By day, Tokyo is arguably one of the least attractive cities in the world, a tangled, congested mass of concrete; ugly, unimaginative buildings; too many people; too many cars and not enough room to breathe.
Come dusk, however, and Tokyo comes into its own. The drabness fades and Tokyo blossoms in a profusion of giant neon lights, paper lanterns and millions of overworked Japanese hell-bent on having a good time.
Tokyo at night is unequivocally the craziest city in the world. A few other Asian cities such as Bangkok may offer more sex in more varied forms, but I know of no Western city that can come close to matching Tokyo in its night life, the pace of it and the extent of it.
sh Never Seems to Sleep
Tokyo is a city that just never gives up, nor does it ever seem to sleep. The streets of entertainment districts such as Shinjuku or Roppongi are as crowded at 3 a.m. as they are at 3 p.m. Many establishments stay open until the first subways start running after 5 a.m. Whether it’s jazz, reggae, gay bars, live sex shows, discos, mania or madness that you’re searching for, Tokyo has it all.
The problem is in finding out where all these places are. Tokyo is a maze of tiny back streets with no apparent order, and some of the most interesting places look like nothing from the outside. The problem is compounded by many establishments having signs only in Japanese, giving the reader of only English no indication of what may be going on inside.
One of the first things, therefore, is to pick up a copy of Tokyo Journal. Published monthly, it contains information about concerts, jazz and fusion happenings, movies and plays and gives specific recommendations on restaurants, bars, discos, and other establishments.
sh Favorite Places in Tokyo
But with thousands upon thousands of eating and drinking locales in Tokyo, the Journal is by no means complete, so I have compiled a list of favorite places in Tokyo. Whenever I have had guests in Tokyo, these are the places I take them, and by the time they leave they generally agree that Tokyo is indeed among the craziest cities in the world.
There is no center of night activity, but many night spots spread throughout the city, each with its own atmosphere, price range and clientele. Most famous are probably the centers of Ginza, Akasaka, Shinjuku and Roppongi.
For maps of these four areas, consult the Tokyo Journal or drop by the Tourist Information Center and pick up a copy of Tour Companion, which also tells of events taking place in the city.
Before you decide on a locale, walk around the entertainment district and absorb some of its atmosphere. The streets will be crowded, the neon lights overwhelming and you never know what you might discover on your own.
Generally speaking, Ginza is where most hostess bars are and where most Japanese businessmen go. This being a subjective article, I don’t have much to say about the Ginza except that if you’re not careful, you’re going to be scalped when it comes time to pay the bill. I hardly ever go to the Ginza at night (it’s a great shopping area during the day) except for an occasional movie or dinner.
Roppongi is where most of the young people, both foreign and Japanese, like to hang out. It’s where most of the jazz establishments, pubs and discos are. There’s even one huge building called Square Building containing nothing but discos.
Begin your evening in Roppongi by going to the Inakaya restaurant. There are two in this district, an east one (phone 408-5040) and a west one (phone 405-9866). Both are equally wonderful, with meals costing $30 per person.
sh Drama of Having a Meal
What I like about the Inakaya is the drama of it. You sit at a counter and in front of you are mountains of fresh vegetables, beef and seafood. In the middle of all the food sit two male cooks (for some reason cooks in Japan are always male) who can sit on pillows with their legs tucked neatly underneath them for inordinate amounts of time.
To order, you simply point to what you want, and then your waiter shouts it out and all the other waiters and cooks shout it out in unison, with the result that there is always excited yelling going on. The food, from asparagus to giant prawns and king crabs to fish and steak, is grilled in front of you and is handed to you on long wooden paddles.
After dinner you have a wide selection of entertainment to choose from. For jazz, I recommend Pit Inn or Ink Stick (consult Tokyo Journal to see what bands are being featured).
Another place is the Cavern Club (phone 405-5207), a bar that features Japanese bands playing exclusively Beatles music. Named after the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool where the Beatles got their start, the bar is a good example of how excellent the Japanese are at imitation. If you close your eyes, you might even be inclined to think you’re listening to the real thing.
As for discos, there are probably more than two dozen in Roppongi alone. Many are the cheapest way to spend an evening, because for a cover price that runs about $15 for men and $10 for women (to get more women in? Or in recognition of the fact that Japanese women earn considerably less than men?), you can eat and drink all you want.
sh View From the 40th Floor
To begin your evening in Akasaka, go to the Top of the Akasaka, a cocktail lounge on the 40th floor of the Akasaka Prince Hotel. You can watch the day fade into darkness as millions of lights and neon signs come on and stretch into the distance.
I like to eat at Moti (phone 582-3620), which serves what I consider some of the best Indian food in town. Tokyo does, after all, have a wide selection of international restaurants, from Chinese to Mexican to Korean to French and more. No reason to restrict yourself to Japanese food every night.
After dinner, check out Mugen (phone 584-4481). In contrast to the conservative decor of Roppongi, this dancing place goes in the opposite direction, featuring black walls and psychedelic paint galore. It offers live music to dance to, and all the bands are always black musicians brought from the United States. In operation for 17 years, Mugen has brought more than 100 black bands to Japan.
Shinjuku, especially the area known as Kabuki-cho, is undoubtedly the craziest part of Tokyo. Stretching east from Shinjuku Station are blocks upon blocks of strip joints, brothels formerly known as Turkish baths but now called Soap Lands, pornography shops, bars, restaurants and a lot of drunk Japanese men.
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My favorite bar is in Shinjuku. A tiny room in a basement on a back street, Birdland (phone 352-3692) features old jazz records, old clocks all over the walls, dried flowers everywhere, knickknacks, cats and stuffed sofas. It looks like some ancient woman’s living room.
The proprietors are a woman with a shaven head who looks like a Buddhist monk and a man with long hair and a beard. Open from 9 p.m., it’s a good place to relax and listen to jazz.
After midnight, the place to head for is 69 (phone 361-6358). It is also in a basement and can get more crowded than the subways during rush hours. Featuring reggae taped music, 69 is one of the more degenerate bars in Tokyo and is frequented by artists, rebels, dropouts, English teachers, drunks and lunatics. At any rate, there’s never a dull moment.
So that you don’t have to leave Tokyo feeling that there is nothing left of the traditional or the normal, round out your trip by spending your last night at a beer garden.
I don’t mean one of the many beer gardens on top of an office building; the plastic flowers and fake grass of those joints may not do much to reassure you that traditional Japan does exist.
Go to a beer garden in a real garden. There are several in Tokyo, but my favorite is the Hanesawa Beer Garden close to Ebisu Station (phone 400-2013). Complete with paper lanterns, real trees and a running fountain in a landscaped garden, you can enjoy Japanese snacks and large mugs of beer.
Your stay in Tokyo should expose you to some of the undercurrents of city life, so that when you leave, your head will be a jumble of everything from shouting waiters to Japanese Beatles to Filipino transvestites and beer gardens. Tokyo, after all, is a curious blend of East and West. If you leave seeing only hostess bars and Kabuki, you won’t have seen Tokyo at all.