At first glance, Shinjuku the biggest district of Tokyo matched perfectly with the image I had from this city where more than 13 millions of people live: a forest of skyscrapers, wide boulevards with bright billboards… But after exploring it a little bit deeper, I realised that it was not just about neon lights, busy streets and modernity. The atmosphere is radically different between the crowded avenues and the tiny lanes of Golden Gai, between the park of Gyoen and the strip clubs of Kabukicho, between day and night. Come explore the many faces of Shinjuku with me, the most contrasted area of Tokyo!
This article is part of a series of articles about Tokyo. Here are the other ones:
The main access to the district of Shinjuku is its train station, but be careful if you’re agoraphobic: it has been officially awarded “busiest station in the world” by Guinness World Records in 2018! It’s a real maze: there are more than 200 different exits, and 3.6 millions of people in average transit here every day! I decided to stop at the previous station and walk the last part of the journey to avoid the crowds. I didn’t want to be stuck as in the video below…
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
My first destination when I reached Shinjuku was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, in other words the Town Hall. It is as disproportionate as the city itself is gigantic: its twin towers culminate at 243m, higher than every other skyscraper of the district, and more than 20,000 people work there! My goal was to climb (with the lift!) to the free observatory on the 45th floor of the South tower, which provides a breathtaking view over the city. Among other things, you can see the Park Hyatt Hotel to the south (the three towers stuck to each other) where the movie Lost In Translation was filmed, and if you’re lucky with the weather, the silhouette of Mount Fuji to the west… Unfortunately the sky wasn’t clear enough when I was there!
There are actually two observatories: the one on the South tower closes at 6pm, but I came back at night to climb to the one on the North tower, open until 11:30pm. The entrance was also free, but most of the space was occupied by an expensive restaurant and only a few windows remained accessible to the public. Not very convenient for photographers… But the sight of Tokyo illuminated at my feet was still gorgeous and the building itself was also worth a look at night time.
After coming back down from the observatory, at night time, I headed towards the suburb of Kabukicho (read below) via the Yasukuni-dori avenue. I read somewhere that it was one the most photographied streets of Tokyo: it was a real profusion of blinding lights and huge billboards, even brighter than Times Square in New York. Very impressive!
I went twice to the suburb of Kabukicho, in the middle of Shinjuku. The first time was during the day and it didn’t seem so special, apart from some weird buildings (King Kong on a wall?): restaurants, shops, gaming rooms, just as in many other suburbs of Tokyo. But wait until the sun goes down…
It’s only during night time that the real personality of Kabukicho (also known as the “Sleepless Town”) becomes visible: one of the biggest entertainment areas in the world with countless bars, cinemas and night clubs… but also a giant red-light district with strip clubs and love hotels everywhere! As a guy walking there on my own quite late in the evening, I stopped counting how many times I got asked if I wanted some “special attention” for the night! But nobody ever insisted when I politely refused and it never felt insecure, probably quite different to what it would be in other cities around the world.
On the south-east edge of Kabukicho, the 5 or 6 tiny lanes of Golden Gai couldn’t be more different to the bright neon lights and modern buildings of Yasukuni-dori avenue just up the road. This place is so unique and outside of time that it was hard for me to remember that I was still in Tokyo! Once again, the atmosphere is radically different between day and night. During the day, the lanes were empty…
…but when I came back later after dusk, I struggled to make my way through the crowds of people! Even harder: trying to find a seat in one of the dozens of Lilliputian bars where not more than 5 or 6 people, bartender included, can stay at the same time. Actually, some of them only let regular customers come in.
I discovered this Shinto shrine by accident, after exploring the lanes of Golden Gai. Its presence in the middle of Shinjuku seemed almost anachronic, a real oasis of peace and spirituality compared to the electric atmosphere of Kabukicho. It is dedicated to the god Inari and is especially popular with businessmen praying for success.
Shinjuku Gyoen Park
The large park (58 hectares) of Gyoen to the east of Shinjuku is one of the green lungs of Tokyo. It’s impossible to miss this huge area from the observatory of the Metropolitan Government Building! It’s a very popular place for Tokyoites (I had to wait half an hour at the entrance before finally being able to get in, picture below), but it is so vast that it’s always possible to find some peaceful areas and forget about the agitation of the city nearby.
I particularly enjoyed walking there. It was right in the middle of the Sakura season, when the cherry blossoms are blooming (which also explained the crowds), and the park was absolutely stunning. Without a doubt one of the best places in Tokyo to admire these stunning pink and white flowers! I also liked the great diversity of visitors: tourists with cameras, families in an afternoon stroll, women wearing the traditional kimono… All different kind of people which in my opinion made it a perfect metaphor of Shinjuku, the most contrasted district of the city.