Live Music -- The live-music scene exploded in the 1990s and now spreads throughout Tokyo. In addition to the dedicated venues below, several bars offer live music many nights of the week, including Warrior Celt, What the Dickens!, Dubliners' Irish Pub in Shibuya, Vagabond, and Bar Bourbon Street.
Dance Clubs -- Discos lost popularity after their 1980s heyday, but with the rise of almost cult-figure DJs, dance clubs have witnessed a resurgence in recent years, with Roppongi still boasting more dance clubs than elsewhere in the city. Sometimes the set cover charge includes drinks, which makes for an inexpensive way to spend an evening. Keep in mind, however, that prices are usually higher on weekends and are sometimes higher for men than for women. Although clubs are required by law to close at midnight, many of them ignore the rule and stay open until dawn. You must be at least 20 years old (the legal drinking age in Japan) to enter most clubs.
Many bars bring in DJs and become mostly dance clubs later in the evening, especially on weekends, including New Sazae, Gaspanic, Enjoy House, Quest, Tokyo Sports Café/Lime, and Arty Farty.
The Major Entertainment District
Ginza -- 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 also one of the most expensive. Some of the Japanese businessmen you see carousing in Ginza are paying by expense account; prices can be ridiculously high.
Because I'm not wealthy, I prefer Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Roppongi. However, because Ginza does have some fabulous restaurants and several hotels, I've included reasonably priced recommendations for a drink in the area if you happen to find yourself here after dinner. The cheapest way to absorb the atmosphere in Ginza is to wander through it, particularly around Namiki Dori, Suzuran Dori, and their side streets.
Shinjuku -- Northeast of Shinjuku Station is an area called Kabuki-cho, which undoubtedly has the craziest nightlife in all of Tokyo, with block after block of strip joints, massage parlors, pornography shops, host and hostess clubs, 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 hot spot has nothing to do with Kabuki, though at one time there was a plan to bring culture to the area by introducing a Kabuki theater. The plan never materialized, but the name stuck. Although Kabuki-cho was traditionally the domain of salarymen out on the town, nowadays young Japanese, including college-age men and women, have claimed parts of it as their own; the result is a growing number of inexpensive drinking and live-music venues well worth a visit.
To the east of Kabuki-cho, just west of Hanazono Shrine, is a smaller district called Goruden Gai, which is "Golden Guy" mispronounced. Originally a black market and prostitution district after World War II, today it's a warren of five tiny alleyways leading past even tinier bars, each consisting of just a counter and a few chairs. Many of these closet-size bars are closed to outsiders, catering to regular customers, though a growing number of them welcome strangers as well. Although many thought Goruden Gai would succumb to land-hungry developers in the 1980s, the economic recession brought a stay of execution. In fact, in recent years Goruden Gai has experienced a revival, with more than 100 tiny drinking dens lining the tiny streets and attracting artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and students. Still, it occupies such expensive land that I fear for this tiny enclave, one of Tokyo's most fascinating.
Even farther east is Shinjuku 2-chome (called Ni-chome; pronounced "knee-cho-may"), officially recognized as the gay-bar district of Tokyo. 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 hosts in crotchless pants. The clientele included both gay men and groups of young, giggling office girls. That place has since closed down, but Shinjuku is riddled with other spots bordering on the absurd.
The best thing to do in Shinjuku is simply wander. In the glow of neon light, you'll pass everything from smoke-filled restaurants to touts 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, porn, or prostitutes, I leave you to your own devices, but you certainly won't have any problems finding them. Be careful, however, of hidden charges, such as exorbitant drink prices, or you may end up spending more 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 relatively 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.
Roppongi -- To Tokyo's younger crowd, Roppongi is the city's most fashionable place to hang out. It's also a favorite with the foreign community, including models, business types, English teachers, and tourists staying in Roppongi's posh hotels. Roppongi has more than its fair share of live-music houses, restaurants, discos, expatriate bars, and pubs. 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 and is 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 causing patrons to pass out, only to awaken hours later to find their credit cards missing or fraudulently charged for huge amounts. In other words, never leave your drinks unattended, and you're best off following the buddy system.
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 (under renovation until Dec 2010). 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 outdoor map of the Roppongi area showing the address system, and someone is always there to help.
If the buzz of Roppongi is too much, a quieter, saner alternative is neighboring Nishi Azabu, which has restaurants and bars catering to Japanese and foreigners alike. The center of Nishi Azabu is the next big crossroads, Nishi-Azabu Crossing (the intersection of Roppongi Dori and Gaien-Nishi Dori). Nishi Azabu is about a 10-minute walk from Roppongi Station, past Roppongi Hills in the direction of Shibuya. Roppongi Hills is a massive urban development with many restaurants and some bars of its own, while the newest kid on the block, Tokyo Midtown, has brought gentrification -- and an influx of affluent customers -- to Roppongi's nightlife.
Other Hot Spots -- Not quite as sophisticated as Ginza or nearly as popular as Roppongi, Akasaka nonetheless has its share of hostess bars, both Western and Japanese-style pubs, restaurants, and inexpensive holes-in-the-wall. Popular with executive tycoons and ordinary office workers, as well as foreigners staying in one of Akasaka's many hotels, this district stretches from the Akasaka-mitsuke subway station along three narrow streets, called Hitotsugi, Misuji, and Tamachi, all the way to the Akasaka Station. There are also many Korean restaurants in Akasaka, earning it the nickname "Little Korea." For orientation purposes, stop by the koban (police box) at the huge intersection of Aoyama Dori and Sotobori Dori at Akasaka-mitsuke Station.
One of the most popular districts for young Japanese by day, Harajuku doesn't have much of a nightlife district because of city zoning laws. A few places scattered through the area, however, are good alternatives if you don't like the crowds or the commercialism of Tokyo's more famous nightlife districts. There are also a fair number of sidewalk cafes open late into the night.
Shibuya's Shibuya Center Gai, a pedestrian lane just a minute's walk from the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station (look for the pedestrian lane with the steel arch), is popular with young Japanese for its whirl of inexpensive restaurants, open-fronted shops, bars, fast-food joints, and pachinko parlors. Ebisu also has a few very popular expatriate bars.