The Shibuya River. It smells as good as it looks.
I don’t really have a lot to say about Shibuya because… you should just experience Shibuya on your own terms if you’re interested in it[i]. But if you ask a native New Yorker what they think of Times Square, you’ll probably get a similar response from a native Tōkyōite about Shibuya. Not exactly the same, but close in many ways.
Just by coincidence, between today’s article and my last article about exploring Tōkyō via the Yamanote Line, a discussion was raised on the Twitter account @BeingTokyo[ii] about the most overrated and underrated places in Tōkyō. Shibuya seemed to come up as the most overrated.
And while now I kind of agree with that as an 11 year resident of the greatest city in the world, I’m not ready to flush the area down the toilet and be done with it.
However, before we get into my opinions about Shibuya, I just have to say that when I first visited Tōkyō, Shibuya was one of my favorite 3 places here[iii]. But as the foundation of JapanThis! is built on history and linguistics, if that’s your thing, dear reader, there’s not much tangible history going on in the area. Shibuya’s charms and whatever the opposite of “charms” is lie in other areas – which we will explore as we get off the Yamanote Line at Shibuya Station and prepare to take a look at this infamous neighborhood.
Oh, and before we get too deep, I’d like say that Shibuya has the same problem Meguro had in the previous article. That is, there’s a 渋谷駅 Shibuya Eki Shibuya Station (our topic today) and a much larger 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku Shibuya Ward. I’m gonna try to confine most of this article to the Shibuya Station area.
Aaaaand… Cuz We’ve Been There and Done That:
Yes, the first time you experience the 渋谷交差点 Shibuya Kōsaten Shibuya Crossing[iv] will be intense. It’s probably the busiest intersection in the world! Shibuya Station is certainly up there as one of the busiest train stations in the world, so this is to be expected.
A walk across the street from the ハチ公出口 Hachikō Deguchi Hachikō Exit to ｾﾝﾀｰ街 Sentā-gai Center Street is par for the course the first time you visit Japan. Everyone does it and you should too. Go ahead, take pictures and videos to blow your friends’ minds (but keep in mind, Tōkyōites and longtime expats will look at you like you’re an FOB newbie buffoon, but it’s OK, you definitely will impress your friends and family). Knock yourself out. Just try not to get in the way of the other people getting in your way.
Oh yeah, and the mall called Shibuya 109? It’s pretty iconic. When Shibuya was ruled by ｷﾞｬﾙ gyaru gals[v], this place was the epicenter of a kind of subculture generally described by Japanese girls as めっちゃやばい meccha yabai totally off the hook.
Today, it could be argued that Shibuya has lost some of its fashion mojo. As the once outlandish style of the gyaru has slowly seeped into the mainstream in diluted form over the years, the area is different. Extreme gyaru have come to be seen as ﾔﾝｷｰ yankī rebellious country girls who were late getting onboard – the Japanese equivalent of having a mullet after 1986 or so. It should be noted that gyaru style is still a very popular image in Japanese porn and the Japanese sex industry. I don’t know if this is nationwide or just a Tōkyō thing. It could just be a Kabukichō esthetic that refuses to die. Sorry, I try to keep up with these things, but as a married dude I just don’t know.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Shibuya hasn’t become obscure or anything and maybe I’ve just gotten old and outgrown the area, but I used to love it!
I remember the first time I exited Shibuya Station. It was night and Shibuya Crossing was a complete and total sensory overload. I felt like I’d stepped into Blade Runner or something. Not only were the big screens and sounds intense, the sheer crowdedness and raw energy of the area was exciting beyond belief. Thinking I was the only person to ever have the idea, I took pictures of the crowds crossing the intersection and emailed them back to my family in the States. This was 2003 or something – before smartphones, but Japanese flip phones were still years ahead of the average phone and… dammit, I was visiting the future!
Not only Blade Runner, but the shitty Star Wars prequels also borrowed from Shibuya’s iconic look.
Since I’d come to Japan to perform[vi], I met the promoters and organizers who brought me over and they were all so cool and friendly and I loved the clubs and record stores they took me to. Oh, and the fashion! At that time there were still ｺｷﾞｬﾙ kogyaru and 顔黒ｷﾞｬﾙ ganguro[vii]. They had dark tans, blonde hair, and the shortest mini-skirts ever. Even the 山姥 yamanba gyaru[viii] ran the gamut from trashy to glam. I was younger and even though I’d seen pictures of these Japanese girls with crazy fashion, everything about Japan was new to me at that time and actually seeing the real deal was intense. So yeah, Shibuya was fucking awesome!
