First time in Japan: Shinjuku

Tokyo is a huge and unbelievably diverse city. But what should you do if you only have one free day there? Your best chances of getting the most of Tokyo lie in Shinjuku.

Start the day with a short walk in Kabukicho, the main tourist hub of the city which will be more than happy to feed your strongest stereotypes of Tokyo =) Just walking around the district, it is hard to miss the two main sights.

The first one is a huge Godzilla head next to some hotel tower. Every full hour the nearby street gets filled with thrilling music, the statue’s eyes light up, and lasers shoot straight out of its mouth. To be honest, my expectations were a bit too high. Can’t say it’s worth waiting for an entire hour, but if you happen to be around not long before the show you might as well have a look – the show itself only takes two minutes.

Another biggest tourist attraction is the so-called “Robot Restaurant” which is technically not a restaurant but rather just a show. You will see huge ads of it all around Kabukicho so it is virtually impossible to fail finding it.

The exterior hints at the madness that’s going on inside. Unfortunately, despite the online reviews saying it’s ok to buy tickets on the spot, we were not able to get them for any of our yet unoccupied evenings. I would recommend booking around a week ahead, and one can easily do it online.

A bit upset by missing the robot show, we tried to comfort ourselves in one of those famous cat cafes but that really had an opposite impact. Even though there is no doubt the cats are treated with great care there, still a 5×5 room with no window nor plant is not a healthy condition for a dozen of cats.

So if you are short on time, you can easily skip this part and come to Kabukicho only in the evening for dinner and nightlife fun. The district is stuffed with some quite special places like private cinemas and something between a brothel and a strange theme restaurant.

During the day pay a visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Each of the two towers can be proud of its own observation deck which is by the way completely free to visit! And even though the view point is not super high, it still gives a nice view on Tokyo and even Mount Fuji if you are lucky. Not bad for 0 yen, huh?

Next to the tower there is plenty of different futuristic buildings.

After all this walking you must be hungry… Luckily, Shinjuku is also home to the best landscape park in Tokyo – Shinjuku Gyoen, which is a great place for a picnic under blossoming cherry trees. We bought our food at Isetan mall quite close to the main park entrance. The cheap sushi that we got just blew my mind – those were my first sushi in Japan and I could not imagine raw fish to taste so incredible.

The park was gorgeous despite a relative dusk of the cherry blossom season. I can only guess how enchanting it is when all those trees are covered with snow white flowers.

The urge to compare Shinjuku Gyoen to the New York’s Central Park is strong, and I have to admit that the latter does not give you the same sensation of peace and detachment from the huge city around it.

When you are done enjoying sunset sakura (though who am I kidding, how can one possibly get enough of it?), it is a good time to come back to Kabukicho. Now all those streets are illuminated with neon lights. It’s a mystery to me why this crossing in Shinjuku is less famous than its twin brother from Shibuya: the billboards and the crowds rushing in all directions at once are just the same. I don’t think I would be able to tell one from another.

The Godzilla head is also illuminated. The laser show still runs every hour and I could recommend it more than during the day: the lasers look much brighter in the darkness.

In Shinjuku there are dozens and dozens of “gambling” places where you can pay a few hundred yen for playing a primitive video game while surrounded by cigarette smoke (yes, those are smoker’s places) and unbearable noise from hundreds of gambling machines.

To be honest, I still do not fully get pachinko (that’s the name of those machines) but one kind of a machine we have even tried. In UFO catchers you do not only rely on sheer luck but also a bit on your skill and your understanding of mechanics.

One try will cost you 100-200 yen. Despite seeming simplicity, every machine has some tricks built into it, and we had wasted a few thousands before our luck finally found us:

Still got cash? Because it’s time to grab some dinner. All possible restaurants are at your service, and darts and karaoke bars are there for the continuation of the evening. Read reviews before going to a random bar: many of them allow smoking so you might end up drinking some smoke along with your cocktail.

At last, a brief word on safety. There is some mafia presence in Kabukicho so explore with caution. Do not follow any advertisers and only pay with cash (credit card fraud is one of the most common crimes around). Overall there is nothing to be really scared of, especially in the larger streets as they are full of tourists and tourist attractions. Do not trust shady people, do not walk into shady buildings – and you are going to be alright.

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