If you’ve come in search of the unusual or fancy being a little adventurous then you’ve come to the right place. From pet cafes and pachinko parlours to love hotels of Dogenzaka and themed restaurants dotted around the city, there’s always something new to try in the capital. In many cases, these social and cultural phenomenons have grown out of legal idiosyncrasies or historical circumstances, but they have endured and many are now popular in their own right. Below are some ideas.
The majority of apartment complexes (called “mansions” in Japanese) do not allow pets. As a result, some would-be owners instead go to pet cafes for their feline fix. The cat cafe is the original, but you can also find goat cafes, rabbit cafes, hedgehog cafes, and so on dotted around the capital. Prices are about ¥2,000 per hour.
If you are ever walking down a street in Tokyo and suddenly find your senses assaulted by the noise of electronic beeps, jingles, and the sound of a million ball-bearings dropping, then you will have just passed a pachinko parlor, part of an industry that sees about $200 million wagered every year. The game involves firing small metal ball-bearings onto a vertical playing board so that they cascade down between metal pegs and into a small hole located at the bottom. A handle at the side of the machine lets you determine how hard the ball-bearings fire onto the playing board and thus the course they take. Each ball that goes into the little hole releases about ten new ones and gives you a turn on the virtual slot machine that appears on the screen.
Located very close to each pachinko you will find a TUC booth. Once players have finished they exchange the tiny metal balls they have won for a receipt, which is then exchanged for cash at the TUC booth. Because, technically speaking, there is no exchange of money for ball-bearings under the same roof, it is not classified as gambling (which, until recently, was illegal). Akihabara has more than its fair share of pachinko.
Hostess & Host Bars
Hostess bars are a significant part of nightlife culture and they require some explanation (especially for Western visitors, because it is not a part of our culture). Hostess bars are called kyabakura in Japanese, a word which derives from “cabaret”. They are bars where customers pay to talk and drink with young (and pretty) girls, who are, in some respects, modern-day geisha. In spite of the misconceptions, geisha were not prostitutes; they were highly-skilled entertainers who underwent years of training, and for whose company affluent members of Japanese society would pay considerable sums of money. And while the girls at the kyabakura probably aren’t so adept at the koto, they are good conversationalists and skilled at knowing when to laugh at the less-than-amusing jokes of their businessmen clientele. Now—as no doubt happened with geisha—relationships might, in some cases and over time, evolve into something more, but it’s important to understand that these places are not the girl bars one might find in other Asian countries.
So the industry might seem vaguely understandable until you get to the prices. These vary massively depending on the establishment, but ¥10,000 per hour is fairly standard. Move to the exclusive clubs of Roppongi and Azabu and you could double or treble that figure. So two hours of chatting and drinking and you could be over ¥40,000 out of pocket. Perhaps not for everyone’s budget. But if you want to experience this side of the nightlife culture you could try one of the girls bars (pretty girls working behind the bar and chatting to customers) which will probably cost you ¥5,000 per hour.
Stay in a Love Hotel
The prevalence of love hotels in modern day Japan has roots in the post-war era when there were increasing reports of public sex as a result of the number of couples who had lost their homes and had nowhere else to go. Even those with a roof over their head were living in cramped accommodation, often sharing a room with relatives or children. The early love hotels (called tsurekomi-yado or “bring-along inns”) came about as a result of a demand for privacy. Nowadays this privacy issue has largely (but not entirely) disappeared and love hotels exist more for excitement than convenience. Dogenzaka in Shibuya is known as “Love Hotel Hill” and is the easiest place to find them. Prices vary, but one night is around ¥9,000 while a 3-hour “rest” is ¥3,000–4,000.
Yes, they do exist. Despite looking like something conjured up by a 1980’s sci-fi writer, they are convenient, clean, and, most importantly, cheap (¥3,000-5,000 per night versus twice that for a bog-standard hotel room). If you are looking to save money or simply want something to tell your friends about when you get back home…
Kara means “empty” and oke is an abbreviation of okesutora (orchestra), so karaoke means “empty orchestra”; in other words, you sing. Karaoke booths can be found just about everywhere in the city and it’s not uncommon to look up and see a lone figure wailing away at eleven o’clock in the morning. The two major chains are Karaoke-kan and BigBox, and they don’t differ much from one another. Tell the front desk how many people and for how long, and you will be handed a couple of microphones and told your booth number. Song requests are made via a wireless touchscreen device (the language can be set to English and you will have more Western songs than your vocal chords would ever let you get through). Food and drink orders are made via a phone attached to the wall in each booth.
Incidentally, fans of the film Lost in Translation should head to Karaoke-kan in Shibuya (30-8 Udagawacho—bear right after you enter Center Gai from the scramble crossing). You can ask for the rooms used during the film to follow in Murray’s footsteps (rooms 601 and 602).