Tokyo: Hidden Red Lights & Technological Delights

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One of the many vending machine stations in Akihabara. 

The Year: 2008

The Trip: Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo. It was the juggernaut of my trip to Japan and on the second day of my visit, I was scheduled to take it on. The city had loomed over my imagination for many years, but it was one of those cities that carried with it so much cultural weight that it had become almost mythological in its reputation. Like Paris, I had experienced so much of the city already through other people’s interpretations in film, music, and entertainment. I had heard of the skyscrapers filled with floor upon floor of arcade games lit up in a neon explosion, designed to lure you in and keep you lost there for hours, until you can no longer remember if it was day or night when you first walked in.

Not that it would matter, for I heard tales of a Times Square on steroids, except in every part of the city. Every piece of technology chirped, blooped, and bleeped something at you, vying for the few milliseconds of time you could spare while crossing a street filled with a mass of moving people so thick it would give the migration herds of the Savannahs a run for their money. I watched documentaries detailing the dens of iniquity to be found in the basement floors and back alleys of Tokyo’s red light district, each club kinkier than the next. And I took it all in, wondering in the back of my mind if when I did make it out to Tokyo if it would ever live up to the expectations I now had for it.

It did.

My knowledge beforehand had briefed me on what I might expect, but I was still wholly and completely floored and absorbed by the city. And yes, there were giant LCD screens chirping out a flashy advertisement every few seconds. Yes, there were lots of neon lights. And yes, there were plenty of maid cafes, manga shops, and electronic stores to last for weeks. There were arcade buildings seven stories high. Whole floors of shops dedicated to just cameras; many brands I had never heard of before. There was crazy fashion in harajuku and crazy prices in Shibuya.

shibuya tokyo japan

There was everything you’d expect to be in Tokyo, and yet there was still so much that surprised me. I think what threw me off at first was despite how much blatant consumerism was in my face everywhere I walked, it was not soulless. The cartoon faces and cheery voices spoke to the kid in me and made it seem like I should spend a few extra Yen on a coin purse that looked like a frog eating the change that was deposited into it. And why not? I deserve to treat myself! Oh what’s this? A shirt that says “I hate everything and I want to die” with a rainbow underneath? Either this shirt has the best sense of humor I have ever encountered, or there was a huge misunderstanding at the t-shirt factory. I must have it. Yes, you can have all my Yen. Take it. Take it and continue to entertain me. I had never felt so strongly that feeling that I was completely out of place and so painfully a foreigner. I loved it.

akihabara manga stores

However the biggest surprise came to me when we were wandering around the city after some cheap karaoke in Shinjuku. My sister’s friend (and our guide for the night) stopped us for a moment and said “and here’s the red light district” as though it was the neighborhood corner store. I didn’t know what I thought their red district would look like. Our imaginary boundary to the “seedy” part of town looked no different from the place we had just left. There were no women waiting at corners trying to spot potential customers. No drug addicts fighting in the nearby allies over a few dropped coins, and no motels that looked like you could catch all the letters of hepatitis at once if you crossed its threshold. It looked pretty much like any other part of the city. I didn’t believe him at first. But then he pointed out the billboards, and I noticed that they had changed. There were a lot of advertisements featuring young, fresh-faced men with hair that would make David Bowie envious. Boy bands, I thought. Not so.

shinjuku host club

“Look at this. They’re for host clubs.”

“Host clubs?”

“Where women pay to be entertained and catered to by the young man of their choice.”

“So a brothel, essentially?”

“No, not sex. At least not on business hours. They basically pay them to be their boyfriend for the night.”

This was something completely new to me. I had never heard of such a thing[1]. Then, after I was just getting used to this new concept, we saw a couple of host club workers smoking a cigarette outside. They saw us looking and laughed at us, gesturing to ask us if we wanted a picture. It may have only been for business, but I thought it extremely satisfying that some of the friendliest strangers we encountered on the entire trip were workers in the red light district.

Tokyo is loud, expensive, crowded, and larger than is necessary, but it’s also incredibly unique and fiercely Japanese, despite so many cross-cultural influences. They may cater slightly to a foreign market as far as business is concerned, but their food, entertainment, and fashion culture is 100% original and authentic. And that’s exactly how I would like it to stay.  

host club hosts shinjuku


[1] Consequently, a few years later I stumbled upon a documentary called The Great Happiness Space detailing the lives of Host Club workers in Osaka. It’s a great insight into this unique business model and I highly recommend it.

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