Remarkable Japan – #04 – Shinjuku: a city within a city

I spent most of my time in Tokyo in its most vibrant ‘ward’ out of the 23 that make up the capital, and that’s not just because I slept a few nights in one of their many capsule hotels. Shinjuku has a bit of everything, and really needs a couple of days for a full exploration. So where do you start?

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The very noticeable entrance to one of the streets of the Kabukicho nightlife district

How about we start at your likely point of arrival. Both visitors and regular commuters will tell you that Shinjuku Station is busy. But how busy? South Kensington station may feel like gridlock at rush hour during school half term, with 92,790 daily passengers passing through its gates in 2015. London King’s Cross only saw 91,400 daily passengers in the same year. What about the US, and New York’s Grand Central Terminal? That is indeed a busy station, seeing 750,000 daily passengers.

But then we see the 2015 numbers for Shinjuku station. Are you ready? Here they are: 3.42 million passengers daily. Shinjuku is no exception to the rule when it comes to Japanese train stations. Only six of the 51 busiest train stations in the world are located outside Japan.

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On which side of the road is the station? Both sides; it’s massive

Amazingly, despite being 6,000 miles from the nearest London Underground station, the green-coloured soul of the District Line had followed me all the way to Tokyo, manifesting as the Yamanote Line. Tokyo’s most important JR network train line; it takes you in a one hour-long loop through pretty much every one of Tokyo’s important stations. As I took this train so often, you would guess that I’d be pretty familiar with the correct exit to take to get back to the capsule hotel. Nope. There are over 200 station exits, and several different exits for leaving the Yamanote line platform itself! Taking the first exit I could find to ground level, and navigating with the skyscraper landmarks from there, tended to work best.

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Hello again old (green) friend – a Yamanote Line train

After all that, it’s time to unwind in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. I visited during autumn when the leaves were beginning to brown, creating a beautiful patchwork canopy with the remaining green trees. The looming skyscrapers act as a reminder of how amazing it is that a park of this size exists in the middle of a necessarily high-rising Tokyo skyline. Having more than a dozen different varieties of cherry tree, the park remains one of the best places in Tokyo to witness the cherry blossom season, between mid March and late April.

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Looking out into Shinjuku and the Yoyogi Building from the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

The park is split into three different garden styles, so you’ll almost certainly find something to your taste. The ‘Japanese Traditional Garden’ is by far the prettiest and most ornate, featuring several stone lanterns and the 90-year old Kyu-Goryo-Tei (AKA the Taiwan Pavilion). It does seem that the landscape architect wasn’t terribly impressed with British horticulture; the ‘English Landscape Garden’ is basically one big expanse of green lawn!

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The view of the Japanese Traditional Garden from the Taiwan Pavilion
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The Kyu-Goryo-Tei, or ‘Taiwan Pavilion’
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Stone lantern yes; birdhouse no
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As the name suggests, the ‘winter-flowering cherry’ tree flowers during mild winter weather rather than during spring

Now, the sun has set but Shinjuku has only just woken up! If you only have a few hours to visit the area, make a beeline for seeing Shinjuku in the evening. The place turns full Blade Runner after dark. And for good reason, rumour has it that the visuals for the film were heavily inspired by this bright and bold streetscape.

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Shops along the arterial Yasukuni Dori street

Come dinner time, you’ll likely be on the hunt for a great new restaurant. Typically, this would involve going off a few recommendations or scanning the menus as you wind your way up and down the streets. But in Japan, and especially in skyscraper-dense places like Shinjuku, you’ll miss a lot of great options if sticking to this tried and tested restaurant searching technique. All those columns of multi-coloured signs lining the buildings literally indicate the establishment you’ll find on that very floor. Even the capsule hotel I stayed in only occupied around half of the available floors in its building. Think vertical as well as horizontal.

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The pedestrian crossing outside Shibuya station, not even at rush hour

As a bonus, it’s definitely worth taking the three subway stops south to Shibuya just to witness possibly the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Just outside Shibuya station; up to 2,500 busy commuters and shoppers line up to take part in this chaotic but orderly dance every time the lights change!

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