I was lucky enough to have some time off between jobs last week and so happened to be in Tokyo. So what does one do when they’re in the most vibrant city in the world with some time to kill? Well, I got myself a hotel in the middle of Kabukicho, the capital’s infamous red-light district, and being the absolute lad that I am — yep, you guessed it — spent the week… meticulously mapping out the busiest train station in the world.
Yes, I was given the seemingly impossible task of exploring every single exit of Shinjuku Station. To most people, this would be endlessly unpleasant and actually quite chunder-inducing, but as a closet train fan (well, not so closet anymore), I lapped up this opportunity and, to be honest, found the whole prospect rather titillating.
Having become something of a ‘tetsu-ota’ (train geek) over the past two-and-a-half years of living in Japan, I already had decent knowledge of the train system here and how mind-bogglingly populated it is — I say populated and not overpopulated because Japanese trains are one of the most efficient services in the modern world, and despite what you may have seen, there is room for everyone on the train! Shout out to all my eki men and women and all-round legends who run a well-oiled machine whilst looking incredibly dapper 100% of the time.
The exact figures are hard to pin down, but multiple sources suggest that Japan boasts the top five busiest train stations… IN THE WORLD. And being the smarmy little train fan that I am, I take great pride in navigating these mazes with maximum efficiency and where possible dropping irrelevant train factoids to the few remaining friends I have.
Top 5 Busiest Train Stations in the World
#5 Yokohama Station (Kanagawa): Approx. 760,000,000 people per year.
Completed it mate!
#4 Umeda Station (Osaka): Approx. 820,000,000 people per year.
U-med-a mistake if you thought this station would fool me.
#3 Ikebukuro Station (Tokyo): Approx. 910,000,000 people per year.
Been there, done that, got the
t-shirt Metapod teddy from the Sunshine City Pokémon Centre.
#2 Shibuya Station (Tokyo): Approx. 1,090,000,000 people per year.
I came, I saw, I found Hachiko with relative ease.
#1 Shinjuku Station (Tokyo): Approx. 1,260,000,000 people per year.
Number one, though even after many attempts and many hours spent not meeting up with those aforementioned friends, it never fails to baffle me.
On average, a staggering 3.6 million people use Shinjuku Station per day, across 20 tracks that are run by five different companies, using 35 platforms on the main station with a further 17 being accessible via the never-ending underground tunnels that connect the surrounding five stations: Tochomae, Nishi-shinjuku, Shinjuku-nishiguchi, Seibu Shinjuku and Shinjuku-sanchome.
It’s a web of confusion lying on, underneath and on top of, the most lavish, lewd and ludicrous metropolis within the sprawling urban jungle of Tokyo’s 23 wards, of which Shinjuku is the fast-beating heart. From the notorious neon of Kabukicho’s entertainment at the station’s north, to Tokyo’s largest lot of skyscrapers to the west — some shiny, some stoic, some sad looking — to the beautifully open yet intricately woven Shinjuku Gyo-en (Park) to the east, and with Shinjuku’s younger and trendier sibling — the sizzling Shibuya — just a short train ride south, it can oftentimes feel that Shinjuku Station is indeed the centre of Japan.
And the story goes that there are over 200 exits just waiting to be explored.…
Day 1 – Let’s Get Lost
My first stop was to 7-Eleven to print out some maps. I always liked the aesthetic of the postcard option they offer and at ¥60 each I think it’s very reasonable — they’re great for all sorts of cards and 7-Eleven one-time-print is very straightforward to use.
The next stop after that was the Shinjuku Tourist Information Center where I could pick their brains about my challenge.
In typical Japanese fashion, I was greeted by the most lovely and helpful attendant. She was very intrigued to listen and learn about my challenge and provided me with an assortment of maps and ideas and also mentioned a giant new 3D cat on the roof next to Studio ALTA.
I said my arigatou gozaimasu and just as I was about to leave with all my maps and a smile on my face, she called me back. She had another map for me and her colleague presented me with a parting gift of Japanese tea — what a perfect start to the day. Life can be so nice.
I really don’t know how or why there was a giant 3D cat on the roof by Studio ALTA, but it was a very welcome addition to my day and other folk seemed to be taking an interest too.
There was also this gold 3D (and touchable although probably don’t) lion by the exit. Now I don’t have any hard feelings whatsoever towards this lion, but I’ve seen some people calling him the Hachiko of Shinjuku and I don’t think it’s on to be honest.
Right then, let the games begin!
I was by the East Gate when I declared that the games should begin, but it didn’t seem like the most convenient place to start — too confusing, too central, too many people. So I decided to head to the most westerly exit of Shinjuku Station and work my way in, that way at least there could be some order to the chaos, a route to the unroutable.
