NORTHWEST (Yoyogi to Sugamo)
8. World’s Busiest
The area around Yoyogi Station is bustling. It is getting close to lunchtime so people are heading into the restaurants. Just around the corner from the station there is a whole street dedicated to eating. The bright yellow colours and the menu at Go Go Curry look very inviting but for now I want to push on.
I pass under the tracks once more and soon find myself back inside the loop heading past the front of Takashimaya Times Square itself. This giant complex opened in the early 2000s and has 15 floors of shops and restaurants. It sits pretty much in the middle of the route between Yoyogi and the next station.
Before too long I am standing at the southern edge of the world’s busiest station: Shinjuku. There is a tourist information office and a map of the vast complex here. I don’t really need either as I lived close by here for over 3 years and I am confident I can still easily find my way around.
For old time’s sake I walk over to the western exit of the station and to the edge of the skyscraper district. I stand on the crossing and think about all the times I have walked this way before. I contemplate finding one of my old haunts and having lunch but decide to push on.
I pass by the front of the “Subnade” arcade. There is a sign for the “Doctor Foot” clinic and a big advertisement for coming Sakura (cherry blossom) Festival. At first glance nothing major seems to have changed around here.
I meet a friendly tramp on the side of the road and the encounter reminds me that Shinjuku always had more than its fair share of people sleeping rough, no doubt it still does.
I return to the east exit of the station.
9. Taiwanese Massages and Halal Food
I pause briefly outside the exit to inspect a couple of old photographs of Shinjuku they have on display. There is one from 1932 and another from 1958. Both seem to show a completely different place that is totally unrecognisable from what Shinjuku has grown into today.
There is a smoking area just in front of the station and it is full of people standing smoking. One of the biggest changes I can see in the last 30 years is the change in attitude to smoking. It is now frowned upon to smoke on the street outside these areas, before it used to be absolutely fine to smoke in a restaurant.
I cross the main road and head into Kabukicho. This is Tokyo’s largest red light district and it is full of nightclubs, bars and other venues. Even in the day it is colourful but with its endless bright lights it comes into its own at night. I skirt the edge of the district as I walk along the side of Seibu Shinjuku station.
As I make my way down the road I pass various pachinko parlours and hostess bars. There is a Chinese place offering Shanghai seafood curry and several establishments offering Taiwanese-style massages. Outside one of the clubs a guy is delivering fresh oshibori; the little hot towels you get in restaurants.
I cross once again under the tracks and then, with the Yamanote line a block to the east, I head north into the district of Shin Okubo. This area is known as Koreatown and the place has a very international feel to it. I pass the Tokyo World Japanese Language School and I am surprised at how large it is. Not unsurprisingly there are suddenly a lot of non-Japanese people in the streets; predominantly South East Asians.
Near the school there is a little truck manned by Turkish people selling kebabs. They try to sell me one. At 300 yen it is tempting but I am not really interested in Turkish food today. They are very friendly though and we chat for a while in Japanese and English.
The JB Halal food store next to them has a large sign outside with the flags of Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and India to advertise what kind of food it sells. Underneath the flags are the words “African food and spices also available”
I always remember this area being quite international, but it seems to have become even more so in the last 30 years. There are countless South East Asian restaurants, notably Thai, and the streets are full of people of all races. I notice that the signs above the estate agents and travel agencies are often in Korean and Chinese too.
I walk on a little further and arrive at Shin Okubo Station.
10. Cut Price Onions
The area around the station is bustling and very colourful. The international atmosphere continues north of the station too. There are even more Thai restaurants and the Yin Zhao Kui Hair Salon is busy with customers having false eyelashes fitted.
This part of town also looks a little poorer than anything I have seen so far. There is an old-style supermarket doing a roaring trade in cheap vegetables (10kg of onions reduced from 890 to 780 yen) and there are quite a few pawn shops here as well.
After a few more metres, the bustle gives way to greenery. I walk on with a small park to my left and the railway to my right. The road itself is full of parked taxis with the drivers sat inside eating their boxed lunches.
The road dips down and I make a right under the railway via a concrete underpass to emerge in the southeastern part of Takadanobaba. I make my way past a large post office, around the eastern exit of the station and arrive at the north exit. There is a large colourful mural decorating the under bridge opposite me.
11. Lunch at Matsuya
As I start to head north again I pass through an arch that introduces the little shopping street it leads to as “Sakae Dori, gateway to Tokyo Fuji University”. It is a quaint little street and it reminds me of the area I used to live in Shinjuku in the early 90s.
A few shops along there is a Matsuya gyudon place. Unable to fend off the pangs of hunger any longer, I dive in. Gyudon is a Japanese classic fast food dish. It was developed in the late 19th century and it consists of a bowl of rice with ultra thin sukiyaki-flavoured strips of beef on the top. In Matsuya you order it by buying a ticket from a machine and presenting it to the chef. This feature endeared it to me in my early days in Tokyo as it meant I could eat easily without having to speak the language.
