Tokyo is well-known for being one of the world’s safest cities – if not the safest. Violent crime and thefts are exceptionally low. People leave their brand new MacBooks on the tables in Starbucks to reserve their seats. An efficient transport system, clean facilities and a genuine willingness among locals to help out with directions make the city a perfect base for first-time visitors to Asia who want to get a feel for a different culture but without worrying too much about safety. It’s impressive, especially when thinking of the scale of the metropolis.
Yet every city has a dark side… a down-on-its-luck area, a place with a name that raises eyebrows and produces incredulous whispers of “You’re not heading there, are you?” One such place is Uguisudani. Located in the notorious Taito Ward, which has the highest crime rate in Tokyo, it lies along the northern edge of Ueno Park and ranks in the top 10 cheapest places to rent a place to live on the popular JR Yamanote line. It’s known for its love hotel district, particularly those that cater to the more mature market.
Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to spend a night in possibly Tokyo’s most dangerous residential neighborhood, along with the surrounding downtown areas of eastern Ueno and Yoshiwara, an infamous old red light district.
Does Tokyo have a dark and shady underbelly? I’ve got 24 hours to find out.
Morning time (just about)
I arrive in Okachimachi to the south of Ameyokocho (literally “candy alley”). Formerly, a black market that sold U.S. military goods, it’s now stuffed with discount items and Chinese eateries crammed under the alleyways, all vying for the tourist trade. It’s certainly got a grimier feel than most of Tokyo.
An Unseemly Encounter at an Adult Cinema
I head north toward Ueno Park and pass the Okura Cinema. It’s one of the last “pink theatres” in Tokyo where you can watch a programme of adult films. Despite the mainly heterosexual content, I’ve heard it’s a popular pick-up spot for gay men. I stop to admire some of the raunchy posters.
An old man on a bicycle approaches me.
“Oi, sister! Are you interested?”
“Well… kind of….”
“Let’s go see it together, eh?”
Less than one hour into my mission to find the dark and dirty and I’ve been invited to an adult movie. On the matter of safety, however, I think I can say if you aren’t taking photos of boobs outside a porno theatre, this will never happen to you.
Lunch time – fancy cakes or greasy noodles?
I stroll the eastern perimeter and pass the station. It’s safe to say that this area does look run-down and in need of a bit of love. Not that there is a lack of love around. I immediately find myself in alleyways and alleyways of love hotels, where couples looking for more privacy than afforded by Japanese apartments, can stay for as little as two hours.
I hurry onwards in search of lunch. My target: a tsukemen (dipping noodles) joint. I arrive and find it no more than a tiny wooden counter with four seats. Sablon Ura literally means “Behind Sablon” and this is a true, sweet love story (pun intended). The owner Hideyoshi Yamasaki always wanted to open a tsukemen restaurant but he and his wife wanted to work together and she wasn’t too keen on making smelly soup. So he trained to be a pâtissier, and only opened the tsukemen restaurant behind the cake shop later down the line. The choice of Uguisudani as the location? Half-way between their family homes. How is that for romance?
I do have a question the sign that says “Please pay in cash before your meal.” He admits he has had a couple of customers who have made a run for it.
The portions are incredible. I tuck into the classic chicken-seafood broth and receive 300g of noodles for just 700 yen. I’m a bit scared of how large the large might be. For 200 yen, I receive a ridiculously fancy dessert plate of delicate puff pastry pies, custard cream, and homemade jam. This place is truly dangerous to one’s waistline.
Tsukemen-ya Ura Sablon
Brothels and books
I head eastward through various quiet, grey residential streets. There doesn’t seem to be much happening but there is a sign on a local community noticeboard about various scams. Watch out if someone offers to send you fruit. IT COULD BE A TRAP.
I meet up with someone who I recently befriended on Twitter. . He’s an urbanism scholar specialising in subcultures in Tokyo. We are headed to explore Yoshiwara, a famous red-light district during the Edo period.
It seems the main street is still lined with brothels. Each establishment has a man standing outside, presumably to drum up some trade from passers-by. Since prostitution is illegal in Japan, there are many euphemistic services advertised such as “soaplands” – places where women wash down men with their naked bodies. We are largely ignored, and while there is no feeling of danger, I am distinctly uncomfortable wondering what life is like for the women behind those walls. Japan is known for its “black companies” that exploit their workers, and these are likely just as prevalent in the sex industry.
We wander down to Kasutori, a nondescript store that specialises in books on the history of the area and sex work. My companion enthusiastically discusses literature with the shopkeeper while I just flick through some raunchy pictures.
Help me, I’m a hipster
Yoshiwara Shotengai (shopping street) has that distinct feeling of abandonment with many places shuttered and hardly any shoppers.
However, one store catches our eye – Sanya Sakaba. It has rows of what look like jars of homemade liquor. We push open the door and, ignoring the slightly peculiar smell, step inside.
