First, a little background: even though the relentless cadence of releases has impeded my overall ability to keep up with the Like a Dragon franchise, I’m a long-time fan. I started with the original PS2 entry, which SEGA was hoping would rival the untouchable Grand Theft Auto franchise at the time. While that success never came to pass – in fact, the franchise would fall upon torrid times during the PS3 era, with only Sony’s intervention enabling Yakuza 5 to get localised – I was a strong supporter throughout, even reviewing the schlocky spin-off Yakuza: Dead Souls. (In fact, I also have an imported copy of that one, as I never expected it to release overseas.)
Kabukicho, then, was an important part of my Tokyo travel itinerary – essential, in fact. Initially, it wasn’t quite what I expected: despite the clock ticking past 10PM, the streets were practically abandoned, save for some smokers standing outside their hotels and the ever-present buzz of Japan’s omnipresent convenience stores. (Sorry, it was only 7-ELEVEN and Family Mart chains here – no Poppos like in the game.)
I had been expecting seedy, but in this initial 30-minute exploration, the most sordid thing I saw was an elderly gentleman peeing next to a drainpipe. To be fair, he was standing opposite a love hotel – a kind of short stay rental apartment block frequented by prostitutes – but it still wasn’t really scratching my itch. The layout of the location also didn’t feel like Kamurocho; yes, there were street corner parking lots and even a baseball batting centre, but nothing I’d describe as distinctly from the Yakuza games.
I knew I needed to dig deeper and so I set a course for the famous red gate, which anyone who’s ever interacted with a Like a Dragon title will be familiar with. As Google Maps guided me closer to the epicentre of Kabukicho, the mood did admittedly start to change. One thing I observed in Tokyo in general is that the city has the capability to transform: it can go from surprisingly sedate to intensely active in just a couple of blocks, and the crowds slowly started to emerge on the illuminated streets.
A few more minutes walking and Kamurocho became a lot more evident: streets lined with illuminated billboards glittered against the night sky, and it was obvious this area was gradually segueing into Tokyo’s redlight district. There were dozens of hostess clubs on either side of the street, most peddling handsome young men in impressive make-up – a surprise to me, as I’d expected the area to be mostly dominated by men looking for young women to interact with.
Tokyo, in general, is impressively clean – but this area was decorated with junk, with left-over Coca-Cola cans and food packaging discarded on the floor. Despite the dirtiness, though, it still looked beautiful: like a Christmas tree illuminating crowds of revellers, many of which were in boisterous moods. In general, the area seemed to be dominated by young people and a lot of travellers, although dressed-up men and women lined some streets, promoting their places of work. In some cases, I’d receive a wave or a wink in an attempt to entice my attention – but I was here mostly for the gate.
Said gate actually proved a difficult photo opportunity, because it’s positioned directly next to a busy road. It was also, as you’d expect, surrounded by people – all looking to get their own photos. It would have been interesting to know just how many individuals in the area had visited specifically because of the Yakuza franchise, and I suspect the growing popularity of the games hasn’t hurt the general foot traffic at all.
A short walk down the main street, bookmarked yet again by more hostess clubs, revealed an arcade – rebranded as GiGO in the aftermath of SEGA selling off its arcade business – and a bowling alley, as well as a cinema. These, of course, are all pivotal destinations in Kamurocho, and places where you can busy yourself with an array of minigames, so it was good to see them represented. To the left of the main street was Kabukicho Tower, overlooking a plaza filled with youngsters finding their bearings after a heavy night on the jungle juice.
Kabukicho Tower felt important because its in-game analogue, Millennium Tower, is such an iconic part of the Yakuza franchise. There’s a good chance if you’ve played any entry in the series, you’ve found yourself fighting your way to the rooftop – it’s the cliché that apparently never gets old in the Like a Dragon games. I had to go in just to see if each floor would be occupied by well-tailored goons looking to impede my progress, but I found a food court with a DJ instead.
This bar was actually pretty awesome, with a lit-up dancefloor occupied by children (!!!) and a handful of adults who’d had too much to drink. It didn’t seem dodgy, and everyone appeared to be in good spirits – even if it would make a good backdrop for a Kazuma Kiryu-style beatdown. On the upstairs was a Namco arcade, with gashapon machines, UFO catchers, and a handful of video games. There were businesses on the other floors, too, although they remained inaccessible at this time of night.
On the way back outside, the plaza had attracted a crowd, as a group of five or six girls practiced a kpop-style dance routine. Having spent a bit of time in Asia already, this kind of street dancing isn’t uncommon – although in this case I found it odd that the troupe hadn’t brought with them a PA system, and appeared to be dancing to the camera person’s counting as opposed to an actual piece of music. As a spectator experience, it kind of ruined the whole performance.
An hour or so after arriving, though, I couldn’t shake the underlying pangs of disappointment: Kabukicho was cool, but it wasn’t Kamurocho. I hadn’t seen anyone get curb stomped – and while there certainly was a sleaziness to some of the posters and bar windows, I’d anticipated much worse. The real-life location felt like a sanitised version of Kamurocho – a dirty den of iniquity, yes, but not an overtly hostile hub of illegal activity like in the games.
As I made my way back to Shinjuku Station, a lady perched in an upstairs window attempted to fool onlookers into believing she was some kind of Cyberpunk 2077-style robot. At this point, I wasn’t easily fooled – several days in Tokyo heightens the senses, and perhaps I was too desensitised by this point to be shocked by Kabukicho’s tricks. Still, at least I was able to leave with my teeth, eh?
Have you ever visited Kabukicho in real-life, and how did you find it compared to Yakuza’s iconic Kamurocho sandbox? Try not to look at anyone the wrong way in the comments section below.