If you have ever arrived in Japan at Narita Airport, you may have been lucky enough to have walked out of Arrivals and immediately had a microphone shoved in your face.
“Why did you come to Japan?”
This is a Japanese TV show in which foreign visitors are asked their motives for voyaging to the land of the rising sun. In fact, it is not unusual for it to unearth some intriguing stories.
In fact, as one might expect, several tourists arrive with lenses preset with visions of the city absorbed from global media; a Blade Runner-esque cityscape of the future, where gleaming skyscrapers tower over darker, lower districts of ramshackle alleyways and disreputable bars. And for those seeking out the seedier side of the city, nowhere looms larger than Kabukicho, the largest red-light district in the world. Tokyo’s neon pleasure paradise is world-famous in movies, books, and even video-games as being the place you go to find anything your heart desires – for a price.
So it was in recent weeks that a tourist from Martinique, a French island located in the caribbean, appeared on the show with visions of big nights out in neon-drenched less-than-savory quarters. He told the interviewers that he wanted to experience the nightlife and entertainment district of Kabukicho, which he knew from the Yakuza video games. He is not disappointed as he gleefully explores the area but he eventually stops and asks where are all these street-fighting gangsters. Unfortunately for him, the yakuza are a little more subtle than that, and are reportedly in decline.
But Tokyo still has a dark side. I’ve been assigned several missions at Tokyo Survival Challenge to uncover just that. I have spent 24 hours in the cheapest and most dangerous areas and visited the renowned red-light district of a different era; I have scoured the streets for ghosts, visiting former execution sites where even in recent years are still discovered.
Shinjuku also beckoned me, its neon lights dazzling my eyes with shadowy side streets drawing me in. I ventured to Omoide Yokocho, one of the last remaining alleyways from the post-war black market area, seeking out for the deepest, darkest secrets of whomever I encountered.
Yet Omoide Yokocho is already a well-trodden stop on the tourist trail. For the more adventurous among us, sandwiched between the endless hordes of selfie-snappers, you might find the whole thing a bit too easy, a bit too… safe. Many places in Kabukicho are also cashing in on this tourist boom, with “Free Information Centers” (read: places that tell you where to go for blow jobs and other services) even providing English signage to cater for all customers with all kinds of tastes.
Tucked away in this warren of vice is an alleyway that even many Japanese have not heard of: Omoide no Nukemichi. Literally meaning “Memory Bypass”, it is a tiny L-shaped alley cutting through a block of dense and dilapidated buildings – a shortcut of sorts. Yet its name is somewhat euphemistic: it is definitely the kind of place where you might make memories you might want to forget… or do things that perhaps you won’t remember in the morning.
It was here that Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to explore. To make it the toughest challenge possible, I was to venture into the den as a full-on tourist and spend the night pretending not to speak Japanese. While I was sure I would never make a good spy, I was confident I could act dumb and drink. Call it natural talent, if you will. Little would I know, I was to encounter a whole cast of colorful characters, some very strange dangerous weapons, and more booze than I could handle.
1) BURNING SOUL
The northern entrance to Omoide no Nukemichi is so dark and narrow I almost completely miss it. For a moment, I am convinced I am heading down to a garbage storage area rather than an actual throughway. But the left side suddenly changes from wall to a row of koya – shacks that contain tiny bars. No sooner as I have stepped past the first, I see a cheery-faced girl pop up from behind the bar and shout out “HELLO!”
I peer through the door and she beams encouragingly at me.
“We are Tokyo’s smallest bar!” she proclaims in English.
I am inclined to believe her. There are three seats at the counter and room for about two people to stand behind.
“Ano… (Um…)” I begin in Japanese, before silently cursing myself that I have slipped up already. Fortunately, she hasn’t noticed and she holds up a sign in English, explaining they have no cover charge for taking a seat and all drinks are 1000 yen.
Before long, she is pouring me a whiskey on the rocks while I grin at the interior, enthusiastically taking pictures and alternately shouting “Wow!” and “So cool!”. It is truly worth photos, with rock band posters and tattoo designs plastered all over the walls, and a curious one-eyed lucky cat statue who looks considerably more ghoulish than the usual design.
