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Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s central wards and is home to Tokyo’s busiest train station, through which some two million people pour through every day. Here, a tightly-packed cluster of magnificent skyscrapers looms above the hustle and hubbub that swirls on the streets below. Shinjuku is Tokyo’s premier business district, but it’s not all buttoned up: it’s also the place to go to let you hair down and have fun. Restaurants, bars and amusements abound, and it features some of the city’s most kitsch districts. From historic cobblestone geisha neighbourhoods to tranquil parks and quirky nightlife districts, Shinjuku has many faces.
In the aftermath of the earthquake of 1923 which decimated much of Tokyo, the land upon which Shinjuku stood was left relatively untouched. In the rebuild that followed, many of Japan’s top businesses and hotels moved their offices to safer soils, creating the beginning of a skyscraper park. Today, some of Tokyo’s tallest buildings can be found in Shinjuku, shooting into the sky with as much dominance as Mount Fuji which is visible from the observation decks of some such as the Metropolitan Government Offices building. The twin towers are Tokyo’s seat of power and host 202-metre high observatories that afford staggering panoramas across the metropolis and beyond. Other notable skyscrapers include the Empire State Building-esque NTT DoCoMo Building, Tokyo Opera City with its shopping mall and art museum, and the gargantuan Shinjuku Park Tower.
The train station marks the central point of the city, separating different neighbourhoods to the east and west. In the area surrounding the vast station is a thriving shopping district packed with malls and dozens of discount electronics stores. While the west is engulfed primarily by the business zone, the east has developed into Shinjuku’s nightlife and shopping hub, and it is home to one of the seedier yet culturally intriguing districts. For some of the city’s quirkiest nightlife experiences, head for Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, a somewhat ramshackle district peppered with tiny bars, each boasting their own, often bizarre themes. Some bars here still enforce ‘locals only’ policies. A long-time favourite haunt of salarymen, Golden Gai has become increasingly popular and is worth a visit for those who want to experience a completely different side of Tokyo and get up close to some of the locals. The diminutive bars here can only fit a handful of punters, and the close quarters encourage conversation.
For a touch of history, head to Kagurazaka, one of Tokyo’s famous Edo-era hanamachi (geisha districts). This picturesque neighbourhood, with its cobblestone streets, excellent selection of French and Italian restaurants, and hidden cafés and bookshops is a quirky time-warp.
In the midst of the melee of people and traffic, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is an appealing oasis of peace and calm. Sharing the park with neighbouring Shibuya Ward, it dates back to the Edo period and encompasses one of the city’s most beautiful gardens, as well as a botanical conservatory and a teahouse. Come spring the cherry blossom fills the park with pink petals in a truly spectacular show of nature amid the urban commotion.