Shops in the Akihabara district, the lively electronics hub of Tokyo. Photo: Alamy
Ben Groundwater steps out in Japan's capital after dark and is drawn into an amazing whirl.
"Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can't fight it."
- Haruki Murakami, After Dark
A Japanese woman dressed as a French maid promotes a maid cafe in Akihabara. Photo: Alamy
It is getting late in Tokyo - the witching hour, a time your conscience is telling you to go home, to retire to the security and comfort of four walls and a bed.
On the streets, people are glancing at their watches, saying their goodbyes, making their way towards train stations that are already flooded with late-night commuters making last-ditch efforts to listen to good sense. But still thousands of people - no, millions - won't go home tonight. They will be drawn into the vortex of this amazing megalopolis, lost in the rushing melange of shoppers, gamers, geeks, foodies, drinkers, dancers and gawkers. They will be entranced by the lights and the life of Tokyo after hours. They will be mesmerised by the sheer volume of people, of choices, of experiences. And they will come to truly appreciate the words of the novelist Haruki Murakami: that time moves in its own special way in the Japanese capital at night.
Blink and the evening is gone, lost in a whirl of whisky and conversation. Glance outside and you will realise it has flashed past, danced and dreamed away. The sun has risen; the first train has arrived.
A wedding reception is held in a multi-storey building. Photo: Getty Images
You cannot fight it.
Tonight I am in Shinjuku, the realisation of Murakami's Tokyo dreamscape. It is past 11pm but the streets are as busy as ever, hordes of people tramping its thoroughfares in search of late-night entertainment.
Tokyo by day is busy, occasionally frantic; at night, however, the city takes on a life of its own. It is a beast of steel and glass; an animal of neon and chimes. Tonight in Shinjuku, the city's main transport hub, there seem to be as many people throwing themselves into the jaws of the monster as there are fleeing it to get home. The area around the train station is a bustle of competing revellers making their way through the night.I am headed for Golden Gai, the historical little city block that houses some of Tokyo's smallest, quirkiest and coolest bars. A remnant of "old Toyko", Golden Gai is a warren of alleys so narrow you need to walk single file through some of them, and all are lined with drinking dens ranging from the effortlessly cool to the pointedly dowdy - some of which can only accommodate four or five customers at a time.
Top 10 things to do in Tokyo after dark
Gawk at the Robot Restaurant: Perhaps the world's most hilariously bizarre tourist attraction, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku features girls clad in spiky bikinis dancing with eight-foot-tall robots, a clown on rollerblades, and a Kung-Fu Panda. Oh, and dinner.
Some cities seem to close up at night, to shutter their windows and hibernate, but Tokyo is different. It thrives. When thinking about nightlife in the Japanese capital, it is impossible to single out particular restaurants, or name just a few bars, or even decide on one experience. In this colossal city, you need to choose a suburb, an area that suits your evening mood, and explore it until the sun rises.
Maybe it is Roppongi, the notorious den of expat hedonism. It might be Shibuya, a shopper's and gamer's paradise. Perhaps it is the more relaxed Asakusa, or the geek-friendly Akihabara, the suit-heavy Ginza or the hipster heaven of Shimokitazawa. Each has its own special after-dark atmosphere, its own attractions and its own crowd.
Tonight in Golden Gai it seems to be mostly locals, with the odd expat - in all senses of the word - wandering by in the scruffy, narrow alleys. If this is old Tokyo, then it is the darker, seedier version of it, a place once known for prostitution but which has since been cleaned up to its friendlier present-day form. Foreigners and even out-of-towners are not welcome in some Golden Gai bars - with room for only a few customers, space is zealously protected for regulars - and publicans eye these passers-by warily from behind dark doorways.
Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo. Photo: iStock
Others, however, such as Bar Plastic Model, are open to foreign guests, so I duck in there.
Like many of the establishments in Golden Gai, it is a themed bar, this one a homage to small plastic figurines from Japan's 1980s economic boom. It is a friendly little joint with barely enough room for four bar stools and a small table. It is also the sort of place where you could lose many hours to whisky and stilted conversation.