A smiling blonde couple poke their heads in, and encouraged by the sight of cheery me, take the other two seats. We strike up a conversation, in which I have to navigate the awkward situation in which I quietly explain that I am pretending to be a tourist, which they accept as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. They’re from Canada and the guy is a pro-MMA fighter who competes all over the world. I now know why he and his partner felt confident strolling down a dark alleyway alone.
The bar girl, whose name I learn is Shiori, is keen to interact despite her limited English. She tries to search for a few words using an online translator and keeps pointing to things around the bar. When I ask about the “Burning Soul” poster, showing tattooed rock stars posing with guitars, she squeals in delight and puts on their CD. The owner of the bar is the lead singer in the band and Shiori is a big fan.
In a bid to keep the conversation going, she keeps whipping out a gun-shaped glass bottle and pointing it to her head. “I CRAY-JEE!” she repeats several times, giggling and pretending to shoot herself. I don’t disagree; I’m definitely crazy, too.
2) A GIANT COCK AND SOME CHICKEN
My partner in crime has arrived: Joe McReynolds, Tokyo urbanologist and subculture researcher who became my co-adventurer on my first Tokyo Survival Channel challenge in one of the highest-crime areas of Tokyo. Sadly, no amount of academic knowledge in Tokyo can save him from acting like a stereotypical absentminded academic and getting on the train in the wrong direction. He arrives with mild shame and one drink behind me.
We head out into the alleyway and I enthusiastically point out Butakoya, a bar with the name “Pig Small Hut”, which looks like a small hut that serves up… well, delicious pig. Plus the pictures on Google are mainly of boobie cakes. I wonder if they have Miss Piggy inside as a pin-up girl. Its front is mainly open to the alleyway but hidden behind a plastic curtain to retain the heat. As we approach, a member of staff comes out and closes it firmly in our faces.
This is not the tourist playground of Omoide Yokocho; this is Omoide Nukemichi, and tourists are definitely not welcome everywhere.
Undeterred, we head to a brand new building, glowing in the darkness. This is Kabukicho Red Norengai (literally “Kabukicho Red Doorway-Curtain”), which opened in September 2018. Its design is an ode to the Showa era, with wooden beams and lanterns galore, but its shiny newness reflects the modern face of the area.
On entering, a harried waitress greets us and holds up two fingers to confirm we just want two seats. She presents us with an English leaflet that explains there are five different food stalls in the downstairs areas and we have to pick one. I have already spied a man grilling yakitori (chicken on sticks) at the entrance and I am incredibly sure that only yakitori – in fact, only that specific yakitori – will satisfy me. I look at his chicken sticks and make big eyes and appreciative nods. He gets the hint. Technically, there are no seats in his area but he confers with the waitress, and they decide to borrow a table from another section.
Soon, we are settled down, awaiting a meaty feast that we ordered from a surprisingly clear and well-written English menu. Things don’t go entirely to plan: our sake takes ages to arrive; our pork with egg turns out to be pork with… just pork; and our yakitori order is slightly muddled. The poor waitress is clearly overburdened; she seems to be entirely alone serving all the tables and she gives frantic “sorry”s and “thank you”s as she rushes about.
But we decide to go with the flow, and everything seems awesome when you’re tucking into a succulent chicken with leek and chicken topped with spicy miso. It is all extra salty to make us drink more, but it is all oh-so-extra-delicious.
I spy a sign saying we can order unlimited free cabbage. It takes a while to arrive but the promise is true.
I have an entire bowl of free cabbage to myself and I am very proud.
The interior is decorated with all kinds of traditional items, from lanterns to daruma dolls. At the back, among cherry blossom patterns, I discover a giant cockerel painted on the wall and ask the man sitting next to it if he minds me taking a photo. I feel mildly bad that he doesn’t get the joke, but I am so grateful for his friendliness – and that of the customers, too. We feel nothing but extremely welcome and we even spy one other table of foreigners. Yet compared to Omoide Yokocho, this is an entirely different world.
And I love it.
3) CONFESSIONS OF A BUNNY GIRL
Upstairs are two more bars: Muchu, a drag queen bar, and Bar Tokyo, which is where we’re headed. The name is a pun, formed from two characters “to” and “kyo” which mean “lantern” and “mirror” respectively. Once inside, we know why. The entire room is paneled with mirrors and the ceiling is hung with colourful lanterns, reflecting the city’s visually dazzling Teamlab museums that have become popular in the past two years.
