Shinjuku Station sits at the heart of one of the most interesting districts of Tokyo, one that reflects its vibrant history. The station straddles the JR Yamanote Loop Line circling central Tokyo and lies at the intersection of some very different neighborhoods: to the west is Nishi-Shinjuku, a business and administrative center, to the east is Higashi-Shinjuku, for shopping and nightlife, and to the northeast is Kabukicho and Golden Gai, both devoted to nightlife and entertainment. A smaller-scale, recently developed area for shopping lies to the south.
Walk out of Shinjuku Station’s West Exit and you’ll find yourself in an underground passageway headed straight for the stunning Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings, which constitute Tokyo’s city hall. This twin-tower, cathedral-like structure designed by Kenzo Tange dominates the neighborhood of office towers and hotels on the west side of Shinjuku Station (it also has free observatories on the top floors, a good spot to take in the Tokyo skyline and, in winter, Mt. Fuji).
While Nishi-Shinjuku’s main draw for travelers is the architecture of buildings such as the mesh-covered Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, electronics retailer Yodobashi Camera has its flagship store here as well as all the latest Japanese IT gadgets. The Keio highway bus terminal serving destinations such as Mt. Fuji and the Japan Alps is right next to Yodobashi Camera.
In contrast to the buttoned-down vibe on the west side of Shinjuku Station, Higashi-Shinjuku is decidedly casual and given over to pleasure. It’s also far denser, with pachinko parlors, izakaya pubs and ramen restaurants packed cheek to jowl in a web of narrow streets. Higashi-Shinjuku is a prime spot for shopping, highlighted by Isetan department store’s graceful 1933 flagship outlet.
Farther east is Shinjuku-Nichome, the biggest gay village in Japan, featuring everything from large dance clubs to intimate bars that seat only a few people. To the southeast lies the magnificent, 57.6-hectare Shinjuku Gyoen gardens, which has groves of plum and trees that flower in late winter and spring, respectively, as well as a Japanese-traditional garden and a recently renovated hot house of tropical flowers and plants.
Kabukicho and Golden Gai
Look across Yasukuni-dori street from Higashi-Shinjuku and you’ll see a massive wall of neon lights. This is Kabukicho, one of the biggest red-light and entertainment districts in the world. It’s packed with hostess clubs, pachinko parlors and dive bars – a new landmark is the 12-screen Toho Cinemas Shinjuku tower, topped with a bust of Godzilla – and is definitely worth walking through just to soak in the lively atmosphere and garish architecture. While Kabukicho is generally very safe, even at night, be sure to ignore any touts who approach you on the street as they’re usually working for clip joints.
The Shinjuku City Hall and Hanazono Shrine divide Kabukicho from the more laid-back Golden Gai drinking area to the east. This charming warren of over 300 hole-in-the-wall bars is a relic from the postwar years and offers some unique alcoholic experiences, such as bars entirely dedicated to French cinema. To try one, poke your head in the door and hold up as many fingers as there are people in your group. If it’s early enough in the evening, you may just get a seat – don’t be shy about chatting with the bartender!
Shinjuku Southern Terrace
Shinjuku Station has continued to grow since the 19th century, and its latest extension is a pair of boardwalks flanking the train tracks on its southern end. Shinjuku Southern Terrace, as it’s known, is home to the Takashimaya Times Square shopping mall with Takashimaya department store, eclectic retailer Tokyu Hands and bookstore Kinokuniya. The JR highway bus terminal as well as a Japan Rail Pass exchange counter are located near the complex. As if Shinjuku Stationed weren’t large and complex enough already, a new station annex building and the Miraina office tower, which will feature shops and an outdoor plaza, are scheduled to open by the Southern Terrace in spring 2016.
Article by Tim Hornyak. All rights reserved.