Shinjuku After Dark: A Wealth of Night Life
Shinjuku is a different place after dark. The neon signs are turned on, and the staid business district transforms into a gaudy collection of bars and restaurants. In West Shinjuku, the skyscraper district remains conservative. The sole exception is Yodobashi Camera, lit up with a dazzling light display befitting an electronic chain store.
For the full Shinjuku experience, follow the lights east to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s largest red-light district. Here you’ll find Golden Gai, a collection of wooden bars and restaurants that haven’t changed since the 1950s. Close by is Omoide Yokocho, one of the best places to go for yakitori in Tokyo. Shinjuku ni-chome is the place to go for LGBT nightlife, while the Okubo district offers Korean restaurants, shopping and the chance to hear K-pop groups perform.
Kagurazaka is one of Tokyo’s few remaining geisha districts. Shinjuku truly comes alive at night, with a wide range of dining and entertainment options. Just be warned, one night is not enough to fully explore Shinjuku’s nighttime opportunities.
For things to do in Shinjuku in the Day go here: Shinjuku in the Daytime
- 1 Shinjuku After Dark: A Wealth of Night Life
- 2 Kabuki-cho: Tokyo’s Boisterous Red-Light District
- 3 Tokyo Robot Restaurant
- 4 The Lock Up
- 5 Golden Gai: See it Before it Disappears
- 6 Shinjuku Ni-Chome: Home to Tokyo’s LGBT Scene
- 7 Shin-Okubo: Tokyo’s Korea Town
- 8 Kagurazaka: Tokyo’s Geisha District
- 9 Is It Worth Visiting?
- 10 Insider’s Tips
- 11 Top Destinations in Tokyo
- 12 Top Attractions in Tokyo
Kabuki-cho: Tokyo’s Boisterous Red-Light District
Kabuki-cho is a raucous collection of over 3,000 bars, cabarets, nightclubs, love hotels and karaoke parlors, all squeezed into a relatively small space around Yasukuni-dori (Yasukuni avenue).
Competition for attention is fierce, giving rise to the abundance of neon signs. It’s also common for employees of host and hostess bars to stand out on the street, inviting potential customers to come inside. As a result, Kabuki-cho is noisy, crowded, and always entertaining.
The district’s seedy past led to its reputation as Tokyo’s red-light district, with Tokyo’s yakuza playing a prominent part in the history of the district. Today, prostitution is illegal, and there is an effort to stamp out the last of the yakuza influence in the area.
A number of strip clubs and seedy hostess bars remain but are easily avoided. Kabuki-cho is safe for tourists, but don’t let your guard down. Stay alert to your surroundings, and if you feel uncomfortable, leave.
Kabuki-cho’s main attractions are its bright lights and people. Enjoy wandering around, taking in Kabuki-cho’s unique atmosphere.
The name Kabuki-cho comes from plans to build a kabuki theater in the district. The theater was never built, but the name stuck. There are numerous cabaret and dinner shows still operating in Kabuki-cho, but the best show is simply people watching.
If you don’t feel confident navigating Kabuki-cho on your own, guided tours of Kabuki-cho are available. Ask about them at the Tokyo Tourist Information Center Shinjuku, located on the third floor of the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal.
About Kabuki-cho itself, the district’s main attractions are its hole-in-the-wall bars. This is where the sharp-suited salarymen who work in the surrounding skyscrapers kick back after a long day.
Many of the bars are small, with the owner greeting regulars by name from behind the bar. Be prepared to pay cash as most don’t accept credit cards. Enquire about the cover charge before you sit down. Otherwise, you might be in for an expensive surprise!
Host and hostess bars, in particular, are pricey, as conversation with the staff members is included in the bill.
Unfortunately, with the rise of tourism in Shinjuku more bars have been taking advantage of tourists. Asking about prices before entering a bar will prevent most scams.
To help foreign tourists enjoy Kabuki-cho without any unpleasant surprises, Shinjuku’s hotel concierges have put together a register of reputable businesses. If staying in Shinjuku, ask your hotel for a recommendation. Otherwise, ask at either of Shinjuku’s Tourist Information Centers.
