By day, Tokyo is arguably one of the least attractive cities in the world. Come dusk, however, the drabness fades and the city blossoms into a profusion of giant neon lights and paper lanterns, and its streets fill with millions of overworked Japanese out to have a good time. If you ask me, Tokyo at night is one of the craziest cities in the world, a city that never seems to sleep. Entertainment districts are as crowded at 3am as they are at 10pm, and many places stay open until the subways start running after 5am. Whether it's jazz, reggae, gay bars, sex shows, dance clubs, mania, or madness you're searching for, Tokyo has them all.
Getting to Know the Scene -- Tokyo has several nightlife districts spread throughout the city, each with its own atmosphere, price range, and clientele. Most famous are probably Ginza, Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku, and Roppongi. Before visiting any of the locales suggested below, be sure to just walk around one of these neighborhoods and absorb the atmosphere. The streets will be crowded, the neon lights will be overwhelming, and you never know what you might discover on your own.
The most popular nightlife spots are drinking establishments, where the vast majority of Japan’s office workers, college students, and expats go for an evening out. These places include Western-style bars as well as Japanese-style watering holes, called nomi-ya (literally “drinking place”) or izakaya, a Japanese-style pub serving food. Yakitori-ya, restaurant-bars that serve yakitori and other snacks, are included in this group. Dancing and live-music venues are also popular with young Tokyoites. At the low end of the spectrum are Tokyo’s topless bars, strip shows, massage parlors, and porn shops, with the largest concentration in Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho District.
A chic and expensive shopping area by day, Ginza transforms itself into a dazzling entertainment district of restaurants, bars, and first-grade hostess bars at night. It’s the most sophisticated of Tokyo’s nightlife districts and can also be one of the most expensive. However, because Ginza has great restaurants and several hotels, I’ve included some reasonably priced recommendations for a drink if you happen to find yourself here after dinner. The cheapest way to absorb the atmosphere in Ginza is simply to wander about, particularly around Namiki Dori and its side streets.
In Shinjuku, northeast of Shinjuku Station, is Kabuki-cho, which undoubtedly has the craziest nightlife in all of Tokyo: block after block of strip joints, massage parlors, pornography shops, peep shows, love hotels, bars, restaurants, and, as the night wears on, drunk revelers. A world of its own, it’s sleazy, chaotic, crowded, vibrant, and fairly safe. Despite its name, Shinjuku’s primary night spot has nothing to do with kabuki, though at one time, there was a plan to bring some culture to the area by introducing a kabuki theater. The plan never materialized, but the name stuck. Although Kabuki-cho used to be the domain of businessmen out on the town, nowadays young Japanese, including college-age men and women, have claimed parts of it as their own, adding inexpensive eating and drinking venues to the mix. It has also become very popular with visiting tourists.
The best thing to do in Shinjuku is simply walk about. In the glow of neon light, you’ll pass everything from smoke-filled restaurants to hawkers trying to get you to step inside so they can part you from your money. If you’re looking for strip joints, topless or bottomless coffee shops, peep shows, or porn, I leave you to your own devices, but you certainly won’t have any problems finding them. Just be sure you know what you’re getting into; your bill may end up much higher than you bargained for.
A word of warning for women traveling alone: Forgo the experience of strolling around Kabuki-cho. The streets are crowded and therefore safe, but you may not feel comfortable with so many inebriated men stumbling around. If there are two of you, however, go for it. I took my mother to Kabuki-cho for a spin around the neon, and we escaped relatively unscathed. You’re also fine walking alone to any of my recommended restaurants.
About a 5-minute walk east of Kabuki-cho, just west of Hanazono Shrine, is a smaller district called Golden Gai. It’s a warren of tiny alleyways leading past even tinier bars, each consisting of just a counter and a few chairs. Although many thought Golden Gai would succumb to land-hungry developers in the 1980s, the economic recession brought a stay of execution, and now Golden Gai has experienced a revival, with more than 200 tiny drinking dens lining the tiny streets. Still, it occupies such expensive land that I fear for the life of this tiny enclave, one of Tokyo’s most fascinating.
A 5-minute walk farther east is Shinjuku Ni-chome (pronounced “knee-chomay”). With 300-some bars, lounges, dance clubs, and shops, it’s the largest gay-bar district in Japan, if not all of Asia. Its lively street scene of mostly gays and some straights of all ages (but mostly young) make this one of Tokyo’s most vibrant nightlife districts. It’s here that I was once taken to a host bar featuring young men in crotchless pants. The clientele included both gay men and groups of young, giggling office girls. It has since closed down, but Shinjuku is riddled with other spots bordering on the absurd.
To Tokyo’s younger crowd, Roppongi is one of the city’s most fashionable places to hang out. It’s also a favorite with the foreign community, including models, business types, English-language teachers, and tourists staying in Roppongi’s posh hotels. Some Tokyoites complain that Roppongi is too crowded, too crass, and too commercialized (and has too many foreigners). However, for the casual visitor, Roppongi offers an excellent opportunity to see what’s new and hot in the capital city. It’s also easy to navigate because nightlife activity is so concentrated. There is one huge caveat, however: Roppongi’s concentration of foreigners has also attracted the unscrupulous, with reports of spiked drinks and patrons passing out, only to awaken hours later to find credit cards missing or fraudulently charged for huge amounts. In other words, never leave drinks unattended, and you’re best off following the buddy system. Otherwise, consider signing up for a guided Roppongi pub crawl.
The center of Roppongi is Roppongi Crossing (the intersection of Roppongi Dori and Gaien-Higashi Dori), at the corner of which sits the Almond Coffee Shop with its pink flags and decor. The shop has mediocre coffee and desserts at inflated prices, but the sidewalk in front is the number-one meeting spot in Roppongi.
If you need directions, there’s a conveniently located koban (police box) catty-corner from the Almond Coffee Shop and next to a bank. It has a big map of the Roppongi area showing the address system, and someone is always there to help.
Extra Charges & Taxes -- One more thing you should be aware of is the “table charge” imposed on customers at some bars (especially nomiya) and many cocktail lounges—usually between ¥300 and ¥500 per person. Included in the table charge is usually a small snack—maybe nuts, chips, or a vegetable; for this reason, some locales call it an otsumami, or snack charge. Some establishments levy a table charge only after a certain time in the evening; others may add it only if you don’t order food. If you’re not sure and it matters to you, ask before you order anything. Remember, too, that there’s an 8% consumption tax (scheduled to rise to 10% in October 2019), though some menus already include it in their prices. Some higher-end establishments, especially nightclubs, hostess bars, and dance clubs, will also add a service charge ranging anywhere from 10% to 20%.
Finding Out What’s On -- Keep an eye out for Metropolis (www.metropolisjapan.com), a free weekly that carries sections covering concerts, theaters, and events and is available at bars, restaurants, and other venues around town. You should also check to see what’s going on at www.timeout.jp. In addition, the Japan Times and Daily Yomiuri have entertainment sections. For an online rundown of what’s happening at Tokyo’s hundreds of venues, live houses, and clubs weekly, go to www.tokyogigguide.com.
Getting Tickets -- If you’re staying in a higher-end hotel, the concierge or guest-relations manager can usually get tickets for you. Otherwise, head to the theater or hall itself. An easier way is to go through one of many ticket services, such as Ticket PIA; ask your hotel concierge for the one nearest you. Lawson and FamilyMart convenience stores also sell tickets to many events from kiosks, but instructions are in Japanese only.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.