The barman greets us amiably with English and presents us with an English menu. There are many Japanese liquors and sake cocktails.
But then I hear a customer at the bar asking about sake which doesn’t seem to be on the menu. I feel like causing trouble. Just a little bit.
“What’s that?” I demand.
After an awkward discussion, they decide to show me the bottles they think I can’t read, and then give me a price should I want to order it. I do.
Then, I spy the fluffy rabbit ears and light-up wands in a pot on a table and I see my shining opportunity. One whisky and a couple of sakes in, I am prepared to search inside my spying, lying self for my inner cuteness. Or rather, I just put it on. My costume delights everyone in the room, with a lady at the counter beaming in delight. “KAWAIIIIIII!” (“CUUUUUTE!”) She says multiple times over.
Admittedly, I am not feeling as sparkly as my light-up wand would lead people to believe. I am feeling far from angelic at this performance.
Still wearing my bunny ears, I decide to confess to my sins and come clean that I can actually speak Japanese.
The lady’s face falls. She scowls and shouts at me, with outrage etched across her brow. “That’s WRONG! You shouldn’t do that.”
I try to explain that it is my job, but the cute fluffy ears are getting me nowhere and the light of my wand has dimmed. I feel mildly ashamed that the darkest thing in Omoide no Nukemichi so far is my lying soul.
4) KUNG PAO CHICKEN POWER
We stumble outside to head to a bar I have marked on my map which has the most delicious looking tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) on Google images that I have ever seen. But alas, I am to experience rejection again this evening.
On pushing open the door, the barman’s face rearranges into a less than welcoming expression.
“CLOZE!” he says, making a cross gesture.
I slide innocently into Japanese. “Oh, that is such a shame! I saw the most delicious-looking pork and I wanted to eat it! It says you close at 11pm on Google maps but it’s not even 10pm! When do you close?”
The barman and surrounding customers’ mouths are becoming progressively wider and wider O-shapes. I am told it’s early closing tonight, but the barman looks increasingly uncomfortable.
“Oh, well next time please! I really want to try it!! And… I saw a picture of garlic potatoes too. WOOOOOW! How delicious! You better serve it next time!! I can’t wait!!!”
My unbridled enthusiasm in their language wins me at least a fairly cordial farewell. It’s an encounter which is not uncommon in Japan and takes some experience to know how to navigate. Lukewarm or ostensibly hostile responses to foreigners are generally rare. They can be put down to racism, and in some cases that is true. However, sometimes the reaction is a fear of not being able to communicate according to socially prescribed and widely understood communication norms within the culture, resulting in misunderstandings or “off-script” responses. There are very few scenarios that some swift Japanese can’t smooth over.
A little bit disheartened at being thwarted in my tonkatsu quest, I suddenly realise I am a few drinks deep into the night and only fuelled by a few bits of chicken (and cabbage). I need some food, urgently. Shining lanterns up a staircase indicate a Chinese restaurant with almost guaranteed food.
We enter Jorakuen, a small restaurant that is brightly lit, full of traditional red Chinese decorations and really quite homely, despite being completely empty.
An older man greets us from around the corner.
“Taiwanese food OK? Taiwanese OK?”
OK, so not Chinese. Taiwanese. And yes, Taiwaneese food very OK. More than OK.
There is no English menu but their signature items such as dumplings and fried rice are helpfully listed in photo form. It basically looks like the Book of Paradise to me. We order four dishes in a frenzy.
An old lady comes to deliver us water and spies Joe, who apparently is a frequent visitor. Our cover is blown. She breaks into a delighted smile, tells me I am beautiful, and then pours us a large glass of booze each – “kimochi ii kara” (“because I’m feeling good”).
Then the food arrives and I fall even more deeply in love. To say it was tasty would be an understatement. Kung Pao Chicken, full of peanuts and chilli, explodes with unbelievable amounts of spice, juicy dumplings disappear into my mouth, and beef fried rice begs for second and third and fourth helpings. The food punches me back to life.
