What to see in Shinjuku for first-time visitors

Shinjuku is Tokyo big city life all rolled up into one lively ward. Shopping, eating, drinking, flashing neon signs, giant crowds in suits; it’s all here, right next to the world’s busiest train station.

Shinjuku is a big economic hub in Tokyo, and a wonderful jumping off point into the neon-lit megacity madness that many people expect to find in Tokyo; a world of swarming pedestrian crossings, rattling train bridges, skyscrapers blinking in the sun, and billboards warring for attention.

Getting started

The coins rattled and clinked as they fell down, and with a thunk, our Cherry Coke fell out of the bottom of the vending machine. Now, we had the energy to explore mighty Shinjuku!

Urban sketch of a restaurant in tokyo's omoide yokocho alley

To be honest, we found Shinjuku to be a bit overwhelming, and quite often we stood at intersections with big cartoon question marks above our heads, trying to decide where to walk. So, let’s unravel this wonderful place!

Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest station

One of the biggest landmarks in Shinjuku is the gigantic Shinjuku station – the world’s busiest station – a sprawling ants nest with over 200 exits and countless sushi and pastry shops.

Shinjuku vs. Everywhere else

3.5 million people use Shinjuku every day. That’s amazing (but hard to wrap your head around)!

Let’s put it into context, with some comparisons.

  • Flinders Street Station, Melbourne – 92,000 people per day.
  • Gare du Nord, Paris – 590,000 people per day
  • Grand Central Station, New York City – 750,000 people per day
  • London Waterloo – 575,000 people per day

Omoide Yakocho

Eating here is not a problem – there are more than five and a half thousand restaurants in this ward alone! One nice place to find restaurants is Omoide Yakocho, a crookback alley lined with glowing red lanterns, fake maple leaves and tiny, tiny noodle bars (some with seats that you can count on one hand). We also found Hanazono Shrine, an Edo-period gem tucked away between skyscrapers.

Sketch of a Japanese temple and steps
A temple in the heart of Tokyo

Funny traffic

Out on the roads, a group of Mario Kart-style go-karts waited patiently at traffic lights in full costume, perfectly happy to mingle with regular cars. A Hachiko-inspired bus rolled past, as did a local bus with Godzilla’s portrait on the destination readout.

Sketch of tokyo highway with mario kart racers
Mario kart racers competing on the roads of tokyo

Purikura – Japanese photo booths

If you want to learn the language of cutesy Japanese stuff, you only need to learn one word. Kawaii means cute, and once you’ve learned the word, you’ll hear it said everywhere. There even seems to be a distinctive tone to say it for maximum effect.

Cute photo booth photos from tokyo
Our purikura strip

Let’s imagine something impossibly cute happens – like your holding a tiny baby rabbit asleep in your hands, then it yawns, rolls over, and goes back to sleep. Now you’re ready to deliver your kawaii – in a high, girly voice, draw out your kawaii to an ‘awwww….kawaiiiii!!…‘ and you’re on the right track. Armed with this knowledge, we went homed in on our first Purikura.

Purikura is a Japanese style of photo booth, which autocorrects your face with adorable anime eyes, airbrushed skin and blushy cheeks, and lets you add colours, stamps and Japanese phrases.  The Purikura booths are usually in big arcades, and the machines (with gigantic airbrushed Japanese girls’ faces on the side) have multiple booths for different layers of editing.

They’re usually about 300 Yen, and you start by choosing your colour scheme, and have your picture taken in different photobooth poses. Next up, you select the percentage of how big you want your eyes to be, and finally, you have a few minutes to draw stuff and place stamps and phrases with a stylus and touch screen. And voila! A Purikura prints out, and you’ve finally become the J-Pop star you always wished you were!

Play Pachinko (if you dare enter the building)

If your not a teenage girl, or a couple of tourists keen for a laugh (apparently unaccompanied men aren’t even allowed in these arcades), there’s a different kind of popular activity more aimed towards men. We wandered into a Pachinko parlour out of curiosity, and found ourselves in an outrageous roar of noise.

The game appears to be something like pinball mixed with a poker machine (I didn’t play, and still am none the wiser what was happening), with all the machines laid out in rows like a huge casino floor, decorated floor to ceiling with bright colours and anime characters. Even in the middle of the day, it was packed.

Pachinko is played with little steel balls that crash around inside the machine, and it seems that the more steel balls you collect, the bigger the prize. The combined noise of hundreds of them meant that the place was deafening. With indoor smoking allowed, the Pachinko parlour was difficult to withstand for very long, so we wandered back outside, to see what other surprises we could find.

Have you been to Shinjuku? What was your favourite part? Let me know in the comments below!