Friday, May 20, 2016

Roaming Around Japan: Shinjuku

Of course the first place I visited on my first trip to Japan was Tokyo. It’s impossible to believe that any tourist that has been to Japan hasn’t been there. When I was planning my first trip I was trying to figure out where to stay. I wanted somewhere central to all the places I was going to. I eventually decided on Shinjuku as it ticked a lot of boxes including lots of transport and dining options. This turned out to be a great decision. I ended up really loving Shinjuku. While it is a business district, there’s tons of shopping and restaurants in the area. I also decided to I wanted at least a microwave in my hotel room, so I ended up choosing Hundred Stay in Hyakunin-cho (Hyaku is hundred in Japanese, hence the reason why the hotel is called Hundred Stay).  This was a pretty good idea in retrospect as the hotel is really close to Okubo station (on the Chuo-Sobu line) and not far from Shin-Okubo station (on the Yamanote line). Both these lines can take you pretty much anywhere in the city. And Okubo station is only two stops south of Nakano as well.

In the end the hotel became increasingly too expensive. It wasn’t really value for money by my third trip. However there are quite a number of Airbnb options in the area. The area around both stations is colloquially known as Korea town (specifically around Shin-Okubo station). There’s plenty of Korean restaurants and the latest K-Pop blaring out of the shops. It’s a surprisingly racially diverse area when compared to the rest of Japan with Mandarin, Thai, Hindi and other languages being heard on the street. There are a ton of restaurants in the area including Indian, Italian and lots of other options. Plus all the major chain family restaurants, lots of fast food restaurants (if you’re into that stuff), convenience stores galore and bars and pubs everywhere. You’re not going to starve. As a result the area is pretty popular, so be warned, the sidewalks can be really crowed during the peak hours around the two stations. So crowded in fact it’s really hard to move around.

A little east of Shin-Okubo station is a branch of the discount chain Don Quijote (or Donki as the locals have nicknamed it). It’s an amazing store with tons of crap you never thought you needed, everything from airguns to weird novelties to groceries. Last time I was there I grabbed a beanie for my trip out to Sendai in very late November. Across the road further south is Kabukicho. This is the neon filled red light district of Shinjuku. It’s utterly bizarre place at times. Spruikers will come up and harass you (“Japanese girl? Sex?”), however once you say no, they won’t bother you anymore which shocked me. I thought I was going be harassed for ages. The risks of going into one of the many bars in the area are reasonably high, especially if the establishment advertises it accepts credits cards. Essentially this is a trap for tourists. There have been a number of cases where patrons have had their drinks spiked by the owners and had their credit cards cleaned out. You can also be hit with absurd charges even if they don’t drug you. Proceed with extreme caution if you do go to these places.

Even if you’re not interested in these places or sex tourism (which has a lot of risks anyway), it is quite an interesting place to walk through and for the most part is reasonably safe. What got me is the amazing amount of Host Bars aimed at women. A couple of the buildings I went past seem to have nothing but floors and floors filled with Host Bars with pictures of “hot looking” but quite effeminate men at their entrances. The two other main attractions in this area are the utterly insane Robot Restaurant and the Shinjuku Toho Building which contains Hotel Gracery Shinjuku and Toho Cinemas as well as a full sized Godzilla head coming out of the building. I’ll be looking at these two places in future posts.

A little further east of Kabukicho is Golden Gai which is an amazing alleyway of small bars (around a couple hundred). Most have regular customers and may get a bit narky if you try to sit down. However a few cater to tourists have menus in English. Getting into the main part of the city (in and around the massive Shinjuku station), the shopping choices are pretty amazing. First is branches of Japan’s major department stores; Isetan, Takashimaya (which also hosts a branch of Tokyu Hands and another branch of Books Kinokuniya, I’ve already talked about the head office and annex in Shinjuku here), Odakyu, Keio, Lumine (including Lumine Est which used to be called My City) and Mylord. Admittedly these places are expensive, the basement floors, known as depachika, have an amazing array of food and even some “omiyage” (souvenirs). The cakes are bloody amazing which you can buy by the slice. Some of these department stores have viewing platforms on their roofs which also have playground equipment for kids.

Japan’s main electronics store chains are also dotted around the station including Yodobashi Camera, Bic Camera (which also includes a branch of Uniqlo inside) and Yamada Denki. I have previously written about Yodobashi and Bic Camera here. Personally I think the best branches for this chain in Tokyo are Akihabara for Yodobashi Camera and Ikebukuro for Bic Camera, but the Shinjuku branches do have a wide selection of merchandise. There is a number of record stores (both chains and independents) dotted throughout Shinjuku. I have previously written about them here. As for anime shops, it’s pretty thin on the ground. There is a good Animate branch near the Forrest Annex of Books Kinokuniya. There’s also a branch of Gamers, but it’s really out of the way and a branch of the doujin shop Comic Zin. Lammtarra (noisiest video shop on the planet) also has a branch not far from the station. A number of Book Off shops are situated all around Shinjuku, several of them within walking distance of the station. There a number of record shops around the station and in Kitashinjuku. I’ve previously written about them here.

Shinjuku station itself is practically a labyrinth and deserves it infamous reputation. However if you know which line you’re going to be travelling on and the platform number (very helpful if you’re on a Japan Rail line) then it’s reasonably easily to navigate. Exiting from the station is another kettle of fish altogether…

West and south east of the station are a number of mostly free (or near free) underappreciated tourist spots. First up is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) Offices to the west. Now you may want to go to Tokyo Tower or Skytree, but look, the lines are long, it’s expensive and also pretty frustrating. Even worse Tokyo Tower has been recently refurbished and lost its kitsch flavour.  The TMG office on the other hand is free, no long lines and on a clear day (try to go the day after it rains) you can clearly see Mount Fuji. I think the view is just as good as the one you see from Tokyo Tower. The observation deck of the TMG offices opens at 9:30am to the public, security staff check any bags you might have and you’re ushered to the escalator to go to floor where the observatory is. Right outside the TMG offices is Shinjuku Central Park. I read in my Lonely Planet guide that it was worth the visit. When I got there I saw clothes hanging up and assumed it was some sort of art project as I had seen something similar in another park. However as I ventured in further I realised a large section of the park was a tent city of homeless people. There must have been about 60 or so living there. While Japan is sort of portrayed as some sort of technological wonderland (which it isn’t really) there is a lot of poverty there. Regardless, the park is still quite beautiful. It also has a nice water fountain towards the TMG office end and a medium sized Shinto shrine at the other end.

South east of Shinjuku station is a far better public park called Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It will cost you ¥200 yen to enter, but it’s more than worth it. There’s just over 58 hectares of gardens. It blends in three types of gardens; Japanese, British and French, rather seamlessly. There is also a greenhouse, however I didn’t have time to go through it. Even in early spring when I went it’s still a fantastic place to visit. Also because of the fee to get into the gardens, it can be a very quiet place. It’s great place to get away from the hustle and bustle that is Tokyo.

I admit that Shinjuku is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. It can be horribly busy and crowded. However I love it. There is a lot to do and see here, it’s really central to just about everything in Tokyo. The only real issue I have with the place is that labyrinth of a station. Though if you stay in Okubo you can pretty much avoid the station by using Okubo and Shin-Okubo stations. If you’re using the shinkansen for day trips you’ll have to go to Ueno or Tokyo station which can be a bit of a pain, but I can live with that. You can’t have everything. Next time I’ll be having a look at the Evangelion Shinkansen.

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