Kabukicho is the red-light district of Tokyo, where you can “buy” girls on an iPad, watch robots perform or spend the night in a love hotel, so embrace the seediness and head on in …
Whether you’re keen to try out the dodgier side of nightlife that Tokyo has to offer or just want to explore the streets, there are plenty of things to do in Kabukicho. The entertainment district is filled with bright lights, bars, restaurants and pachinko parlors as well as touts and hustlers—so you do need to keep your wits about you. This is a great place to enjoy the younger scene in Tokyo, and has something to suit everyone, as well as being home to some of the most famous spots in the city. Any place that has Godzilla as an ambassador has to be worth checking out.
Mini-warning: The general rule is: if someone is outside trying to get you in–don’t go. And if they name a price, triple it (at least). Charges appear from no where, doors are blocked off and your wallet will be considerably lighter whether you like it or not—so stick to regular bars unless you are serious and know what to expect. Male tourists are prime targets, so keep walking and enjoy a night in the liveliest part of Tokyo!
See the Robot Restaurant in all its glory
No doubt you will have heard of the in/famous Robot Restaurant, which is no restaurant but definitely has plenty of robots—usually ridden by girls in provocative outfits with very loud music. This pretty much encapsulates the area: it is an offence to your senses but a lot of fun, although it comes with a fairly hefty price tag. Tickets are ¥8,000 face value, but you can get them for under ¥5,800 by booking online. Designed specifically to fill this tourist desire for neon, modern and weird Japan—this is not the place for snobs. Take it for what it is, and enjoy it.
Grab a drink at Golden Gai
One the most popular drinking spots in Kabukicho, the only fees you have to worry about here are the seating ones (which range from 0 to ¥1,000) so you can rest easy. There are around 300 places to choose from packed into these alleys, so you can enjoy the wandering as much as your drinks! The tiny bars usually only seat single digits, so big groups may have to split up.
Some favorites include Albatross and Hair of the Dog, the latter of which is a rock bar with no seating charge that plays constant concert DVDs at request. The bars all have their own style and atmosphere, making a bar crawl a way more interesting prospect than your usual experience!
Seating charges are clearly marked on doors (along with some that have signs saying Japanese only—which is more about keeping spots for regulars than rudeness) and you can peek in to see if it tickles your fancy!
Pro tip: You can enlist the help of a local guide to show you the best drinking spots.
Get running from Godzilla
The official local ambassador, the giant Godzilla is now a permanent feature and on occasion will light up and roar, which never ceases to be entertaining. He can be spotted from afar and makes a great meeting place (way cooler than Hachiko) as he sits right in the middle of Kabukicho.
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He is actually part of Gracery Hotel and you can book rooms with a view of his face, or take a tour up to the roof to see him close up!
The Toho Cinema (same building as the hotel) is also a great place to see movies either dubbed or subtitled as they have a great selection—perfect for a rainy day.
See 800 years of history at the Samurai Museum
Pretty much the only family-friendly option for the area, the Samurai Museum has an impressive display of costumes, swords and all things samurai to enjoy, spanning 800 years of history. The museum is relatively small, but staff are knowledgeable and always willing to answer questions from visitors in English. They have demonstrations by trained actors and you can try on different costumes too. Guided tours are available and a good option, so you can have in-depth explanations to all the sections. Tickets are ¥1,800 for adults and ¥800 for children, so it’s a bit steep, but read more here and you may just find yourself convinced!
Get lost in “Piss Alley” (aka Omoide Yokocho)
Known as Piss Alley, or Memory Lane for the polite version, this is the grimier, darker and more food-orientated version of Golden Gai. (Think of it as the drop-out, always drunk cousin, you know you’ll have fun, but you don’t know where you’ll end up). Squeeze in among the salarymen and point at whichever tickles you fancy, ask for “nama-biiru” (draft beer) and you’re off.
The stalls all have a variety of unidentifiable meat on a skewer (and if you can identify, maybe don’t dwell on it). For plenty of beer, plenty of meat, a risk of food poisoning, new friends and a bit of an adventure, Piss Alley is perfect. Learn more about Omoide Yokocho here.
