Zebra stripes and the night
Play hopscotch in a crowd,
Endlessly till dawn.
According to Tripadvisor there are over 5,000 bars and restaurants in Shibuya. It’s an endless stimulation of lights, colors, and crowds, all swirling about at such rapid speeds. Lost in Translation shot several scenes with Shibuya Crossing as the backdrop, the films protagonists weaving in and out of oncoming Tokyoites. Visually it’s like New York’s Time Square, but in NYC locals know to avoid that area at all costs, lest you be lost in an ocean of Iron Man’s and Wonder Woman’s getting their pictures taken with Red Lobster and Olive Garden in the background. Here everyone has somewhere to be, and the crossing is just a means to get there.
Between light changes crowds pool on the sidewalk in almost unimaginable numbers. 60 seconds later when the lights turn green everyone scrambles sideways, straightways, and longways. There’s five pedestrian crosswalks that fill and empty within seconds, an endless ebb and flow.
Artemis sleeps here;
Mirrored ceilings above her,
Proclaims neon sign.
You know this emoji on your phone and how you thought it was a hospital? Well it’s not. It’s a love hotel, something you’ll see oodles of in Shinjuku. A love hotel is exactly what it sounds like: a place where lovers, or maybe a businessman and his prostitute, will drop in for an hour or two around mid-day, or late, as the bar is closing and the person next to you is looking better and better.
These hotels have two rates, one for “stay” and another for “rest”, allowing you to hop in and out for a discounted price. You can usually find these hotels in bulk, so walking down a single street you have quite the selection. You feelin’ an S&M hotel where your bed is inside of a cage? That’s totally doable. What about a fetish-y place where the rooms are modeled like a classroom with chalk boards and desks? You’re covered there too, just don’t forget to bring your school girl uniform. How about a room where the headboards of your bed are shaped like your favorite anime character so they can watch you as you go at it? A room with a built in merry-go-round? A room shaped like a subway station car, with images of Tokyo flying by outside the “windows”? This can all be arranged.
If you’re not in the mood for some kink you can always try out one of the dozens of arcades in the neighborhood. We must have spent 15+ bucks in 10 minutes, essentially throwing quarters at a 3D Jurassic Park machine which involved us bazooka-ing dinos from helicopters. While no booze was served in the arcade, smoking was permitted, which seemed odd until I realized we were surrounded by teens. Apparently high schoolers in Tokyo go to arcades on weekend nights like teenagers in my hometown flooded the Capitol City Mall.
On the stairs leading up to the fifth floor of the arcade was a sign declaring the next level “female only”. Highly intrigued, I ventured above to find a space dominated by photobooths, mirrored walls, and racks of costumes, each booth filled with young girls. Basically you take your best gal pals to these places, rent costumes, do your makeup and curl your hair, then get a strip of photos taken. You’ll share these photos with your besties only to inevitably rip them up later in moments of teenage angst. I saw these establishments in Kyoto as well, and though it made me feel a bit uncomfortable, I remembered that my grandmother took me to get a “glamour shot” taken when I was 12, and the photo came out making me look like a thirty year old hooker. So whatever, have your fun girls. No judgements here.
The Golden Gai we saved till our final days in Japan. A former black market in the Pre WWII days, the Gai is six narrow alleys filled with itty bitty bars, each bar holding only about 5-12 patrons. These bars occupy two floors as well, leading to over 200 bars jammed into the space of half a city block. Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, and Yukio Mishima have stumbled down these compact streets, yet it remains crazy divey and terribly intimidating for a foreigner to venture into.
Many of the bars don’t welcome tourists, in fact many only welcome regulars. As a tourist you can mostly trust that any bar advertising with an English sign outside its doors will allow you to take a seat without outwardly mocking you. In our evening at the Gai we popped into Albatross, decked with large chandeliers from it’s past days as a brothel, and took seats at the downstairs bar. We sucked down spicy gin and ginger drinks while the man next to us sucked down a half dozen of those long thin cigarettes which every Tokyoite seems to smoke, and as we left after round two, the ashtray in front of him was full.
The second bar was less of a success. I saw a sign advertising a “rock and soul” bar, an arrow pointing upwards to the second floor. Carl wasn’t sure if we’d be welcomed up there, so I braved the stairs alone, testing the waters to see if this place was tourist friendly. It had an English sign so it should be safe right? Wrong. The space being advertised fit about 6 people, all of whom were sitting on the floor drinking from a few bottles of liquor. As soon as they saw me it was game over. “Hello”, one person yelled towards me in a taunting tone, then another person called, “Hello”, then another joined in, “Hello Hello Hello”. “Looks a bit busy” I responded, and as I left down the stairs all I heard was “Hello Hello Hello Hello Hello” echoing down after me. “Nope,” I said to Carl.
Bon Jovi blasted from the tv at our final stop. We saw a wall lined with concert DVDs, and as we walked in we heard “Dead or Alive” welcoming us. On screen was Mr. Jovi himself, wearing a 3/4 unbuttoned blue silk shirt. The bartender behind the narrow bar had a silver tooth, silver shoulder length hair, and wore a New Orleans Saints jersey. I felt oddly comforted by all of this.
Drinking the Japanese beer equivalent of a Bud Light and sipping on the lowest shelf gin & tonics, I fell in love. The bartender chain smoked those same thin cigarettes I saw at Albatross, and as soon as the Bon Jovi concert ended he turned on a Kiss concert that had been filmed in Tokyo about a decade earlier. Carl and I became absorbed, watching Kiss try to make complicated sexual jokes to a crowd of people that on average spoke no English. “Is the stage shaped like a spider?” Carl wondered aloud, to which the bartender grinned a massive silver toothed grin and announced, “They call it The Spider”. If I lived in Tokyo I’d frequent this place, if only to watch Guns N’ Roses and Queen DVDs and hang out with the coolest bartender on the planet.
As I’d loved that nameless DVD filled bar I loved Tokyo. Each day was chock full from 8:00am-Midnight, and we still only brushed the city surface. We were never able to head to the electronic haven of Akihabara or overlook the skyline from the Skytree, catch a game in the mythic TokyoDome or see a sumo match up close. There’s always reason to go back of course, but with entire continents I have yet to set foot on, it may be a while.