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! 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. 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.
One of the biggest landmarks is the gigantic Shinjuku station – the world’s busiest station – a sprawling ants nest with over 200 exits and countless sushi and pastry shops. Nevertheless, we memorised parts of it quickly during our subsequent subway journeys. 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. 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.
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. 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!
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.