Tokyo Robot Restaurant
Tokyo Robot Restaurant is one of Kabuki-cho’s dinner show highlights. The dinner is largely forgettable. You get to choose one of three varieties of bento (Japanese style lunch box), with a bottle of water. Beer is also available for purchase for 500 yen a glass.
The show more than makes up for it. It is an hour and a half of robots, dancing girls, and girls piloting robots. Prepare for sensory overload.
This modern variation of Kabuki-cho’s cabaret performances provides non-stop light, energy and music.
The Tokyo Robot Restaurant is one of those “only in Japan” experiences. Tickets must be reserved in advance with a credit card, or by booking online (discounts available).
Guests are requested to come to the restaurant 30 minutes before the show starts. There is an interval partway through during which you may be able to take photos with the performers.
4:00pm -11:00pm (Shows starting at 5:00pm/7:00pm/9:00pm). There is an additional show starting at 3:10pm on some weekends.
Entrance Fee: 8000 yen, meal fee: 1000-1500 yen
For More Information
The Lock Up
Getting cuffed and thrown in a cell usually spells the end of an evening out. At Shinjuku’s Lock Up, a themed restaurant that combines horror and prison elements, it’s just the start.
As soon as you arrive at the Lock Up, staff promptly arrest one member of your group and lead you to your cell. The cells are American or Japanese style.
Likewise, the food is a mix of Japanese and Western, all with a horror theme. Enjoy hamburger patties shaped into skulls and drinks served in beakers or ominous syringes.
A show is included, but to avoid spoiling the surprise, let’s just say the Lock Up is not for the faint-hearted.
Reservations are essential. If you’re unsuccessful at getting a table at the Shinjuku branch, there are other Lock Ups in Shibuya and Omiya.
Monday-Thursday, Sunday, and National Holidays: 5:00pm -12:00am (Last order at 11:30pm for food and 11:45pm for drinks)
Friday & Saturday and day before National Holidays: 5:00pm – 4:00am (Last order is 3:30am for food, and 3:45am for drinks).
Dinner for two with one drink and one menu item comes to about 4500 yen.
For More Information
The Lockup Website (Japanese only)
Golden Gai: See it Before it Disappears
Golden Gai is a pocket of pre-war Tokyo that has resisted development efforts, fires and earthquakes. The 200 odd buildings that comprise Golden Gai are constructed out of wood.
Most have a bar on the ground floor, and apartment above. The buildings are notable for their narrowness, with most bars only able to seat 6-7 guests at once.
In addition to being one of the few places in Tokyo where the pre-war architectural styles remain, Golden Gai is known for the eclectic nature of its bars.
The area is popular with artists and musicians, and the bars reflect the interests of their clientele. Most bars have a theme centering around music such as jazz or R&B, while others concentrate on a genre of film, or type of hobby. Be aware that some bars don’t open until 21:00-22:00.
Given their small size, drinking at a Golden Gai bar is an intimate occasion. Some have entrance requirements, such as being invited by a regular. Many are not open to new or casual customers. Those that are signal their availability to tourists with menus and signs in English.
Despite their shady appearance, Golden Gai bars foster an exclusive atmosphere and are priced accordingly. In my opinion, the cost is worth it to experience a side of Tokyo that is quickly disappearing.
The neighborhood surrounding Golden Gai was developed during the 1980s when unscrupulous yakuza members set fire to surrounding buildings so they could be bought by developers.
Golden Gai escaped thanks to the efforts of its loyal patrons who patrolled the area to prevent fires. However, there are rumors that Golden Gai will be upgraded ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Whether the rumors are true or not, Golden Gai remains vulnerable to fire. In 2016, four buildings were destroyed in a blaze. My advice: see it now while you still can.
Omoide Yokocho: Yakitori with Ambience.
Omoide Yokocho (nostalgia alley) is also known as piss alley, but don’t let the name put you off! Described as Golden Gai for food, Omoide Yokocho is a collection of narrow alleyways crammed with tiny yakitori den.
Yakitori are skewers of meat, usually chicken, grilled before the customer. As yakitori is traditionally a drinking food, there is plenty of liquid refreshment to be had here. Omoide Yokocho offers a glimpse of Tokyo’s nightlife pre-modernization.
Like Golden Gai, Omoide Yokocho is not for the claustrophobic. The many yakitoriden have limited seating space, and this, combined with the smoky atmosphere, makes for a unique dining experience that is not to everyone’s tastes. Again, some bars reserve their seats for regular customers only. If you’re turned away, try the next place.
