I started off my day by walking out of the hotel and into the heart of Shinagawa, one of Tokyo’s largest business districts. The area hosts corporate headquarters for some of the largest companies in Japan including Nikon, Canon, and Microsoft. Each tower hosts a number of companies and the railway station unleashes a steady stream of businessmen coming in and out all day long. The business day starts a bit later in Japan, so from 8am to 10am, there is an insane rush of people coming out from the station. I was honestly a bit intimidated to make my way into the station, but finally worked up the courage to send my way into the sprawl that is the Tokyo metro.
I made my way to the ticket machines and looked a large map on the wall above. The map showed a large system of train lines and station names and was only labeled with a confusing network of Japanese characters.
I had no idea where to start so I found my way to a ticket office for Tokyo’s JR line, which is the main line for getting around the city of Tokyo. My destination was Shinjuku Station, the world’s largest railway station, so I went up to a ticket officer and pointed to the station on my map of the city and asked how to get there. The language barrier was a real pain, but I found if I kept my words short and precise, I could get the information needed to find my way. “Shinjuku Station”, I said, and the officer wrote on a piece of paper, “160¥- 14”, which meant, 160 Yen and to head to platform 14. Easy enough, I thought. I handed the man a 1000¥ bill which with current exchange rates amounts to about 10 USD, and received my ticket with a handful of change. “Doumo arigatou gozaimasu”, he said, and gave me a small bow. I returned the expression back to him and returned back to the center of the station.
Because it was one of the main stations in the city, with a little bit of searching I could find english names under the prominent Japanese characters. Each platform had signs with main stations featured so that it was easy to tell which direction that train was headed.
Once I figured out that I could navigate my way after only saying a few words to an officer, my subway adventuring for the week got a whole lot easier. I slowly walked through the station towards platform 14, making sure to not to lose my way, since there was so much going on around me. I went down a series of stairs to platform 14 and sure enough, right as I arrived there a train already pulling up. The Tokyo metro is known for being precise and fast-paced which makes traveling around the city a breeze. Once a wave of people excited the train, the waiting passengers on the platform streamed into the car and I followed. Now that I was in the car, the doors closed behind me and it took off down the tracks through the city.
I made sure to get into the front car so that I could see the tracks as the train bolted through the city. The conductor was like a robot, and had the same routine for each stop. After stopping at a station, he would open the doors, wait a designated time, close the doors, point forward, and take off. Seeing the conductor at work, I could spot the speed gauge which read a steady 80 KPH when going at top speed which is extremely fast for an inner city train!
The recorded stop names would be announced in Japanese and then English, so when I heard the words, “Shinjuku Station”, I quickly followed the exiting passengers into the station madness. What I did not realize, was that Shinjuku Station is known for being the busiest subway station in the world, which was quickly made apparent to me as I walked into the center of it all. I was all of a sudden in a busy shopping mall without having left the building which was confusing at first, but I did not have any immediate plans after arriving in Shinjuku, so I enjoyed the walk and continued through the station trying to find an exit. To accomplish this, I simply followed the stream of people heading towards an exit sign and finally ended up outside looking up at a cluster of skyscrapers littered with signs and advertisements for soft drinks, pop stars, clothing stores, and more.
The extensive collection of video and picture advertisements on the buildings reminded me of a larger Times Square, except much busier and more organized. I continued to follow the stream of people and ended up in a maze of streets with countless restaurants, arcades, and department stores. Every intersection, no matter how small, included a number of loud representatives handing out flyers for whatever restaurant or clothing store they worked for. Luckily, they didn’t bother me too much because they noticed I wasn’t Japanese and most likely wouldn’t understand a word they said.
I was still in awe at the size and scale of this district and was unsure of where I should head towards since I was at my destination. Just observing was interesting enough for me so I continued my walk and started making my way through small side streets that were only two meters wide with small restaurants on each side. With the paths being so cramped, it was dark and the lanterns shined brightly because of this.
To me, the small scale was extremely interesting since restaurants in the US or Canada usually own a whole building structure with a parking lot on the side. These restaurants were stacked one after another and contained no more than a small bar space with patrons on one side and a half kitchen on the other. They measured an average of 2 X 6 meter. Each one housed anywhere from 3-10 seats and this gave each it’s own personality and intimacy.
It got to be lunchtime so I decided to find some genuine Japanese ramen to dive into. Winding my way through these mall-side streets, I came across a corner spot with a small line on the side since there were only eight stools at the bar. This is the norm in Tokyo because people eat quickly so they can get back to work. This establishment had no English menu so I decided it was the perfect place to get a real Japanese ramen bowl.
The experience was so far from any western restaurant experience I have ever had. You wait your turn, sit down, order, pay, slurp up noodles, then leave, all within 10 minutes. I had no way of knowing what the extent of their menu was so I simply pointed to the bowl the man next to me was slurping up and received my lunch in less than a minute; a bowl with broth, noodles, a boiled egg, and a tempura brick with a variety of vegetables all mashed together. The experience was fast and delicious.
I then started exploring more of the area, getting lost through the maze of streets, still captivated by the scale of the district. One of the main attractions of Japanese culture is the vast collection of arcades. I dived into the first one I saw and it was a trip on it’s own. The arcade featured an unknown number of floors as I explored four floors with the staircase still leading up to more. Rows and rows of arcade games were present with Japanese people posted up on their own or in groups. I now see why Final Fantasy is such a big deal in Japan; the amount of machines for this game alone was impressive.
Seeing this neighborhood during the day was impressive, so I decided to return later that night to get an inside look on the nightlife that it was known for. What I witnessed was nothing I had ever seen before even in the busy cities of Seattle or Vancouver. I thought the area was active enough during the day, but at night is when the city really comes to life. All of the neon signs and giant screens pop out against the blackened night sky and it is like being in a forest of neon.
The experience in Shinjuku was electrifying and it showed just how active Tokyo’s nightlife can be. The lights, the crowds, the massive size of it all, were unreal. If you are ever in Tokyo and looking to have a fun night out, or just to enjoy a brightly lit walk, then Shinjuku is the place to be once the sun sets.