I had a quick stop at Book 1st to browse through the latest Japan Railfan Magazine.
A nice break, but I then realised that even the book shops were exits… so as well as all the actual, normal exits on the maps, I had to find those that were hidden in plain sight!
According to this map, the most westerly exit was A5, which comes out at the delightful location of Shinjuku Chuo Park.
I went to go down the entrance only to notice it was leading me down something that wasn’t Shinjuku Station, hmmmmm.
Aha, but it turns out this is one of the five surrounding stations and also links to the main Shinjuku Station via the underground passage — so that’s where all these exits are sprouting from!
So, I was 820m from Shinjuku Station and I’d found my first exit. Thinking about it, this challenge was a bit mental.
I continued down the tunnel and found another exit: A7. This was getting quite easy actually.
At my third exit was where things started to get difficult. Because past A7 were C5 to C10 plus E1 to E5, and then there was a separate route down another corridor that went back towards the centre of the station.
Exits C4 and E2 apparently led to the Hyatt Regency Hotel (although I think you’ll be on the wrong side of the road!) and I definitely didn’t belong there, so up to E3 I went, which was out onto the street by the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building.
Back downstairs was a curious passage to Shinjuku I-Land — another maze in itself, full of shops, restaurants and impressive designs. It turns out the whole facility was part of an urban redevelopment project imagined by a group of 10 international artists back in the early ’90s.
Thus far it was tunnels, mazes and maps, and countless cool things in between. Also, with so many fascinating things to see, the systematic approach of west to east would have taken longer than I had available, so on day two an unexpected, new approach was taken.
Day 2 – A Day on the Green: High Places & Green Spaces
On Tuesday, I planned to check out a café with a friend for a late morning snack, or as some might say — brunch. I made a point not to suggest a meeting place and crossed my fingers hoping he’d mention one so that I could test my Shinjuku Station orientation skills. And like taking candy from a baby, he messaged (text copy and pasted directly, sorry Lee):
“I’ll be on the odakyu line. Let’s me the lumine I think south exit where the crossing is to get to the bus depot”
Now this message didn’t fill me with hope — typos and grammatical inaccuracies aside — because I didn’t know where he was referring to, however, I readily accepted the challenge!
And very quickly, I found the Lumine sign — I was getting good at this!
Turns out though, there are not one, not two, but three different Lumine malls in the station.
Fifteen minutes and many millilitres of sweat later, I found him. And actually for Shinjuku Station, this would be considered a success.
We headed for the café, and Lee likes Instagram you see, so there was one called nana’s green tea (all lowercase), which was perfect.
Lee then went to the beach (Tuesday midday — classic English teacher in Japan) and I pondered life in the station; and wanting a break from the dungeons of yesterday, went in search of some sunlight and the freshest air I could find.
Lo and behold, I went to the roof above the bus terminal at the south side of the station and found… a farm. An actual farm in Shinjuku Station.
I couldn’t quite believe it. And then that’s when the inspiration came… I chose a green top this morning. I went to nana’s GREEN tea (capitalised by me this time) for brunch. I happened upon a charming green farm on the roof of the station. Today was the day of “all things green” as decided by fate, not me. So I would map exits that led to anything and everything green.
And as for lunch…
In the need for constancy within my mammoth challenge, I took another trip to the Shinjuku Tourist Information Center — it was a different set of attendants that awaited today.
I didn’t think they could surpass yesterday’s crew and on my request for recommendations of green spaces within Shinjuku Station, I was told about Shinjuku Gyo-en, which confirmed my suspicions — they couldn’t top the Monday maestros.
Now I love Shinjuku Gyo-en, it’s number two on my list of great parks of Japan, however it wasn’t quite within the vicinity of the Shinjuku Station maze. Mainly though, I thought the attendant would’ve better gauged my untypically touristy bloke aura. Oh well.
However, after some off-the-beaten-path ideas and the now customary map-giving, I looked round to see Kotoko (my favourite attendant from today’s tourist team) running through the blazing afternoon heat to catch up with me to give me yet another map and some further ideas! Tuesday team, I doff my train-adorned sun hat to you.
So here are those rooftops and great green finds — they’re outside and airy and surprisingly quiet.
Shinjuku Station, Miraina Tower Gate, Exit
Excellent views, massive plants and lots of outdoor dining options.
Odakyu Roof Square
9F Odakyu Department Store, Shinjuku Station, JR West Gate and Odakyu West Underground Gate
This one wasn’t too big. It has a kids play area though and a little café to buy ice cream. And obviously this cold air cannon is pretty cool.
Isetan Shinjuku RF, Shinjuku-sanchome Station, Exit B4
Lots of places to sit and relax, very open and green.
