The old Kabukicho was so scary! The deep downtown area is evolving into a tourist attraction.
As you know, Kabukicho is lined with many restaurants, amusement facilities, brothels, bars, and love hotels. Even late at night, the area is brightly lit by neon lights and crowded with people, and even during commuting hours, drunken people can often be seen in the area.
Kabukicho is in a different world now that the Corona disaster has completely wiped out all the foreign tourists. Today, this writer, who has been familiar with Shinjuku since childhood, would like to introduce the transformation of Kabukicho from Showa to Heisei in 2022.
A long time ago, Kabukicho was scary!
This is an old story, but it is from when I was in my teens, about 30 years ago, in the 1960s and 1950s.
In those days, Kabukicho was dotted with movie theaters surrounding a plaza (today’s Kabukicho Cine City Plaza). When going to the Milan Theater, Odeon Theater, Shinjuku Plaza, and other theaters with friends, we had to pass through “Kabukicho 1st Avenue” or “Central Road,” which took a lot of courage and made me tense when walking.
There were many gentlemen strutting down the street dressed in a peculiar fashion not seen today, with permed hair, enamel shoes, and red georgette blouses on a black background, and I never wanted to walk alone, even in the daytime. Even those who were born in Tokyo had a frightening image of Kabukicho.
Even if someone told me, “Then you should go to Shibuya,” I often visited Shinjuku for shopping and movies because my house was close to Shinjuku.
In those days, Kabukicho had many more back alleys with lewd atmospheres of restaurants and adult entertainment establishments for men than now! There have been many stories of people getting drunk and following a tout only to find they were being ripped off at a bar!
The love hotel district extends from the back of Kabukicho to near Okubo. Although the number of host clubs and lounges in this area has increased considerably, it used to be lonely with only hotels. In the old days, however, there were only hotels in the area. It is said that women called “tachinbo” used to stand on the street. Who could have imagined back then that nowadays, hostesses with pop-colored signs would cheerfully greet visitors?
The “Shinjuku Batting Center,” with the aroma of the Showa Era, is located in a love hotel district, as one would expect in Kabukicho! Even couples who just want to enjoy batting healthily can only get there by stepping into the love hotel district.
Another famous establishment in the love hotel district is “Ai Main Store,” a long-established host club that has been in business for 46 years. Diagonally across the street is an onabe bar called Marilyn. Both places are still in business today, and I remember visiting them for a magazine interview a long time ago. I’ll write about that story another time.
An even scarier place to visit was Sakura Street. There were many dubious brothels, and the atmosphere was dangerous, with callers touting on the street and women not wanting to go near them. Since the Robot Restaurant was built, we can see the strange sight of Western tourists innocently coming and going.
Sakura-dori used to be very deep.
Changes in Kabukicho since the Korean boom
The Korean wave boom changed the image of Kabukicho as a scary place for women. A group of wives excitedly walked through Kabukicho toward Okubo for shopping and lunch.
At that time, I remember a small group of people in their 60s, dressed up in full make-up, wandering around Kabukicho, and I felt uncomfortable.
When my mom and friends, who were Hallyu fans, took me to Okubo for lunch several times, they walked toward the hotel district, and I said, “Oh, that’s the love hotel district, shouldn’t we go from Seibu Shinjuku Station?” I said, “Don’t worry, I always go this way. It’s a shortcut! I was surprised to hear these words from the mouths of these earnest housewives.
It is no exaggeration to say that these madams, walking around the love hotel district in broad daylight in their naiveté, were the catalyst that changed the image of Kabukicho.
Kabukicho has become a town where foreign tourists stroll about.
As the Korean boom gradually faded, the number of Chinese tour groups increased in Shinjuku. A guide with a flag wandered around Kabukicho with a group of Chinese tourists. Tourists with their children were seen walking generally in the back streets of Kabukicho.
However, Chinese and Korean tourists plummeted after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. As I was thinking, “The number of tourists has disappeared,” the number of Taiwanese and Western backpackers increased daily. At the same time, the Shinjuku Koma Theater, which had long been the symbol of Kabukicho, was demolished, and the new symbolic Shinjuku Toho Building opened in 2015.
In addition, after the Olympics were decided to be held, the number of Asian tourists from Thailand and Indonesia increased, and the number of European and American tourists has significantly increased over the past few years. It now seems that there are more Westerners than Asians. When I saw many Westerners walking down Sakura-Dori, where the “Samurai Museum” and “Robot Restaurant” are located in the Golden Gai and Love Hotel district, I never thought I would see such a sight on that most frightening street…
However, even though the number of tourists has been increasing and the image of Kabukicho has become cleaner, the stores that rip off customers still have disappeared. And billboards are still in place at the entrances of Kabukicho. Men who drink too much should be careful not to fall into the sweet trap.
Kabukicho has changed its image from a chaotic place to a bright and cheerful town, and it has transformed into a tourist spot visited by many foreign tourists.
However, I hope that the typical Japanese scenery, the old streets that retain the postwar atmosphere, such as Golden Gai and Memories Yokocho, will remain.
Just as I had hoped that Kabukicho would evolve into a tourist spot with a healthy image with even more tourists from abroad in the future, in 2020, the worldwide spread of the new coronavirus has hit both restaurants and department stores in Shinjuku.
Tourism is expected to remain sluggish for some time, but we pray that peace will return to a healthy Shinjuku again, Japan, and even the world as soon as possible.