Liven up your night at Lockup
If you want eyeballs in your drinks and brains for dinner, then Lockup is a great theme restaurant in Shinjuku to start your night of presumed weirdness. The theme is relentless, from the second you step into the hallways with sirens and alarms to the prison-cell seating to the zombies/monsters serving your food. Enjoy your dinner but keep your wits about you, mutilated horrors will storm in to terrify you. And if you anyone orders a birthday cake be prepared for ear-damaging screams when it is delivered. Prices aren’t much higher than a regular izakaya and everything is presented pretty creatively, be it in a test tube or a skull! Have a look at the website for more details.
Try your luck at a pachinko parlor
As close as Japan gets to gambling (legally), pachinko is a very popular pastime with more parlors than you can shake a stick at in this dodgy district. Now, if you hope to understand this game, good luck. The screaming racket that emanates from these glowing halls every time a door opens is genuinely quite horrifying—but you can give it a go.
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Insert your money into the machine and wait for the happy crashing of tiny silver balls, then begin—you might win more, you might not. Who knows. It’s fun to try though, and obviously pretty addictive. Each tiny ball costs between ¥1–¥4 yen, so you can keep it cheap if you just want to try, but it can add up. Your aim is to make the balls land between the pegs, and the strength with which you turn the handle determines how strong they shoot out.
Due to people spending insane amounts of money over long hours, security are quick to chuck you out over privacy fears, so head in with confidence and sit down straight away to show you aren’t just gawking. Avoid very empty parlors, as they probably have a reputation for low payouts. And if you’re serious, check the stats on the top of each machine to work out which has the best chance of paying out.
See what’s on offer…
Whether you intend on experiencing the more graphic offerings of Kabukicho or not, it’s always fun to have a stroll, chu-hai in hand, to see how things work. Plus, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room much longer—rather than the window performers of Amsterdam, here things are all behind curtains—but in some, shops are so smart they could be a knock-off Apple store. Take your pick from iPad displays, with the lucky girl (cough) waiting upstairs. Some shops are not so subtle, with some very non-PG displays, but usually manga-style which is considered acceptable.
There are plenty of sex shops, girls bars, hostess/host clubs and more; there are even bars specifically for groping. But beware, touts are intense, so if you even glance at some shops you’ll be trailed for ages with numerous offers of varying legality. There are also a series of JK bars, which stand for joshi-kosei and offer various services from high-school girls—this is being clamped down on increasingly by police with new laws targeting the creepily booming business. These are best avoided (for a million obvious reasons).
Spend the night in a love hotel
For a night you won’t forget, try spending it in a love hotel. Whether you opt for the full night stay or a ‘rest’, you can experience all kinds of weirdness and maybe get some shuteye (or not). Depending on your budget, you can enjoy your own private Jacuzzi, costumes, in-room light shows and much more. While some are definitely pretty grim, the more up-market ones are respectable, for example Bali Hotel An Resort, or Hotel Moana.
Alternatively, you could visit the movie-famous Hotel Atlas (from Kabukicho Love Hotel) which offers discounts for girl groups. Although many can be booked online through regular booking sites (no matter how fancy it looks), if you have the two prices listed outside, it’s a love hotel.
We have some more tips about booking them here.
Take a breather at Hanazono Shrine
Built in the Edo period by the Hanazono family, this is one of the most historical Shinto shrines in Japan, but easy to miss. Find the tiny gap in tall buildings and step through the red torii gate to find a mini escape from the busy streets. Meaning “flower garden”, Hanazono was once part of the Imperial Gardens and later had a garden growing vegetables and flowers.
The shrine has plenty of festivals including the popular Bird Festival held in November and the two-horse festival in February, as well as celebrating traditional ones like Setsubun and the New Year ceremonies. Once you’re done, if you fancy a drink, you can head down the path to the left of the complex and it leads you straight to Golden Gai.
This post was first published in March, 2017. Last updated October, 2018.