It’s brightly lit and brightly coloured and completely empty. We are directed to a red plush chair. It turns out the place only opened last year. Soon, a young couple streams in for drinks and nibbles.
I realise we have stumbled across a great threat… to house prices. Gentrification is here. This is the equivalent of Dalston in my hometown of London. It’s hipster central.
At 500 yen, I sip an intriguing cinnamon and star anise spiced liquor while admiring pop-art pineapples. Life is good.
Do you Bedgasm?
The area is full of cheap hostels aimed at backpackers and so it’s hard to choose. Yet Hostel Bedgasm won on the name alone.
I go to check in and discover my bed for the night (3000 yen) comes with a free drink. Next thing I know I have homemade plum wine and have taken over their music and am busting out my best dad moves. The other travellers don’t join in.
Desperate search for food
Two drinks in, and lunch was a long time ago. We wander down to Uguisudani Station area where there is a narrow network of alleys before the love hotels take over. Men are grilling yakitori at an open kitchen, while suited customers, fresh off work, stand around chomping on chicken through the wafts of smoke. 70 yen a stick? We are down! There are only a few standing tables so we have to share. We quickly make friends with some hip-hop dancers. Uguisudani is too cool.
Next up, round the corner, we pile into an izakaya with some very good sake in the window.
We are so eager we don’t stop to think about the menu. The place specialises in shellfish. Neither of us like shellfish very much. The scallop in soy-sauce butter tastes fine, but some bonito is salty enough to trigger a craving for 5 litres of beer. Still, the staff are more than happy to tell us all about sake.
It’s time for some more cheeky adventures. The love hotel neighborhood has transformed into a colourfully lit gawdy area. Couples, arms around each other, stumble into their venue of choice.I head up to the main road and buy some Minion-themed ice-cream. Nothing says Friday night drinking than inter-izakaya snacking. I look up and notice women in panties have their butts pressed up against the window as they serve customers at a bar…Great multitasking.
I meet up with local resident Celica, who is amused/intrigued by my mission to find this “dark side” of Uguisudani.
“Growing up, I never really thought anything of it,” she says. “When I went to university, many people were surprised when they heard where I was from and they asked me about the love hotels. It was only then I started to see it more objectively.”
“I never feel it’s dangerous around here. It’s very easy to live here… and you see the same faces in the community all the time. There’s a sense of continuity, when the rest of Tokyo is changing.”
We stretch out on our low seats, munching sashimi and drinking sake until 2 am. I think at one point I pledge my true love to an excellent plate of fig and parma ham.
“This izakaya is a lot nicer than I expected,” Celica says. “It’s really, really good.”
Uguisuidani has more than a few cheeky surprises.
Morning… I’m not sure about the “good”
I have had 4 hours’ sleep. My hostel room hasn’t had the air changed in days and I feel like I am suffocating. One girl is coughing her lungs out. Another is merrily snoring. I forgot to bring any clothes so I am still in last night’s outfit.
I NEED COFFEE.
I head to a local institution called Den. It’s a kissaten (Japanese-style coffee house) with Showa-style (1960-1980s) aesthetic – dark wooden panels and faux-Western style upholstery.
I settle down and watch a silver-haired local couple chomp through thick cut shokupan (soft white bread).
Den does a really decent breakfast for 500 yen. But it’s famous for soft cream and coffee, and their weekend special toast stuffed with beef stew and topped with grilled cheese. And I just need it.
I ORDER IT ALL.
Eating ice-cream for breakfast… pulling a loaf of bread apart and dunking it in stew and cheese. I am not sure about dangerous, but it’s definitely liberating to abandon all pretensions of adulthood.
Sorry Tokyo Survival Channel, that was too easy. Tokyo has some seedy areas but the main danger is that they are dangerously cheap…
Uguisudani has a load of backpacking hostels, because the low rent means affordable rates for budget travellers. And with tons of wallet-friendly izakaya, and even a bakery that offers free coffee in the morning, it’s a perfect base and comes highly recommended.
One final note…
Leaving Uguisudani, I had a flashback. I had been here 4 years ago and I had left my phone at the ticket machine. A man had rushed after me to return it. The perfect tale of Tokyo safety and kindness.
Tips for staying safe in Tokyo
- Ask at a koban (police box) if you are lost, have lost something or need some help in any way – there are many around.
- Female travellers may wish to use women’s only train carriages, especially during peak times, as groping incidents and up-skirt photos are not uncommon.
- Avoid restaurants or bars that have staff on the street trying to convince you to go in – they are generally low quality and may try to rip you off.
- Always ask for a menu before ordering, especially if drinking in clubbing/party areas, and be wary of cover charges.
- Finally, according to local wisdom, don’t accept free fruit?!