What is the Tokyo Red Light District?
One of the world’s most vibrant and decadent cities, Tokyo is home to the largest Red Light District in Asia and arguably the most technologically advanced in the world - customers can “purchase” Japanese girls on iPads!
The Shinjuko district boasts one of the most curious and eclectic nightlife scenes in the county, taking in the renowned strip of gay bars on 2-Chrome Street and the Kabukicho Red Light District which can be reached from the east exit of the teeming Shinjuko Station (aka the busiest train station in the world).
Unlike the majority of international religions, Shinto, one of Japan’s dominant faiths, does not consider premarital sex a sin; this acceptance of sexuality may well have contributed to the historic erotic references contained in Japanese artwork and cultural tradition as far back as the 8th century.
Prostitution and sexual entertainment has been alive and kicking in the Land of the Rising Sun for hundreds of years, through such mediums as oiran and the exotic geishas.
Travellers on TripAdvisor have christened the area an “adult playground”, with many deeming it a safe environment for all ages despite the nature of the attractions.
Is prostitution legal in Japan?
Japan has laws forbidding the sale of sex - however, “sex” in Japanese law is strictly limited to vaginal penetration, meaning anal and oral sex are perfectly legal.
Technically speaking, you can also pay to see a woman (or man) naked, touch a prostitute in other ways besides sexual intercourse or receive an erotic massage from a sex worker without worrying about criminality.
But if the traditional full monty is what you’re looking for, as with any law in any country, there are loopholes to be found.
Escort booking agents in Tokyo will often arrange “blind dates” between prostitutes and clients at hotels in and around the Red Light District, where the customer pays the agency as opposed to the working girl herself.
In the eyes of the courts, this constitutes a legitimate “coupling” making both parties free to engage in sexual activity without falling on the wrong side of the law.
Is Tokyo’s Red Light District safe for foreigners?
Kabukicho’s Red Light District is a teeming centre of culture and unconventional sex toys, making it a must visit for curious tourists in Japan.
But there are some rules of etiquette visitors must be mindful about, especially for non-Japanese speakers - for example, many bars in the district do not accept foreigners as customers due to the language barrier, and soliciting agents outside the adult clubs will usually avoid pitching to foreigners entirely.
The area has a plethora of bustling bars which are well known to be owned and run by the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia), and many stories have emerged from aggrieved travellers who had their drinks spiked and credit cards skimmed.
Making things all the more bizarre, the Yakuza and other mafia organisations are perfectly legal and are recognised as legitimate businesses in Japan, so be sure to keep your wits about you at all times inside Red Light territory just in case.
Being drunk and disorderly in public is particularly frowned upon in Japanese society, so be mindful of this when imbibing on holiday in Tokyo.
Reviews on TripAdvisor suggest Tokyo’s Red Light area is less sleazy than other Asian districts, making it more suitable to stroll through with children if all you’re after is an interesting walk after dark.
Prices and etiquette
Entrance to Red Light District bars and gentleman’s clubs usually stands at 7,000 yen (roughly $95 AUD), and that’s before you buy your first drink.
Most clubs have some form of dress code, so style yourself well and bring plenty of cash as credit cards are not widely accepted.
If you choose a Japanese girl to “spend time with”, expect to pay an hourly rate of several thousand yen depending on the sort of companionship you are after.
For example, so-called “pink salons” which specialise in oral sex charge 6,000 yen ($82 AUD) for 30 minute sessions.
Pole dancing performances could set you back anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 yen per hour (up to $163 AUD) and if you’re looking for one on one time with a high class escort, be prepared to pay at least five times that figure.
Travel advisory site Japan Info recently reported a story from foreigners visiting the Kabukicho Red Light District which claimed they were charged 2.6 million yen ($35,342 AUD) for drinking at a strip club, despite being assured their bill would be less than 4,000 yen ($54 AUD).
That said, the majority of online traveller reviews assured they were rarely approached by solicitors and when they were, the encounters were polite and courteous.
Things to do in the Red Light District
Where to eat
If reviews are anything to go by, the food available in Kabukicho seems to leave a lot to be desired with many tourists awarding one star ratings and scathing critiques.
Themed restaurants are a feature of Japan in general, and Tokyo’s Red Light District plays home to one of the most popular speciality eateries, Robot Restaurant, where you dine alongside mechanical mates and enjoy a bizarre, sense assaulting performance involving scantily clad girls gyrating on robotic creatures.
If you’re in search of something even weirder, liven up your night at Lockup, another themed diner where you can expect to find eyeballs in your dessert and cocktails served in test tubes.
Where to drink
Although Kabukicho has a sprawling underbelly of sexual activities on offer, the district also boasts some 300 straight up establishments where unusual cocktails are as exotic as things get.
One Canadian reviewer recommended stopping for a glass of Japanese whiskey somewhere along Shinjuku Omoide Yokochō, a narrow alley with tiny restaurants and bars suitable for every preference.
Golden Gai is one of the district’s most popular and tourist-friendly drinking holes, where a seat will cost you a maximum of $13 AUD.
Albatross and Hair of the Dog are other oft-frequented bars with lively rock music, and the area is also packed with excellent Karaoke bars like Utahiroba, Karaoke-Ken and Shidax, all offering good clean fun for friends and family groups.
Roll the dice at a pachinko parlor
Although gambling for money is illegal in Japan, the national arcade game of Pachinko has become extremely popular among risk takers and betting enthusiasts.
Similar to Australian “pokies” and European slot machines, there are hundreds of pachinko parlors in Japan laid out like casinos.
After inserting a coin into the pachinko machine, the game requires you to land a ball between two pegs and keep it in motion for as long as possible.
While pachinko balls cannot be exchanged directly for cash, parlors circumvent the law by swapping balls for tokens which are then switched for cash - another loophole of the Kabukicho district.
Tokyo Cheapo advises steering clear of empty parlors, as they probably have low pay-out rates.
Pay a visit to Godzilla
Perhaps the Red Light District’s most iconic sight outside of the clubs, the infamous Godzilla statue is the permanent overlord of the area and occasionally lights up with a ferocious roar!
The landmark makes for a great meeting point in the heart of Kabukicho, and sits beside the famous Toho cinema which offers a wide variety of dubbed and subtitled Japanese films.
Take in the neon billboards of the district while you’re at it for a taste of modern Japan.
Spend a “romantic” stay at a love hotel
Japanese love hotels are infamous short stay accommodations specifically designed for quick sexual trysts for couples to enjoy in total privacy.
Guests can choose between a full night or a “rest”, paid for by the hour, with many hotels offering additional features such as in-room jacuzzis, sex performances and light shows.
You Could Travel warn that you get what you pay for in Kabukicho love hotels, so be discerning - some establishments have also been known to refuse entry to foreign couples.
Hotel Perrier is a popular choice offering in-room air conditioning and free private parking, as well as on-demand video and WiFi for its clientele.
Immerse yourself in history at the Samurai Museum
Japan is revered for its incredibly rich history and culture, much of which has been meticulously remembered and represented at Kabukicho’s Samurai Museum.
The gallery is a family friendly option among the seediness of the Red Light District, spanning more than 800 years of history through costumes, weaponry and storytelling.
Tickets cost $23 AUD for adults and a reasonable $10 AUD for children.