When someone mentions Japan, what do you initially think of? Think about what first comes to mind when you think about this country. Most people’s reactions seem to be divided into four categories when they hear this word. The first category is “interesting, rich culture”, where people think about things like samurai and ninja culture, temples and shrines, and museums depicting the country’s rich history. The second category would be “anime paradise”, where popular animated shows and comic books spring to mind at the mention of their country of origin. Then there is “crazy technology”, where people think of bullet trains, gadgets, and robots. The last one will surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, be “sex” or “prostitution”. Why?
This may (or may not) surprise you, but Japan has a very large sex industry that still thrives after hundreds and hundreds of years. Very well-known among lovers of the adult genre are the (sometimes quite outrageous) porn movies made in Japan depicting unusual scenarios and stories, and prostitution is still very much present in larger metropolitan areas.
Tokyo is a city of some fantastic nightlife, and the metropolis is so huge that even the most adventurous of night owls could never see absolutely everything the city has to offer for night entertainment, even if they stay for years and go out every weekend. Shinjuku in central Tokyo is considered one of the most lively hotspots for nightlife in the country with the famous gay bar street on 2-Chome, countless clubs and bars, and, of course, the Shinjuku Kabukicho Red Light District.
The Land of the Rising Sun has one of the biggest and most successful red light districts in the world in Kabukicho, which is in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most popular districts for its many shopping centers, parks, restaurants, bars, and unique buildings. Sex is an important theme in Japanese art history, which started with the emergence of erotic paintings or “shunga”, erotic art that dates back as far as the 8th century.
A classic example of Japanese erotic art would be the Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a woodblock-print design by Katsushika Hokusai depicting a woman having sex with two octopus-like creatures. This is just one of the pieces of Japanese erotic art you can find. It is interesting and slightly bemusing that sex is so celebrated in artwork and modern pop cultures such as animation, as well as the fact that you can find many sex shops in Tokyo such as Shibuya and even Akihabara, yet the Japanese as a society remain, on the surface, quite shy and reluctant to talk about it.
Shinto, one of the main religions in Japan, also doesn’t consider premarital sex as a taboo. This is different from most other religions, and it may have had an effect on Japan’s overall attitude towards prostitution in general. It’s unclear if this is actually true, however, especially as the other main religion of Japan is Buddhism, which does have rules on premarital sexual relations.
On top of all that, prostitution has a long history in Japan like many other countries, with “oiran” and “geisha” being famous examples of Japanese entertainment and prostitution. Nightly pleasures for rich men (and sometimes women) are by no means a brand new concept. Are you planning to look for some nightly pleasure in Tokyo’s red light district of Kabukicho? Are you curious about what this curious street has to offer? Here are some things to be very careful of when going there.
Like in every red light district, prices can greatly vary depending on the type of service, the size of the club, and of course, the “quality” of the lady or gentleman you choose to spend time with. Different types of services are available in the red light district; you can either pay a prostitute for chatting only with no body contact whatsoever or go for the special treatment. Needless to say, the more you want to “enjoy” the person, the more you have to pay. So, just how expensive is it?
Even if you only fancy having a drink in a club, you still have to pay the so-called “entrance fee”, which usually stands at around 7000 yen, and you pay that before you can enter the premises. However, this does not mean it is an “all drinks included” arrangement, which you might usually expect for such an exorbitant price. Every drink you have in the club will be charged separately, so be careful if you plan on ordering drinks once you are inside. If you pick a girl for companionship, every hour you spend with her will burn a few thousand yen. Some clubs will impose other fees, too. This is why this kind of night can turn out to cost you the equivalent of hundreds of dollars, even without touching any of the girls!
Do you wish to enjoy more than just a conversation? Be prepared to burn a giant hole in your pocket, then. Pink salons, which specialize in oral sex, cost around 6000 yen for just 30 minutes. Pole dance performances will set you back around 10,000 to 12,000 yen per hour, and if you are looking for a “higher class” escort, paying north of 80,000 yen per hour is not unheard of.
As in any red light district, rip-offs are unfortunately very common, and the same can be said for Kabukicho. Tourists are usually offered a low price by an agent, but when the bill comes it can turn out to be quite a bit higher than what was initially promised. So what tricks do the staff use to make the price go up? A typical strategy used by club operators is adding extra fees onto the bill without telling their customers in advance, and then coming up with seemingly legitimate reasons later. For instance, you may be offered entrance to a bar or club for 15,000 yen, but you will be then charged 20,000 yen more in the end. What is the 20,000 yen for? You may be told that it is a mandatory surcharge for first-time customers, a compulsory membership fee, or any excuse that they can get away with.
A while ago, there was a news story where a bar allegedly charged its customers 2.6 million yen (about $23,000 US dollars) for drinking, in spite of being promised a 4000 yen bill earlier. In this incident, the fraud victims were also threatened with violence after refusing to pay. Although the club owners were arrested for this, it isn’t uncommon to be way overcharged the previously promised amount.
And it doesn’t stop there. If you are a man or a group of men, there will be countless people trying to bring you into their clubs by showing you photos of young, pretty hostesses. Don’t trust the photographs on these ones! You may see a young-looking girl in the photo, but when you meet the promised girl in person, it is sometimes clear to see that the lady in question is a few decades older!
