a dormitory, A capsule hotel is all your prayers answered.