Ganguro kogyaru. Ganguro means “black face” and is a reference to the tan skin. Kogyaru means “high school gyaru.” Gyaru is a Japanization of “gal” (girl).
Today, and again, this could just be me being an old fart, it’s just crowded. The fashion isn’t as bold and crazy as it used to be. There are foreigners all over the place taking the obligatory shots/videos of the Shibuya Crossing area – the same shot I thought I was original about but wasn’t; except now, half of that sea of people are carrying selfie sticks and smartphones. It’s just… crowded. Listen to me… I really am an old fart, aren’t I?
If you’re interested in the dimming vibrancy of Harajuku and Shibuya:
Shibuya Station’s Hachikō Exit
What Can You Do in Shibuya Today?
You can change trains.
And after your obligatory first visit, this is by far your best bet. Suffer the shit station that Shibuya Station has become[x] and get on other trains. That’s the best the station is good for. The sad thing is that even as a hub station, Shibuya Station is kinda crap. It’s not as crap as Shinjuku Station, but… yeah… it’s super crowded and super chaotic and has just gotten worse over the years.
Me, playing at Module (another club in Shibuya) years ago. The t-shirt is from a night my friends did at another Shibuya club.
Unless you’re in the fashion industry or the music industry, Shibuya is basically just for shopping, honestly. Shopping and eating. However, there are a few famous clubs there – some are really good and some are really cheesy[xi]. For example, Womb is one of the longest running dance music institutions in Tōkyō. Like any club, you have to check the schedule to see who’s spinning, but its status as a major club in the city intersected with a special time in Tōkyō clubbing history. It’s generally considered part of the Trifecta of Tōkyō that actually played underground music and featured international talent on the regular: Maniac Love, Yellow, and Womb. I’m basically 9 years out of the loop, but back in the day Shibuya was the center of House Music in Japan and Womb is pretty much all that remains of that era without including smaller operations.
Nakata Yasutaka, producer extraordinaire
A Musical Tangent
Shibuya was such an epicenter of music that in the 1990’s and lasting well into the early 2000’s, a very vaguely defined, broad genre[xii] of music called 渋谷系 Shibuya-kei Shibuya Style flourished. It was influenced by… god, I dunno, J-Pop, disco, Chicago House, and lounge music. A certain Pizzicato 5 and Capsule emerged from this scene. Capsule was the personal project of an up and coming producer named 中田ﾔｽﾀｶ Nakata Yasutaka whose sound became increasingly electronic and techno-influenced. While Capsule is his still his main project in name, he’s most famous for developing such acts as Perfume, Meg, Kyari Pamyu Pamyu, and the melody they play when the shinkansen arrives at 金沢駅 Kanazawa Eki Kanazawa Station, which is his hometown.
Famous Things in Shibuya
Shibuya Station has about 2.4 million passengers a day, making it one of the busiest stations in the world. Most of my readers live in cities with train service that that never comes close to that. Hell, most of my readers live in cities without train service.
The story of ハチ公 Hachikō is pretty well known outside of Japan now. If you want to know the dog’s story, you can read it here. For the etymology/linguistics nerds who read JapanThis!, let me break down his name. The dog, often called 忠犬ハチ公 Chūken Hachikō Loyal Hachikō in Japanese, wasn’t named Hachikō. His name was ハチ Hachi which just means 8 and is presumably a reference to his number in the litter in which he was born. ～公 –kō is an obsolete honorific suffix. It’s similar to ～さん –san or ～様 –sama but was reserved for the most elite male members of society. When you visit shrines like 東照宮 Tōshō-gū which is dedicated to the first Edo Shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, you may see his name written as 徳川家康公 Tokugawa Ieyasu-kō which is something like Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu. With the abolition of the samurai cast, certain linguistic trappings of the feudal period disappeared from common parlance. –Ko came to be used in a joking and friendly manner with pets. Just as a good friend who never uses honorifics with you (because you’re close), may jokingly apply –san or –sama to your name, people do this with pets today. I have a friend with a cat named Momiji. She sometimes affectionately refers to Momiji as Momiji-san or Momiji-sama. In this same way, Hachi was affectionately referred to as Hachi-kō. I guess that’s something like Lord Hachi or His Lordship Sir Hachi of the Vale[xiii].
