Tokyo nightlife 2011


Jacuzzi karaoke, cross-dressing boyband stars and crisp-chomping ninja punks – yup, it’s Japan. Let Metro take you on a trip through Tokyo’s neon-lit cartoon ultra-world, where Mr Big is still huge and bands have names like ‘Bump of Chicken’…

Metro, 8 September 2011



It’s 7pm in the neon-lit warrens of Tokyo’s Kabukichô red-light district and the odd Yakuza gangster can be spotted skulking amid the sushi bars and strip clubs. But up on the sixth-floor of the Furin Kaikan building, there’s a more terrifying sight. Moshing away inside the gaudy cabaret club, are 200-or-so Japanese youth going psychopop berserk, wearing Venetian masks, gas goggles and eye patches. One Japanese girl dons a paper bag on her head, while another jumps up and down, making noises like a distressed dolphin. The object of their affections? A half-woman/half-man, half-human/half-panther hybrid who prowls down a catwalk, screeching in a nails-down-blackboard falsetto while her band (donning pink wigs) blast turbo-charged punk. Suddenly, silence. The singer launches into a soliloquy, thanking fans for being there. Everybody listens attentively for nine minutes.  

The concert by Ziyoou-Vachi (The Queen Bee) illustrates the bonkers nature of Tokyo’s music scene – one of the most delirious places to watch live music on earth. From the moment you arrive, jet-lagged and discombobulated after an 11-hour flight, you’re exposed to all manner of surreal music-related cameos, whether it’s a punk trio thrashing away with the singer bellowing into a megaphone on Shibuya’s giant zebra crossing or girls dressed as cartoon characters warbling tinny J-pop on Akihabra’s neon-wrapped streets. You’ll also stumble across some of the finest band names ever invented: Red Bacteria Vacuum, Ass Baboons of Venus, Spread Beaver, Win a Sheep Free and – exclamation-mark-haters beware – something called Dead! Snake! Come! On!

Our first taste of Tokyo’s music scene comes in Shimokitazawa, aka Tokyo’s Camden. While its London counterpart has Banksy-imitation-art, botulism kebabs and elfin indie kids, Shimokitazawa has frescoes of fat, smiling pigs, noodle joints and briefcase-clutching businessmen swaying drunkenly in the street. Concealed among the dim-lit streets are ‘livehouses’ – dark, cramped basements such as Shelter, Basement Bar and graffiti-splattered 2-5-1. Livehouses propels Tokyo’s music scene and here you’ll find acts like Extra Virgin Soo, four ninja-attired punk girls, whose singer shoves crisps into her mouth mid-gig, shouting, “I need to go to Hawaii, yes I do! No I don’t!”

Thanks to stringent noise curfews, most concerts (even at the Budokan enormodome) keep geriatric hours, often starting at 6pm, Some venues give you free drink tickets for turning up, others are BYO. Strangest of all is the ‘noruma’ system – whereby bands pay venues to play.  

But there's more to Tokyo's music scene than dingy basement-dives. Take Shibuya's Trump Room - a chandelier-garnished club which hosts outre dressing-up night FancyHIM and acts like Trippple Nippples. Top-flight mega-clubs such as Womb (frequented by the deaf-mute schoolgirl in Babel) and Be-Wave, which has its own hair salon, thrive. Then there's hip-hop club Harlem, where Afro-haired Japanese lads throw shapes to Soulja Boy all night.

However, the best place to witness Tokyo teen tribes isn’t a nightspot at all. “Harajuku Girls, damn you’ve got some wicked style,” sung Gwen Stefani on What You Waiting For?. And she was right. On weekend afternoons, Harajuku’s pedestrianised Takeshita street is thronged with peacock-strutting subcultures, each one demanding their own doctoral thesis. Metro finds itself crammed between Japanese girls with red Rihanna bobs, twins in sailor garb and ‘Gothic Lolitas’ sporting goth mascara and Bo-Peep bonnets.  

Halfway down Takeshita, a cluster of otakus (geeks) congregate outside a classroom-styled shop. This is AKB48’s store – dedicated to the eponymous 60-strong Japanese girl group (see box).

Whether its bubblegum pop or Bosnian breakbeat, Tokyo-ites are discerning music-lovers. It’s a place where mid-level British acts Hadouken! and The Pipettes are megastars, there are two Beatles’ tribute bars and one of the most-visited tourist attractions, the TokyoTower, has waxwork figures of obscure Krautrockers Faust. Even English pubs, usually the domain of bloated expats, overflow with Japanese Anglophiles – at Hub Shibuya, Metro spots a Nippon Liam Gallagher (complete with swagger) and bee-hived Amy Winehouse clones.

Of course, the words “Tokyo” and “music” are inextricably linked to karaoke. In the UK, this means tawdry Bournemouth hen parties belting out Leona Lewis. In Tokyo, you get Lovenet Karaoke, which has 25 wackily-themed suites (“Ibiza”, anyone?) including ‘Aqua Suite’ where a shrivelled Metro found itself in a Jacuzzi with a bikini-clad Japanese model warbling Like a Virgin (or more accurately, Rike a Versheen).

Later that evening Metro slithers its way into legendary Roppongi nightspot New Lex Edo (formerly Lexington Queen). Most visiting rock stars swoop by here and it adopts a unique policy: its American owner offers rookie models and celebrities (plus the occasional lowly British travel hack) free drinks. Bopping away with supermodels-of-the-future is fun, but it makes you realise how weird looking they are (all gangly physiques and elongated necks).

At 5am, the rising eastern sun smears Tokyo’s grey skyline with shades of orange, Metro carefully steps over rows of extravagantly-coiffured adolescents sleeping on the pavements. Not all of them are sozzled; apparently Japan’s industrious work ethic triggers much of this narcolepsy. Suddenly your already drunken senses are baffled further by some teenagers emerging from a joke shop (open at 5am?!), with electric-shock hand-buzzers. Tokyo nightlife might be madder than a giraffe in a kimono, but quite patently, it rocks unlike no other city…