[blog]* Day 2 - rather unintentionally, Shinjuku, Shinjuku 2-chome and Kabuki-cho, and a brief look at the Japanese matsuri (festival)
To be completely honest, I hadn't actually planned on being in Shinjuku today, or anywhere near Tokyo for that matter. The initial plan had been to travel up to Hokkaido, taking the overnight sleeper train "Hokutosei" which departs from Ueno in the afternoon to reach Sapporo the next morning.
The problem was that it happened to be "Silver Week" - a super-long weekend with national holidays tagged on left and right, for good measure. As such, most of the country goes on a well-deserved break and not unexpectedly it turned out the Hokutosei was booked fully up until at least the next week. Urk.
So I decided to take the day off to reschedule things. Actually, a few days later I end up in hospital suffering from a crippling bacterial infection, so I was probably (unconsciously) making a decision to rest up instead...
But in any case, I thought I was taking the day off to reschedule things.
I like her hat
Anyway, as I hadn't booked accommodation for more than one night - well, I hadn't expected to still be in Tokyo - I needed to find a place with both Wi-Fi access, and a power supply.
So - I am deeply embarrassed to admit this, but so - my first meal, in Japan, was McDonald's.
Will I ever live through the shame? I think not.
Specifically, a McDonald's Teriyaki Burger set, on the vague and inaccurate presumption that because it had something vaguely Japanese-sounding in the name, it would also be at least vaguely Japanese and maybe vaguely better than the other choices.
You have no idea how much effort it took to make this look nice
Well, it wasn't awful. I won't go into the details, but if you've had the Asia-only "Shogun Burger", that's what this was.
In any case, having persisted for most of the morning and afternoon and not achieving much (due to the fever that would later require an ER trip - but I didn't know that yet) I gave up and headed out.
I had been freezing for the last few hours and decided I needed a coat; the famous Shibuya and Harajuku districts were only a few stops down, and so off I went.
At least, that was the intention - but as I was walking towards the station, I got... distracted.
I should probably explain? I grew up in Hong Kong, Asia's "City of Lights", and as such have always found neon lights to be a great source of happiness; I naturally gravitate towards such lights in any concentration.
You would, of course, be correct in pointing out that this is, in fact, the exact same type of behaviour displayed by the common moth.
One of the biggest "manga cafe" chains
In any case, that was how I ended up rather far away from the station, instead wandering aimlessly, but rather happily, around the glowing wonder that is Shinjuku at night.
I swear he was sleeping...
Um... don't ask
As I was walking, though, I started hearing the sound of drums and... I'm not sure how to describe it. But it was the sound of people being happy.
It was a Japanese festival, or matsuri, to coincide with the beginning of Silver Week. These are ubiquitous in Japan; hardly anyone seems to know why they are being held but there is always excellent food available, which is as much as you and I need to know.
In this case, along with food stalls and music stands, someone had set up an arresting installation of hundreds of paper lanterns, strung across a maze of delicate bamboo scaffolding.
Dragon carving on the festival mikoshi
You have to understand - all of this was buried right within the heart of the Shinjuku district. It would be like someone cutting off Oxford Street in London for this.
I wasn't here to eat, but there was definitely a lot of food around.
She looks really bored...
Corn-on-the-cob, awesome Japanese style
Shockingly, I hadn't had much of an appetite (like I said, I was heading to hospital two days later, but I didn't know that then) so I moved on, and headed off deeper into Shinjuku.
Actually, that's a lie. I'd actually gotten lost, so although I was trying to head back towards the station, I ended up going deeper in instead. Deeper, in this case, means Tokyo's premier red-light district of Kabuki-cho.
I seem to have an uncanny talent for finding these things...
Red lantern for ramen shop
So far so good, but another dark turn or two and the shadiness emerges in all its full glory.
So-called "information centers" in Kabuki-cho
Kabuki-cho brims with life 24 hours a day... and the amazing thing is, even later on (when I drifted back in at 4am) never once did I ever feel unsafe. I did get solicited by shady men from Nigeria, though.
Horumonyaki (apparently good for building stamina)
One of the hazards of walking around aimlessly, however, is that you don't actually know where you're going to end up. So, after half an hour, I ended up in Shinjuku 2-chome.
2-chome is, of course, rather more famously known as Tokyo's gay district...
Oh dear. Not nearly as notorious as I'd hoped.
The orange and white neon lights are a distinctive feature, but otherwise it's like any quiet corner of Shinjuku, with shabby old buildings housing bars and restaurants and shops... mostly bars though.
I'm sure it just feels that way to someone who doesn't know the area, though.
The next photo is of a professional okama or drag queen, who works at an okama bar tucked away in one of the larger side alleys. She allowed me to take the photo on the condition that I advertise for her, so if you're in the area, do pay her a visit, if you are that way inclined.
Pricing system at bars and clubs in the area vary but often work on the basis of a compulsory "first drink": anywhere from ¥600 - ¥1500 or more, depending. Larger events will attract a flat entrance fee of ¥3000 upwards, but operate mostly on an occasional basis.
I'd advise going out and making some friends - information available online is largely out of date and won't be of much help. Well, so I'm told.
She's so pretty... oh wait
2-chome is, as I said, quite notorious in Japan. I don't know why - everyone I met there that night was incredibly warm and full of life.
Honestly, I love it.
By this point it was already 2am, so with renewed directions I headed back towards the station to find a place for the night.
Even at 3am the right parts of Tokyo are brimming with all sorts of life. Not my concern though - I was ready to go to bed.
I'd wanted to try staying in one of those famous "manga cafes", so headed back into Kabuki-cho, where I'd seen some of the colourful neon signs advertising "24-hour internet access". It wasn't an entirely crazy idea - at less than ¥2000 (£13 or $21) a night, staying in manga cafes is cheaper than rent in Tokyo, and the situation has given rise to an entire generation of "net cafe refugees" - homeless people in low-paid jobs who take up permanent residence in these cafe stalls.
Anyway, I wanted to see for myself what the experience was like, just once.
Something about "healing and relaxation"
That was the theory, anyway - but this being the aforementioned Silver Week, all of Japan, it seemed, had descended upon Tokyo to party. I tried at least twelve different manga cafes (all full) across all of Shinjuku before finding a place for the night, two hours later.
Still, Tokyo is largely a very safe to place to be in (keeping certain cases in mind) and not once did I feel threatened or unsafe. I could've walked the entire night and been fine.
There's a person in there. I checked.
Still, I was very glad when I found a place to stay. On my way there I saw countless people homeless out on the streets.
Support and sympathy in Japan are both minimal - government shelters are offered for three months - and I saw entire families out in the cold.
Results: Day 2
Areas: Tokyo - Shinjuku
The List: #1 - McDonald's "Teriyaki Burger" set
In any case, a rather unproductive day, the cause of which shall become apparently shortly. The trip does get better, though. I promise.