In Shinjuku, the first challenge is getting out of the station. Said to be the world’s busiest; traversed by approximately 3 million commuters a day, Shinjuku has been a Japan Railways stop since 1885. The Chuo, Keio and Odakyu train lines as well as subway stops joined later, and the depot morphed into a dizzying, multileveled warren of platforms, shops and restaurants.
Frenzied by day, the station quietens down shortly after 1 a.m., but for the snores of about 200 station employees who bunk there, as they’ve kind of missed the last train home.
The ward of Shinjuku has two such personalities, one staid and the other edgy. Politicians and peep-show pros, sky-scraping pinnacles and “Piss Alley,” street performers and geisha — they all share the area.
“People always compare our ward to Shibuya,” nattily dressed Shinjuku Ward office volunteer Kimio Kubonoya, 62, says, “but this is by far the most exciting and lively place in Tokyo. It’s an older, more adult area.”
Putting aside the word “adult” for the moment, Shinjuku was paved with streets when Shibuya was still a rural backwater. During construction of Edo castle’s outer moat in the 1630s, many shrines and temples were relocated to the Yotsuya area. Streets were made to service worshippers, and later to handle traffic departing the Edo city gates of Yotsuya Okido to points west on the Koshu Kaido.
The Okido gate — once wooden, now dust — is marked by a monument near the eponymous entrance to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The park is one of Tokyo’s finest. Three thematic approaches — French, English, and Japanese — provide a variety of vistas across the 57.6 hectares. This week, it’s all about flowering white magnolias, but 1,500 cherry trees will soon blossom and blanket in pink the parkland once owned by Naito Kiyonari, a retainer of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Naito’s holdings included a parcel of property he offered up as a much-needed rest stop for Koshu Kaido travelers in 1698. The popular Naito Shin (new) Juku (lodging) became one of the city’s four major post towns, as well as a popular drinking spot.
In addition to alcohol, Shinjuku has played a central role in providing Edo and Tokyo with drinking water. Running subjacent to the Shinjuku tunnel and parallel to present day Naito-cho are remnants of the Tamagawa Josui, an Edo-era waterway of carved stone and wooden pipes built by brothers Shoemon and Seiemon Tamagawa in the 1650s.
Outbreaks of cholera and eventual deterioration of the wooden Tamagawa conduits brought about the Shinjuku-based Yodobashi Purification Plant in 1892. Impressed with the plant’s engineering, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association of London presented Shinjuku with a ponderous commemorative fountain, which today sits just outside the east exit of Shinjuku Station. The 1906 fountain of carved bloodstone offers sipping troughs for horses front and center, dogs and cats at the bottom, and humans in the rear. Its priapic shape seems somehow emblematic of nearby gay district Shinjuku 2-chome and the red-light parlors of Kabuki-cho.
Most of central Shinjuku survived the earthquake of 1923, only to lose 90 percent of all its buildings in World War II bombings. Reconstruction efforts were meant to include a kabuki theater, but money was tight, leaving only the name as a reminder of good intentions. Today, sex-shop touts nimbly dodge the surveillance cameras intended to curb crime, continuing the area’s brisk business in mizu shobai (the water trade, i.e. entertainment industry).
But one traditional stage survives. Rebuilt after the war, Suehirotei, an 1897 rakugo (comic monologue) theater, graces a backstreet minutes from Isetan department store, near Golden-gai, a comb of fabulously seedy bars frequented by writers, filmmakers, intellectuals and the occasional gangster.
The claustrophobia-inducing underpass toward the west side of Shinjuku Station feeds into a web of yokocho (side alleys) with a postwar patina. The names of some alleys, shomben (urine) and gokiburi (cockroach) might be better lost in translation, but the Lilliputian yakitori and drinking joints are fully packed by 5 p.m. every night.
Nearby loom Shinjuku’s skyscrapers, clustered around like lanky teenagers at a dance, grouped, but not too closely. Queen bee is, of course, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Headquarters, or “Tocho.” You can get a free gander of Shinjuku from either of the 45-story twin towers designed by Kenzo Tange, but the south one has a cafe and gift shop. Bewilderingly similar from below, a top-down view of the area’s buildings reveals creative details: The crystal-like skylights of the Park Tower complex, the Hilton’s wave-shaped top, and NTT’s DoCoMo Yoyogi Building, which currently boasts the world’s tallest clock tower and seems to beg a date with King Kong.
A plummet back to the street level leads to free performances of buto dancers, Peruvian musicians or the guy who snaps a surgical glove over his face and inflates it until he resembles a chicken. In the northwest corner of the same ward, however, some of the world’s most costly entertainment can be arranged.
The cobblestone backstreets of Kagu-razaka sequester remnants of the floating world in authentic ryotei, guesthouses graced by geisha. Exit west from Iidabashi Station and you’ll find the Canal Cafe, offering coffee and rowboat rental, snuggled in at the foot of the famous Kagurazaka hills.
Bishamonten Shrine, halfway up the slope, is often used as a filming location for period dramas, but will you catch a glimpse of the geisha? Kagurazaka residents well might respond in French, “Non.” Shinjuku Ward boasts the largest concentration of registered foreigners in Tokyo, and the French portion clearly favors Kagurazaka, evidenced by the plethora of crepe shops, brasseries and bistros.
Though not the garb of modern gals or geisha, kimono dyed in the intricate stenciled patterns known as Edo Komon were once as popular as designer jeans, and they were favored by the samurai class. Using techniques developed centuries ago, the dyeing atelier Tomita Some Kogei, two minutes from Omokagebashi on the Toden Line, was opened in 1914. Today, craftsmen still gingerly handle costly carved stencils of persimmon-coated paper, use dyes mixed with mochi rice paste, then steam and rinse the finished cloth. Tomita’s tiny fabric museum holds periodic hands-on demonstrations of the craft (by reservation, in Japanese: call  3987-0703).
Last, in the lower west appendix of Shinjuku, the impressively domed Meiji Kaigakan houses a staid series of paintings depicting the reign of Emperor Meiji, as well as the remains of the imperial mount, Kinkazan. One massive glass case holds Kinkazan’s bones, and the other his stuffed body covered in his “not so glossy fur.” The split display is very Shinjuku.