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There are areas in Tokyo where every corner feels like Times Square. This is a city that truly utilizes its vertical space, with neon signs drawing you in to establishments on every single floor of a building. Not an inch is wasted. We stayed in Shinjuku — the large entertainment, business, and shopping area at the heart of the city.
Shinjuku station is the busiest railway station in the world with over two million people passing through every day. Thanks to our years of city living, Andy and I were able to navigate pretty much any public transportation system we came across on our travels, even in foreign languages. But Tokyo took it to the next level. We had never seen a more complex subway map. Even four New Yorkers couldn’t decipher it.
Tokyo is dense in a way that I had never seen in another city. While New York City is dense, it’s most compact in the centralized island of Manhattan. But Tokyo feels like 10 Manhattans spread across Brooklyn and New Jersey and beyond. These are some views from the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills.
What fascinated me the most about Tokyo was how incredibly familiar the city felt, but how shockingly different, and seemingly bizarre, so many parts of the culture were to us. It gave you that twilight zone feeling where you thought you knew the game, but the players were different, and the rules had totally changed. Case in point: this six-story glass building that I mistook for some kind of mall, but turned out to be an enormous arcade in the heart of a buzzing district. And it wasn’t just filled with teenagers, but businessmen, who played these video games around the clock.
We ducked inside to find out what in the world was on their screens and were instantly hit with a thick cloud of smoke. There was even a pop-up shower in the corner of the arcade, for a five minute refresh before you went back to hours in front of the mermaid game.
Golden Gai is a small area of Shinjuku which consists of just six narrow alleys. Squeezed into these narrow passageways are over 200 compact bars, eateries, and clubs — many only able to fit six customers at a time. Golden Gai is a perfectly preserved slice of old Tokyo nestled between the modern high-rises that are the hallmark of new Tokyo.
Many of the bars seem themed or cater to different clientele, and the majority of them only serve regulars or locals. A couple of times bartenders threw up their arms in the shape of an X when we walked in, indicating that tourists weren’t welcome. We could respect that. It was fun to just walk through the streets and peek into these miniature worlds. We eventually found a spot that took us in, and we spent a long night squeezed in the most compact bar of all time drinking rounds of sake.
One afternoon, we checked out Omotesando — a popular and swanky neighborhood in Toyko. Hidden in the back of a machiya (traditional wooden house) in the residential area is Omotesando Koffee. This hole-in-the-wall establishment exemplifies the Japanese love of precision and attention to detail. The space is everything you would expect in a Japanese coffee shop — minimalistic, clean, and efficient. There’s only one barista in the 10-by-10 foot space and each drink is lovingly crafted to perfection over the course of 10 to 15 minutes.