To help foreign tourists navigate the warren of tiny alleys that is Omoide Yokocho, the district has put together a website with a guide to the yakitori dens.
Taro, restaurant 60 on the map, even provides English menus (shinjuku-omoide.com/). If you’re a big group, or you find the size of Omoide Yokocho’s restaurants too claustrophobic, try Don-Don yakiniku in Kabukicho. Here you can grill your choice of meats yourself on a bot filled with coals. There’s an English menu and photos of the food on offer.
Shinjuku Ni-Chome: Home to Tokyo’s LGBT Scene
Shinjuku Ni-Chome, known to locals as “Ni-Chome” or simply “Ni-cho,” has long been synonymous with Tokyo’s LGBT nightlife. It has the world’s highest concentration of gay bars.
Although dancing is banned in most clubs and the rise of property values has decreased the number of establishments, Ni-chome is still home to a thriving LGBT scene.
Because of the small size of the bars, many cater for a very specific audience. Campy, for example, is run by a celebrity cross-dresser and staffed by drag queens (www.campy.jp/).
Many bars restrict entry according to the clientele they’re trying to attract. It’s not uncommon for straight or foreign visitors to be charged a higher cover charge, for example. Clubs with a reputation for welcoming foreign guests include Advocates, ArtyFarty, Dragon, GB and Rehab.
Arty Farty gets a particularly big crowd at the weekends, when female customers must bring a gay friend to enter the club (www.arty-farty.net/). Ni-chome is also home to Tokyo’s Pride Parade, Rainbow Festival and the Tokyo International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. There are also LGBT bookstores, advocacy, and support groups.
Shin-Okubo: Tokyo’s Korea Town
Around 350 Korean restaurants, supermarkets and shops are packed into the area surrounding Shinjuku’s Shin-Okubo station.
If you’re a fan of spicy food and lively nightlife, be sure to visit. Highlights include delicious street food and authentic Korean style BBQ.
While you can find a good meal at any of the restaurants, BBQ house Tomchang Shin-Okubo Bekkan is a regular crowd-pleaser.
Recently, halal groceries and restaurants are starting to appear in a Shin-okubo side street.
If you love Korean pop-music, you must visit Shin-Okubo. There are karaoke bars specializing in k-pop, numerous stores selling Korean band merchandize and live performances by genuine k-pop groups.
Kagurazaka: Tokyo’s Geisha District
During the Edo-period, Kagurazaka was renowned for its geisha houses. Today, it is almost as well known for its expatriate French population and traditional Japanese ambience.
During the day, Kagurazaka makes for a pleasant stroll, with cafes, boutiques, and stores selling traditional Japanese crafts: ceramics, washi paper, kimono and much, much more. At night, the district comes into its own, offering a dazzling array of dining opportunities.
You’ll find top French and Italian restaurants here, along with kaiseki restaurants, some of which are frequented by Kagurazaka’s remaining geisha.
If you’re interested in dining with a geisha, a private dinner with a geisha is available at Maison de Tsuyuki for 60,000 yen.
If you’re interested in geisha performances, but don’t have the budget for a private dinner, cross your fingers that your visit aligns with either Kagurazaka Awa Odori, the fourth Friday and Saturday in July, or the Kagurazaka Street Stage Oedo Tour, held mid-November. Both events allow you to see traditional Japanese dance and music demonstrated by a host of master performers.
Is It Worth Visiting?
Absolutely. Even if drinking and bars aren’t your thing, Kabuki-cho’s ambiance is a part of Tokyo that has to be experienced.
With the variety of nightlife on offer, there’s bound to be something that suits you. Whether you’re sipping a coffee in a quiet bar, watching the street traffic go by or outside, exploring Golden Gai’s twists and turns, you’re guaranteed a night to remember.
Don’t forget that Tokyo’s trains stop running from between 1:00am – 5:0am. To avoid a hefty taxi bill, allow yourself plenty of time to make the last train, or stay nearby.
If you get caught out, consider crashing at a love hotel. If you can stomach the garish decorations and questionable decor, love hotels are surprisingly clean and comfortable. Rates are reduced for overnight stays from 11:00pm onwards.