“Can I go in?” “Sorry… I don’t speak English”. Due to the language barrier, most of the bars in Kabukicho do not accept foreigners as customers. They may not show any signs on the door indicating this, but they will write everything in Japanese. This is a polite way to signify that foreigners are not welcome. If you are observant enough, you will notice that many solicitors will not try to talk to foreigners in Kabukicho. There are a few of them that do, but it is still quite rare.
If you are determined to enter one of these bars, then try visiting with any Japanese friends you have. If you travel there with someone who can speak Japanese, entering bars and clubs in Kabukicho will not be too difficult for you. You can get any service as long as there is someone there to translate. Or if you do speak a bit of Japanese, you could try going into the bars yourself. Knowing some basic language skills can make your journey entirely different, mark my words!
If you don’t speak Japanese, are you worried that you may not be able to enjoy the nightlife in Kabukicho? No worries – Japan isn’t really an anti-foreigner country per se; there are always some foreigner-friendly bars out there ready to serve you. However, you will have to make a bit of an effort to pinpoint their locations. If possible, travel with a local. A language barrier may also increase the risk of you getting ripped off.
In Japan, there is a law forbidding prostitution. According to the law, a man or woman cannot be paid to have sexual intercourse with his or her customers. It is, therefore, technically illegal to have sex with a prostitute. However, you can touch her, see her wearing her birthday suit, or even be bathed by her.
At this point, you may argue, “You must be kidding! I have seen people entering hotels with a prostitute before!” Well, they are not prosecuted because as with any law, there are loopholes. Remember how the law says prostitutes can’t have sex with customers? What if you are not one of their customers? To make it legitimate, the prostitution agency will only have to arrange a “blind date” for you with your selected girl. After the date, you are now a “couple” and you two can do the business perfectly legally. Now, you two are considered to be having sex as a couple, rather than as a customer and prostitute, and therefore no one is breaking any laws. Some businesses are very smart, aren’t they?
Another little secret about Kabukicho is that it is a place that is crowded with members of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Yakuza members are all over the place in the Kabukicho area because it is the place where most of their businesses are run. This is why you can see policemen on duty in many places in and around Kabukicho. Not all of the bars and clubs are Yakuza-operated, but their intimidating presence alone is enough to give most people goosebumps. Ask any of the locals, and they will tell you that it is better not to cause any trouble in Kabukicho because you might get much more than you bargained for.
Remember, in Japan, gangs and the mafia are legitimate, and the Yakuza is officially recognised as a real organisation. So make sure you keep yourself in check at all times and avoid making trouble, especially if you are drunk. In fact, the Yakuza and the Japanese police are working hand in hand to ensure security in their areas. In some cases, the police even have to ask the Yakuza for help with cases. The Yakuza don’t like it at all when people make trouble in their territory! If you have a tendency to break laws or get crazy when you drink, maybe Kabukicho is not the right place for you to visit.
If you are just looking for a fun night with friends and some low-key places to drink, you can find them in this area, although you should be prepared to get invited into more seedy places from time to time!
Of course, the area is filled with Karaoke places which are safe and a great place to socialize with friends and have some drinks or snacks. Some popular karaoke places include ‘Utahiroba’, which is fun and cheap, Karaoke-Ken, Big Echo, and Shidax (a bit more classy and a bit more pricey but great facilities).
Aside from karaoke, another type of bar/restaurant you may come across is a themed venue. There are many of these rocking around, and they are well worth a visit if you are in the area. One popular one which you really won’t find anywhere else in Japan is the Robot Restaurant, where you can eat alongside mechanical friends and watch a robot show! There are also various horror-themed restaurants and bars which are fun and not seedy at all!
Basically, this area has it all, not just hostess bars and bars meant for attracting clients. You should be cautious in this area, but also keep in mind that this city is very safe, especially compared to western cities. The chances are, you will feel totally safe most of the time, and won’t have any trouble at all (unless, of course, you are looking for trouble).
You will most likely be accessing the Kabukicho area from Shinjuku Station. If so, you should make your way to the East Exit, and you can follow the signs to do this. Once here, there are several East Exits, but the best idea is to head for the main (central) East Exit.
Once you are out of the station, head North towards Seibu-Shinjuku Station, which is about a five-minute walk away. From here, you will likely notice the many bars, clubs, and staff outside these places, waiting to draw you in. This is the beginning of the Kabukicho area.
You may or may not know that Shinjuku Station is one of the busiest stations in the world, and it is very possible you will get lost. However, Japanese train station staff and also locals are very friendly and helpful. If you point on a map to Kabukicho or mention the name of the area, it is likely someone can guide you in the right direction!
After reading all this, what do you think? Is Kabukicho a good place to visit? If you see through the not-so-great things that can happen here, it is actually a unique way to enjoy the sleepless city of Tokyo. Everybody has their own interpretation for enjoying life, and not all countries can have red light districts legitimately, after all. If you have never seen a red light district in your home country before, Kabukicho is, by all means, a highly recommended spot for you to explore in the heart of Tokyo. As long as no unhealthy or unsavory activities take place, chatting with a host or hostess can be a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience to try out! Just be very careful to keep yourself out of harm’s way.