Shinjuku Marui Main Building RF, Shinjuku-sanchome Station, Exit A1
This was my favourite one — an adorable English garden with kawaii fairy lights as well as plenty of seating to sit and chat with all your mates.
Day 3 – Floors and Floors of Stores
On the morning of day three I had to meet the challenge master who himself grew up in Tokyo. So I thought meeting him would be a breeze and largely it was. We met at the (touchable) gold lion at the north part of the east exit. But it turns out, the challenge master — a local Tokyoite — had to Google what the gold lion was. So sorry Mr Lion, but you my friend are certainly not the Hachiko of Shinjuku.
On meeting the challenge master, he had some empathy for the ridiculousness of my task, but mainly he just laughed and tapped his fingers together like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons — the mark of all good evil masterminds.
We parted ways — he went off to plot some more sinister things and obviously I stayed at the station.
There was even an RPG game called ShinjukuDungeon made about the bewildering layout – I dread to think how they mapped it all.
Usually in life, I try to stay away from the main department stores as there is often a high concentration of normal things and people and us rail fans don’t usually get what’s going on. However, as I roamed Lumine 1 BF1, these snazzy ties from Giraffe definitely won my approval.
And then off to see my trusted attendants again.
Here are some notable shops from Wednesday and the rest of the week:
ステッキのチャップリン (Chaplin’s Stick)
Hiltopia B1F, Nishi-shinjuku, Exit C8
I stumbled upon a basement boutique dedicated to Charlie Chaplin inspired canes. I simply had to stick around a little while.
Books Kinokuniya Tokyo
Times Square Building 6F, Shinjuku Station, Miraina Tower Gate
By far the most foreign language books in Japan that I’ve seen. Loads of English novels, Japanese novels translated into English, French stuff, those big art books, Vietnamese books, etc. Highly recommended.
Shinjuku Marui Annex
Shinjuku-sanchome Station, Exit A1/A2
A recommendation from Wednesday’s tourism attendants. Incredible anime shops, tons of niche goods, and most importantly, I found a Butterfree for ¥300.
Day 4 – Frugal Food Finds
The purpose of day four was to find good, affordable food amongst my many exits.
Earlier in the week, I’d been tempted by the hole-in-the-wall beeriness of Berg. And then, one wild night in Kabukicho when I was researching the station on my own at my hotel, I just so happened upon an article about Berg and its somewhat iconic status among Shinjuku-ites. So this was the first stop for the day and what a find it was!
Lumine EST B1, Shinjuku Station, JR East Gate
The stop at the Shinjuku Tourist Information Center that followed was another top performance from the attendants. I’d mentioned before that I’d be looking for various food spots, and on entering I was presented with a list of these in three different categories, all written out beautifully in both English and Japanese.
Other notable food spots over the week included:
Kogakuin University Shinjuku Campus 2F, Shinjuku Station, Exit S3
A perfect spot for a little pick-me-up. I did leave crying though — spicy broth plus spicy broth to the eye, ouch!
Metro Plaza, Shinjuku Station, West Exit
Recommended by an actual Shinjuku expert. This is one of the last remaining relics of the Metro Shokudo Gai, a locally loved row of restaurants now mostly closed after 54 years due to major redevelopments to further expand and also rename the station: Shinjuku Grand Terminal.
Shinjuku Station, Exit E9
A couple of old boys cook up an absolute storm for an unbeatable price. I was told by one of the tourism attendants that this was the good stuff and she wasn’t wrong.
Day 5 – The Terminal
And just like that, my journey was coming to an end.
After an exhausting four days of basically living in the station — of often feeling like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, of sometimes being made to feel like Martin Lawrence in Blue Streak, and of actually looking a bit like David Blaine in one of his stunts — there was certainly a great deal to think about.
Whilst I didn’t manage to reach every single exit, I still felt that I had, to an extent, conquered Shinjuku Station. And yes, sad as it may seem, I do take great pride in that. But if you have a decent map, a little time, some dedication and a goal – even if you don’t succeed – something good will probably happen along the way.
In the end, there were five main takeaways from my Shinjuku Station 200+ Exit challenge:
- Before you book a hotel in Shinjuku, check where it is located.
- Explore your esoteric interests as far as you can, even if Tokyo Survival Challenge doesn’t ask you (but it’s very nice if they do!)
- If you’re going to be in Shinjuku, definitely get the terminal map from the Shinjuku Tourist Information Center. The underground tunnels are so much easier to navigate with the map and it saves you from the sweltering summer sun.
- If you’re meeting with someone at Shinjuku Station, confirm a meeting place prior to arriving that you both know. If you’re meeting me, anywhere is fine.
- Shinjuku Station is mental and so was this challenge, but in the best way possible.