But not all of Tokyo's nightlife need be so intimate, or so scruffy, or even so old. Another night, and another night out, this time in Akihabara, Tokyo's lively electronics hub. For shoppers of anything that blinks or dings, this is heaven. Step out of the train station and walk in any direction and you cannot help but be inundated with offers for cheap technology.
Small yakitori restaurant in the old Golden Gai district of Kabuki Cho. Photo: Alamy
This area is a favourite of the "otaku", members of Japan's comic-geek subculture, the voracious consumers of manga films, books, games and magazines. They come to Akihabara for those very products, but also to immerse themselves in manga fantasy, to become someone else, if only for the night.
Tonight, At Home Cafe's almost offensively bright pink interior is filled with otaku, who sip milkshakes and eat food decorated with cutesy smiley faces that have been squirted on with ketchup by a frilly-skirted waitress. These waitresses all possess the healthy dose of "kawaii", or cuteness, required of a manga lookalike. They sweep through the cafe in fake cat ears and knee socks, giggling and posing for photos with their customers and fans. These "maid cafes" are a peculiarity of Tokyo, and in particular Akihabara, small fantasy worlds where otaku get to interact with the objects of their fantasy. Or, at least, waitresses who are dressed that way.
But there is no chance to linger. It is time to move on, to another suburb, another night, another experience.
Asakusa is the antithesis of the hyper-modern craziness of otaku culture, a genuine slice of old Japan where visitors are more likely to feel the warm embrace of a traditional izakaya - a bar that serves small plates of food - than the cold touch of modernity.
The paved streets of Asakusa bustle with tourists during the day, those who come to see the Sensoji temple and wander its boutique shops, but at night it is a much more intimate affair, as the residents stop in the many cosy little izakayas for sake and bar snacks such as edamame or skewered chicken.
It is the perfect antidote to Tokyo's rush: a cup of sake, a plate of food, and a few friendly smiles.
"Between the time the last train leaves and the first train arrives, the place changes; it's not the same as in daytime." - Murakami
The waiter breaks into a huge grin, clapping his hands and doing a little jig. "Good juice!" he yells out. "Good juice!" There is barely a pause from the other diners at 33 Steps tonight - they have heard it before.
The waiter has just been blow-torching a fillet of mackerel at my table. "When I finish cook," he says, handing me a slice of lemon, "you squeeze juice." I'd dutifully done as I was told, eliciting his very enthusiastic reaction: "Good juice!"
Tonight's adventures take place in Shibuya, perhaps the busiest place in this amazingly busy city. Shibuya never sleeps; it never even pauses for breath. As the salarymen emerge from their office blocks each evening, the suburb is only just beginning to hit its stride - a stride that will plough it headlong through the night, raging against good sense, providing entertainment and succour for those who have missed the last train home once again.
I am beginning at the relatively sedate hour of dinnertime, with a meal at 33 Steps, a restaurant set 33 steps below street level in one of Shibuya's bustling back lots. Sake is served in huge bamboo flasks. The atmosphere is raucous, as if everyone is preparing to tackle the craziness on the street above.
Up there, the arcade parlours are filling with kids young and old.
Club Sega will ding and flash all night, with banks of arcade games and crowds of people shooting aliens and whacking moles and playing electronic drumkits. Eventually, they will spill out onto pavements that will remain shoulder to shoulder busy for the rest of the night.
Some come here for the shopping - the street signs shout out a who's who of international labels, from Zara to Uniqlo, H&M to Ralph Lauren, Gap to Gucci. There are small boutiques, record stores, homeware shops and purveyors of all the quirkiness for which Japan is famous. But still, those shops will eventually close, and their employees will join the crowds heading for that last train home, leaving Shibuya in the care of the true night owls.
The place changes. The drinking dens fill. Strange theme bars such as The Lock-Up, where patrons sit in barred cells to drink cocktails from test tubes, become more popular.
Shibuya's extensive network of "love hotels", rooms for illicit rendezvous that can be hired by the hour, will also be patronised. Those who have lost track of time, who have forgotten the special way it moves at night in Tokyo, might end up at Manboo Manga Cafe, a comic-book store that offers private reading rooms in which lost souls can bunker down for the night, curling up on a couch until that first train is due to roll back out to the suburbs.
