Three squat and unshaven men in khaki coats walked towards us, flanked by policemen. Mumbling to each other, they paid us little mind as they passed.
“Yakuza”, one of my companions said.
They must have been low-level thugs, far below the slick, besuited rogues one imagines from cinema and video games. Kazuma Kiryuu, these guys were not. Then again, this wasn’t ‘Kamurocho’, the fictional neighbourhood Kiryu runs riot around in the Yakuza (Ryū ga Gotoku /龍が如く) games. This was Kabukicho. The real deal. Tokyo’s ‘red light district’ and home to hostess bars, nightclubs, and love hotels. Some people still refer to it as the ‘most dangerous’ part of Tokyo, but given the concerted government clean up, and Japan’s relatively low crime rate, that’s akin to me saying my rooster is my ‘most dangerous’ chicken.
Kabukicho’s reputation proceeds it. It is still the adult entertainment hub in the city, where anonymous salarymen can blow off steam after work, or blow their load in a love hotel, before dashing to Shinjuku Station. At the turn of millenium, foreign tourists were rare in the area. As Jake Adelstein notes in his memoir Tokyo Vice:
[…] in 1999 nothing beat Kabukicho for pure sleaze. Drugs, prostitution, sexual slavery, rip-off bars, dating clubs, massage parlors, S-and-M parlors, pornography shops and porn producers, high-dollar hostess clubs, low-dollar blowjob stations, more than a hundred different yakuza factions, the Chinese mafia, gay prostitute bars, sex clubs.”
Nowadays, it attracts many tourists, and mothers can be seen pushing children in prams past illuminated signs advertising girls and a good time. It’s home to novelties like a robot restaurant and a giant Godzilla atop a hotel, things you’d expect to see in a theme park rather than the ‘domain of gangsters’. This is in part to many government bodies cleaning up its image, such as the Kabukichō Renaissance Organisation, and the succinctly named Shinjuku Kabukicho Host Club Anti-Organized Crime Gang Association. It has lead to clubs and bars being separated from their Yakuza overlords. There is also a more noticeable police presence than in other areas of the city, which didn’t go unnoticed.
And there is still shadyness, of course. Violent crime might be low in Japan, but the felony of choice is extortion. In Kabukicho, it was, and is, cold and calculated, but with a smiling mask of friendliness. Bars would lure customers in with the promise of cheap drinks only to charged substantial hidden fees, in a practice known as ‘bottakuri’. It happens less these days, and since we had no intention of going to any bars or hostess clubs, didn’t concern me at all.
Walking through Kabukicho, it felt like any other touristy area of the city. Huge glass towers rose from the ground with neon signs nailed to every facade so bright they might scar your retinas. The cacophony of dings and pings and chirpy Japanese pop music cascaded out of pachinko parlours and bars whenever the doors opened. The booming voice of King Bradley from Fullmetal Alchemist boomed over the speakers, advertising something or other. Touts waved and shout over the dull roar of tourist babble from outside their pubs and restaurants, and were largely ignored by passers by. Others held up boards with pictures of scantily-clad women pasted on them. A group of foreign tourists holding beer cans called to each other with unrestrained jocularity. A little further along, a man in a shabby brown parka gingerly stumbled past us, the sharp stench of alcohol under his breath.
Our original plan had been to eat at a vegetarian restaurant on the outskirts of Shinjuku, but when we arrived, it was full of foreign tourists. I had already partaken in eating some fish already on the trip, due to necessity – touring around sight-seeing for 6 hours without eating couldn’t be healthy – so I suggested we get sushi instead.
“You sure you don’t want to wait?”, I was asked.
“I can eat veggie food surrounded by white people any day of the year”, I joked.
As we strolled back to Kabukicho, a police car raced past us and two policemen dashed out the door as soon as it had come to a screeching halt. A few seconds later, another policeman, this time on foot, bolted out from an alley and pursued his colleague. This raised an eyebrow.
Turning the corner, we could hear raised voices and a struggle. The man in the shabby brown coat was flailing his arms wildly as half a dozen policemen attempted to restrain him; another three formed a perimeter, hands outstretched, urging the man to calm down. The comical fracas almost descended into a dogpile, as the drunkard nearly tripped backward on top of a pair of policemen, who continued to shout in his face that he should calm down. I couldn’t help but laugh. This must have been the highlight of their day. Did police in Japan have so little to do that it takes a legion of officers to restrain one jelly-legged drunk? It seemed like overkill.
After we had eaten sushi, we went to an arcade to kill time before heading to the bus terminal. The four of us played a random game, which involved many mini-games with much button mashing and as a shrill, teenage anime girl shouting in the background. By the end, I was quite tired, and didn’t even care I’d lost. (I barely understood what was going on anyway.)
We bid our companions goodbye and collapsed onto the benches at Shinjuku Bus Station, exhausted from a day of adventuring, and at this point, looking forward to sleeping on the night bus to Kyoto as much visiting Kyoto itself.