The many layers of Shinjuku
Shinjuku station, which is massive and overwhelmingly crowded, is in itself very confusing. Find the right exit, and that confusion sometimes deepens rather than subsides. Just like Bill Murray was dazzled by the colorful neon signs of the bustling city in the opening scene of “Lost in Translation,” the intricate structure of the city always makes me feel like a first-time visitor.
For those of you who are bad with directions like myself, it may be a good idea to tour the city before sunset. It not only helps you avoid turn the wrong corner in Kabukicho or getting lost in the maze of Golden Gai after dark, but also leads you to some exotic sights both new and old. Wandering in Shinjuku before sunset offers you a chance to see how the city lives up to its moniker “sleepless town” in the true sense.
“Shinjuku Nichome,” widely recognized as the LGBTQ mecca of Japan, is one of those places that doesn’t stop being colorful day or night. Thanks to many “onee (gay or queer in Japanese)” TV talents that have become a regulars in Japanese variety TV shows, this part of Shinjuku has often been spotlighted by the media. A 10-minute walk from JR Shinjuku station is Nakadori, a main street of the “Nichome” area lined with gay and lesbian bars and clubs that open at night. But among such night spots are restaurants and eateries that attract people who love good food and art.
Duang Daao is a small joint where you can have homemade Thai food for lunch as you enjoy the latest in pop art and music. Owner Ema Yamanouchi opened this place in May to serve up authentic Thai flavor, utilizing her experience in food product development and living in the Southeast Asian country for a year. Her signature menu, green curry, tastes mild but surly has good flavor. It should also be noted that the presentation of the food makes perfect sense when coupled with the “kawaii” pop culture exhibition Duang Daao has. According to Yamanouchi, her restaurant regularly exhibits pop artworks, and sometimes artists themselves make guest appearance like Miina, a pop artist wearing a full body suit of a girl.
“This is a place where you can see what is going on now in Tokyo’s art scene,” proudly said Yamanouchi.
The owner added that everybody is welcomed there. Sexual orientation doesn’t mean much when you chat with the friendly owner and artists, or enjoy the artistic exhibition and food.
If you’re looking for a little less cutting edge and a little more old school, Omoide Yokocho (“memory lane” in Japanese) is the place for you.
Taking the D1 or D3 exit of the west side of the Shinjuku station will get you to this small street with many quaint bars and stalls tightly lined up. According to the website of the lane (www.shinjuku-omoide.com/english/index.html), this area has roots in a black market called “Lucky Street,” which opened around 1946 during the time of controlled economy shortly after the end of the Pacific War.
English menus are displayed outside at some spots, showing that tourism is playing a big part there. There are also bars that have been going since the early days of the lane, retaining the same look as they had around 1947. Nostalgia is everywhere on this street.
There are 80 bars and stalls in total where people can enjoy all kinds of food including sushi, soba noodles and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers). Many of the places serve up the same food and drinks that were available during the hard days of struggle and recovery.
Among others, motsu-yaki (skewered roast giblets) is the most common food that reminds people of the early days of the street. The item became a popular comfort food on the street when other food such as ramen or udon noodles were difficult to get due to the restrictions by the government.
If you go there around 4 p.m., when most open, you will likely sit shoulder-to-shoulder with retired elders or Japanese “salarymen” who are taking some early time off work. Have some sake and mostsu-yaki and experience Japan’s history.
Get lost in Shinjuku, and you just might take a trip back to Japan’s past.
Read a related article: Shinjuku: A walk in the sky