text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
My first trip in Japan was planned to last about one month; as was to be expected, it lasted all three months that my tourist visa allowed and since I knew very few things about how the house market worked, I stayed for the whole period in the same cheap hotel for travelling salesmen I had initially reserved, in Shinjuku. My days were spent in the streets in an effort to confront the beast that is Tokyo so every night I had to face the same problem: where I could find something to eat (as a rule, restaurants in Japan close at about 10:30, much earlier than my schedule). And the choice was inevitably the same: the “entertainment” district called “Kabukicho” (歌舞伎町) in the opposite side of Shinjuku station, the east side; there, almost everything is open almost always.
The Japanese who have heard that for almost three months I’d take night strolls around Kabukicho have looked at me in awe, something that I certainly don’t deserve: contrary to the reputation it has for most people, the area is not dangerous. It is sleazy –in every other step you come across some Chinese walking and working the streets, some African hawker trying to lure you in some sex-show and turning some corners you’re sure to come across a company of yakuza dropping by some business they control to check there are no problems and to flaunt their power to the bimbos accompanying them- but the air is lacking that dull sense that makes the hair in the back of your neck stand and starts adrenaline explosions in your heart.
Like all Tokyo Kabukicho is safe –at least for those who don’t go looking for trouble. Designed to host a Kabuki theater which was never built but which left behind the name, it followed the expansion of the western part of Tokyo and it evolved into a nighttime playground that every big city needs and that, especially in Japan, has been an honored tradition since the days of Edo. In contrast to that time’s Yoshiwara (吉原) it isn’t a get-together for the esthetes and the intellectuals (although I’m not sure this description wouldn’t fit some of its illustrious frequent visitors such as the photographers Araki Nobuyoshi and Maruyama Daido) but in its few squares one can see probably the most colorful crowds this most colorful city has to offer, everyone being there with the same purpose: the quest for pleasure, sexual or otherwise. Noisy and bright day and night, Kabukicho is perhaps the best illustration of the beast I never managed to tame –neither in those first three months nor in the years that followed.
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