Over in Roppongi, however, there is no rest for the wicked. And wicked it is. This is a den of sin, a place of packed nightclubs heaving with expats and those who wish to meet them. Roppongi's streets have an edge - night-time wanders are accompanied by constant entreaties from touts to indulge in things you might not have considered a few hours earlier.
But there is always karaoke. This is where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson's fictional characters howled the night away in Lost in Translation. In Roppongi, you can do karaoke in a bathtub. You can do karaoke solo or you can do karaoke with 100 of your closest friends. You can do tropical-island-themed karaoke or karaoke with the backing of a live band. And when you finish karaoke, you will probably wind up in some seedy nightclub dancing to electro-pop, or drinking artisanal beers at a place called Ant 'n Bee, or roaming streets, ignoring touts, taking in the sights.
Or you will end up where I am, back in Shinjuku, back in Tokyo nightlife's beating heart. It is my final night in the city tonight, and I will be spending it taking in one of the city's most bizarre evening shows: the Robot Restaurant.
Nothing epitomises Tokyo's rich blend of the quirky and the seedy, the joyous and the bizarre, like the Robot Restaurant, a place set below street level in Shinjuku's notorious Kabukicho district.
Tonight diners are sitting in grandstand-style seating, nibbling on frankly horrible bento-box dinners, as one of the most hilariously strange shows on Earth takes place in front of them. Dancers in spiky gold bikinis pilot 2.5-metre-tall robots around the room as music pounds. There is a mock fight between a robot and a Kung-Fu Panda. Someone comes out riding a dinosaur. There is a neon army tank and a robot clown on rollerblades.
I stumble out afterwards, back onto the streets of Kabukicho, back into this glowing, bustling, heaving world of Tokyo after dark feeling more energised than ever before, certain this night will go on. And on. And on.
You cannot fight it.
The writer paid for his own travel.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Fairfax blogger and columnist Ben Groundwater has been travelling his entire life, and writing about it for the past 10 years.
Qantas has a fare to Tokyo for about $1099 return from Sydney including tax for the 10-hour flights. Melbourne passengers pay a few dollars more tax and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect; see qantas.com.au, phone 131313.
The Westin Toyko has excellent rooms and is located just a short distance from Shibuya and Shinjuku train stations. Deluxe rooms start from $300 a night. See starwoodhotels.com.
FIVE MORE CITIES THAT COME ALIVE AT NIGHT
The "city that never sleeps" is well named, with after-hours entertainment stretching through to dawn in the five boroughs. Enjoy shopping and fine-dining in Manhattan followed by a visit to an exclusive nightclub; catch a live band in Brooklyn; dine out on the food of the world or drink in a Czech beer garden in Queens; go to Yankee Stadium for a ball game, or Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks; even visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
Foodies rejoice, because Bangkok at night-time is a movable feast, a network of street stalls selling the tastiest, cheapest and most authentic Thai cuisine. Wander through night markets until your feet hurt; eat until your stomach does too. Of course, there are always Bangkok's many bars to relax in - they range from the seediest to the most upmarket establishments.
To see Vegas by day is to see about one-tenth of what Sin City really has to offer. In the daylight hours it's an almost sedate place, but come sunset the neon sparkles, the smiles sparkle and Vegas comes to life. The Strip pulsates with people moving from one casino to the next, from one bar to the next, from one attraction to the next. There are stage shows, concerts, sports games, live bands, boxing matches and gambling - so much gambling.
The Argentine capital is made for night owls - given dinner here doesn't even start until about 10pm, you need to be prepared to go on into the wee hours. Shopping seems to be the No. 1 pre-meal activity, before the later in the evening portenos begin to stream into the city's many restaurants, from trendy Peruvian-Japanese fusion joints to traditional steakhouses. From there it could be on to a tango show in San Telmo, or a cocktail bar in Palermo, or even a nightclub.
Famously chaotic by day, Honkers only gets even more manic by night, when bars and restaurants throw open their doors, shops refuse to close theirs, and eating extravaganzas like Temple Street Night Market begin to fill with Hong Kong's food-loving residents. While the Kowloon side of the city is all about cheap shopping and great food, the Central side is filled with Western-style bars and nightclubs.