It’s closing in on 10:30pm but a group of six men settle down at a table. Before long, they have drinks and food on order and they are holding out their fingers in a circle, shouting commands in what looks like a heavily involved drinking game. I tell them it looks very complicated and that I prefer a simpler drinking method. They smile patiently and explain they are professional piano players, discussing technique.
Joe and I realise that not everyone drinks as much as us, even in dark, dingy alleys.
THE END: INSOMNIA AND THE DARKEST TALE OF DEATH
We stumble out ready for the final hit of the night when we spy the perfect destination: Bar Insomnia. Someone should give them credit for the name alone, but they are clearly welcoming to foreigners; the English sign outside spells it out.
A cheerful man behind the bar greets us and goes through the perfunctory checks of cash only no cover charge. Another two customers immediately break out some English and ask us where we are from.
There’s no sleeping in this bar; we jump straight into conversation. Our barman Tatsuki Shirabyoshi is soon laughing at his eighties mullet haircut and shouting “Cyndi Lauper” at us.
It’s the end of the night and being spies is really quite exhausting. We decide to drop our tourist disguises. We break into Japanese to get the lowdown on the area. Joe asks Shirabyoshi to tell us about Omoide no Nukemichi’s gritty history and the infamous and ominously named “Azure Dragon Sword Incident” (which sounds like something out of a video game… maybe our friend from Martinique can advise?)
From the 1970s onward, an influx of Mainland Chinese immigration gradually spawned regional Chinese organized crime groups in Kabukicho, with ne’er-do-wells from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Fujian all forming their own criminal syndicates. This led to some intense rivalry for control of Kabukicho’s illicit economy which came to a bloody head in August 1994.
Five members of the Shanghai mafia attacked a Beijing-controlled restaurant over a financial dispute. The restaurant’s chefs and even its patrons defended themselves with sashimi knives and whatever else was at hand, and two people were killed in the ensuing melee. The incident was a media sensation that shone a national spotlight on the violent power games of Kabukicho.
Both Joe and our new friend Shirabyoshi assure me that things have definitely cooled down over the last twenty-odd years as Tokyo’s government and police have progressively tamed the area, with further clean-up efforts ahead of the 2020 Olympics. But walking through the shadows in the narrow Omoide no Nukemichi, it’s still easy to imagine the neighborhood’s dark, violent history.
I tell Shirabyoshi I might be sending some tourists his way, looking for something on the dark and dangerous side.
“No problem!” he replies, and whips two extremely large knives out from behind the counter, waving them around and pretending to slit his own throat.
At the time, I was seemingly delighted and snapped several photos. Looking back all I can think is…
Why the fuck was I so chill about these big-ass blades kept under the bar?
THREE HOT TIPS FOR GOING DARK AND DEEP WITHOUT FALLING INTO A BLACK HOLE
1. GO WITH THE FLOW
On a night out of Japan, the norms and customs might seem a mystery as a lot of the social context remains unsaid. It’s best to leave your preconceptions behind and accept that some things are just going to happen as they do. Don’t give yourself a tight schedule, relax that mistakes might be made, and generally smile lots and enjoy.
2. BASIC PHRASES & CUSTOMS
It never hurts to have a few words of the local lingo up your sleeve, and the obvious appreciation of your effort by staff and other customers makes it even more worthwhile.
Sumimasen. Use for “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” “I didn’t quite understand?” or just generally being apologetic for your existence.
Arigato gozaimasu (ah-ree-gat-oh go-zye-eh-mass) – Thank you very much.
Onegaishimasu (o-neh-guy-she-mass) – Please, yes please.
Wipe hands with a wet tissue (oshibori) if provided.
Say itadakimasu (it-ta-da-kee-mass!) – Thank you for the food.
Say gochisosama deshita (go-chee-soh-sa-ma desh-tah) –Literally, “It was a feast / treat.”
Indicate for the check by making a diagonal cross with two fingers. You can also say okaike kudasai (oh-kye-kay ku-da-sye)
3. WHEN IN DOUBT…KANPAI!
“Kanpai!” (cahn-pie!) That’s the Japanese for “Cheers!” Look around, smile, raise your glass, make friends.
The other patrons probably aren’t that dark and shady… but if they are, you’ll want them on your side.