I buy my ticket and present it to the young guy behind the counter. He is Chinese. He is chatting in his own language to the customer sitting next to me. These types of places have a lot of non-Japanese working in them now and it is not unusual to see young people from many Asian nations working in fast food and convenience stores; something that was almost unheard of 30 years ago.
The food is delicious and the taste brings back lots of nice memories. Within 10 minutes I am done and out on the road again. I continue along the shopping street passing a little vegetable shop displaying tangerines and apples neatly arranged 3 or 4 a piece in blue plastic baskets.
I pass the Sakura Tokyo Japanese School, appropriately decorated by a pink-cherry blossom sign, and then wait at the nearby level crossing for the Seibu Shinjuku line train to pass on its way into the city. It reminds me of waiting at Takadanobaba for my first Japanese girlfriend who lived out west on the same line.
Soon I am on a narrow road to the left of the tracks again. I pass the “Fun” barber shop and then a few hundred metres later I am standing alongside Mejiro Station.
12. Bag Pond
I set off again following a similar narrow path to the left of the tracks. Walking along this section I soon encounter the “Vegetarian Beast”. It is not as frightening as it sounds though as it is merely a small vegan deli with a large sign outside, only in English, advertising “Meat-Free every day/ Beer and Wine”.
I am now approaching Ikebukuro and, slightly off to the west, I know, is the area where I first lived in the autumn of 1987. I have been back since but today I haven’t really time to explore further. Nevertheless, I detour slightly towards the old area and try to catch a bit of the atmosphere of the streets a few blocks to the left of the tracks.
I manage to find a street with a “red lantern” pub on it. It doesn’t look at all familiar but perhaps it was one of the ones we visited on one of the many pub crawls we made 32 years ago.
I manage to find one old looking house, but almost all the other houses are modern now. It seems this area at least has been extensively modernised in the last 30 years. I pause to watch some workers building yet another house. The speed at which they build houses in Japan is incredible.
On one of the walls of a modern concrete building someone has sprayed the English words “Graffiti is the Language of the Ignored”.
As I approach the south of Ikebukuro I head back under the railway to skirt the front of the massive Seibu Department Store and then I emerge at the east exit of the station.
The word Ikebukuro is made up from two words each represented by a Kanji character – “Ike” for pond and “Fukuro” for bag. There are quite a few explanations on how exactly the place got its name, but I like the one that suggests there was once a pond here that was shaped quite like a bag.
13. Sunshine in the East
I have now finished with my journey north. As it leaves Ikebukuro the Yamanote line swings around towards the east. I now head off in a northeasterly direction to intersect it at the next station. .
Although we used to live on the west side of Ikebukuro between 1987 and 1988, we often made forays to the eastern side too. I am back once more on quite familiar territory.
At first glance it doesn’t seem to have changed too much. The Seibu department store, location of many a shopping trip back in the 80s, still dominates and the area off to the east still seems to be the same mixture of camera shops, fast food restaurants, game centres and pachinko parlours that it always was.
Ikebukuro is a major centre for fans of anime characters and the streets are filled with young girls; some of them are dressed as characters whilst others are carrying signs advertising the various establishments around the area.
I pass several amusement arcades and finally come to the Tokyu Hands DIY store. This brings back more memories; we used to come here to buy tools and supplies for our little DIY jobs.
I cross the road under the giant intra-urban motorway overpass and then approach what was, back in the 80s, Japan’s tallest building: Sunshine 60. Although it has now been surpassed by other buildings the skyscraper still looks very tall.
It is built on the site of the old Sugamo Prison. After the Second World War this notorious jail housed the “Class A” war criminals, including ex-Prime Minister Tojo himself, whist they were awaiting trial. There is a small memorial garden commemorating the old building.
Now on the other side of Sunshine 60, I walk past a small park with a “Koban” Police Box in front of it. I get a lovely smile from the policewoman inside. Then, via a series of non-de script narrow residential streets, I arrive at Otsuka Station.
14. Across the Tram Tracks
There is a big square in front of Otsuka station and I sit down for a bit of a rest. I have been walking almost nonstop and I am starting to get just a little tired. As I sit in the square I notice there are a lot of older people sitting around smiling at me. I am tempted to tell them why I am looking a bit tired, but decide not to. I smile back.
This is actually a great place for me to rest because passing right through the square are the trams of the Arakawa Line. The line is often called “Tokyo’s last surviving tram line” but this is actually slightly incorrect as it is really the amalgamation of two old tram lines. In any case there is also another line that still runs in the west of the city.
Suitably rested, I cross the tram tracks and then head underneath the Yamanote line and once more outside the loop. I am walking just to the north of the line now heading almost due east.
I keep a block or so north of the railway as I pass down another narrow lane. I walk past a police station, in front of a lovely old house with a tree full of tangerines and alongside a large plot of empty land.
Towards the end of all this there is a pleasant section of nicely redeveloped multi-coloured path which is lined by trees and adorned with little benches to sit on.
Eventually I emerge at a busy road with Sugamo Station directly opposite.