Tokyo By Night
TOKYO doesn’t stop at night. In fact, it comes to life. And there’s so much for newcomers to enjoy, writes Ben Groundwater.
It doesn’t stop. That’s something you very quickly realise in Tokyo, as the sun sets and the neon lights buzz into life and the foot traffic on the pavements of Shibuya and Shinjuku and so many other suburbs just picks up, and up, and up.
Drinkers duck in and out of izakayas, the sake bars that serve snacks with a side of friendly conversation. Diners queue for ramen noodles. Shoppers bundle large bags out of department stores. Pedestrians glance nervously at their watches as the witching hour approaches, as the last trains head out to the suburbs and those who’ve been left behind settle in for a long night in one of the world’s great 24-hour cities.
Of course, you can eat. In Tokyo, you can always eat. While the city’s higher-end restaurants close at a reasonable hour, there are plenty of food outlets open long into the night. In bustling inner-city Ebisu, the ramen bar Afuri is open until 5am — and there are queues around the block until the doors are pulled shut. Nearby, the Ebisu Yokocho is an old alleyway packed with no-frills eateries, a smoky, raucous spot that’s open until 4am. Across the city, in fact, izakayas serve tapas-sized plates into the wee hours, as the Japanese indulge their twin passions for sake and sustenance.
Tokyo’s bar scene is like no other. There are drinking dens everywhere in this city: in train stations, apartment blocks, department stores, in basements, lofts… everywhere. These bars are often hyper-specialised, too, perhaps serving only high-end cocktails, or rare whisky, or a huge array of sake. Though they’re spread throughout the city, the highest concentrations tend to be in transport hubs such as Shibuya and Shinjuku, places where workers can grab a drink before heading home on the train.
The Japanese have a deep passion for live music, whether that’s the coolest jazz or the most hardcore punk rock. Suburbs such as Shimokitazawa, Shinjuku and Koenji are littered with “live houses”, bars that host live music every evening. Though it will take a bit of research to find out exactly where these bars are (they’re often tiny places, sometimes under apartment blocks or at the top of towers) and what sort of music will be playing, there’s something on every night of the week.
It’s hard to decide whether the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is the tackiest tourist attraction ever, or the best. Perhaps it’s both. Regardless, you have to see this: an all-singing, all-dancing, neon-and-metal show of robots and their bikini-clad companions whirling and twisting and writhing around a dance floor to the sounds of Gangnam Style and its like. This show is so ridiculous, so over-the-top, that it has to be seen to be believed.
All of these activities might, admittedly, sound a little too hectic, a little too high-energy. Sometimes when the sun goes down all you want to do is relax in a nice hot bath and soak your cares away. And of course, in Tokyo you can do just that. Many of the city’s “onsens”, or bathhouses, particularly in the inner-city areas, are either open 24 hours a day, or well into the early morning, meaning you can rest there, relax, and prepare for another evening of enjoyment.
This is your Lost in Translation moment — the chance to grab a microphone and sing, sing, sing at a karaoke room in central Tokyo. The bar in which Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson belted out a few numbers in that famed movie is called Karaoke Kan, and it’s in the bustling suburb of Shibuya. Karaoke rooms, however, abound across the city. Try Roppongi for the highest concentration, or Shinjuku for some of the most ridiculously plush establishments. And prepare the sing the night away.
The setting of the sun tends to bring out Tokyo’s “otaku”, or comic book geeks, in force. Some dress up, others keep a low profile. Many, however, head to “manga cafes”, comic book stores that are open 24 hours a day, and which provide private booths for reading and surfing the internet. These small rooms are used by some budget travellers as a cheap place to catch some sleep for the night; however, their primary purpose is for the enjoyment of Japan’s classic comic-book literature. Visiting one is a true experience.
When you need a break from all of the eating and the drinking, the singing and wandering, there’s always time for a few games at night in Tokyo. Sports lovers should head straight to the Shinjuku Batting Centre, which is open until 4am. Pay your money, grab a baseball bat, step into the cage and whack as many balls as you can connect with. For something a little more sedate, meanwhile, gaming arcades throughout the city are open well into the night.