Because Shibuya blew up during the Bubble Economy, it’s basically a shopping and party district. It’s a place to spend money and have a good time. Restaurants, department stores, newly developed malls, and masses of annoying people are par for the course.
However, famous among Tōkyōites, のんべい横丁 Nonbei Yokochō Drunkard Side Street, is one of the few remaining areas in central Tōkyō that preserves the feeling of the Shōwa Period. This atmosphere is a direct descendent of the commoner districts of the Edo Period. This website has some great photos. Most of the shops seat something like 5-10 people max and some have menus you can’t choose from. The best whale bacon I ever had was at a shop I visited here in 2003. Just amazing.You should not miss it.
Technique is one of Tōkyō’s – no, scratch that[xiv] – one of Japan’s greatest record stores. If you love house or techno, this store caters to all your vinyl needs. The selection of vinyl is fastidiously curated and frequented by many of Tōkyō’s most active underground DJ’s. If you buy something there, tell them Marky Star of OMNI A.M. sent you. It might bring a smile to their faces[xv].
Shibuya 109 is so iconic that it commonly appears in manga and anime. In the opening credits of the 2nd season of 地獄少女 (Jigoku Shōjo – Hell Girl), it appeared under a slightly modified name as 108.
Although the big sign says SHIBUYA 109 it’s really just called ichi maru kyū which means 109.
This was ground zero for gyaru culture back in the day. It’s still popular with fashionable high school and university girls. Because the original gyaru were kind of rebels, they were also sexually rebellious. As such, the Shibuya Crossing used to be (and may still be) a famous spot for ﾅﾝﾊﾟ nanpa hitting on girls. I say “it may still be,” but I think online options have made “street nanpa” a thing of the past. Some people I’ve spoken with have told me that the only girls who get picked up on the street these days are 田舎者 inakamono hicks who moved to Tōkyō.
Is the street in front of Shibuya 109 the best place to find a random hook up? I don’t know. I have no idea. I know it used to have that reputation[xvi], but I think these days, the whole “nanpa” thing has been shifting away from “street nanpa” to “online nanpa.” That said, if you head up 道玄坂 Dōgenzaka Dōgen Hill you’ll come to an area with a thriving sex industry and most notably the collection of love hotels infamously known in English as “Love Hotel Hill.”
During the first sale of the new year, Japanese stores clear out last year’s merchandise in randomized grab bags called 福袋 (fukubukuro – lucky bags). After the fukubukuro event at 109 (akin to a non-violent version of Black Friday), the girls all stand in the street exchanging sizes and colors all morning long.
In the vast ocean of shopping malls that is Tokyo, what’s one more?
So, look, I’ve been done with Shibuya for years. I just don’t want to go there. I don’t give a fuck about it because it used to be exciting but now it’s as boring as Ikebukuro, which is a total shithole. But in 2012 a massive retail development was completed called Shibuya Hikarie. Like Shibuya 109, it’s essentially a mall in a somewhat unique shape. I’ve never been there, but the managing company’s website actually uses the word synergy – and they were serious.
Shibuya Hikarie is essentially a mall in denial. It markets itself as some lifestyle changing force in the universe, but it is, in fact a mall, just like any other mall – and probably less unique than Tōkyō’s more expansive retail developments in Roppongi. And they actually used the word “synergy” seriously lol.
Dear whomever created this meme at (ehem) memegasms.com, It’s “then” not “than.” English. Do you speak it?
And before everyone craps on me for crapping on Shibuya, I will say that I have had a lot of memorable, life changing experiences in Shibuya. While most of them were during my first visit to Japan which compelled me to move to Tōkyō in the first place, one night in particular comes to mind. The first time I met Mrs. JapanThis face to face was in Shibuya to eat 焼肉 yaki niku. I have tons of other great memories of crazy parties and stories I could never repeat here[xvii] and they all happened in Shibuya. But as you’ve probably noticed, there hasn’t been a lot of history up in this bitch yet.
Don’t Worry. Shibuya is not Culturally Vapid
Off the top of my head, there are two cool cultural things you can do in Shibuya.
The building called 文化村 Bunkamura literally means “culture village” and is essentially a museum/arts center.
They put on art shows of varying quality. My image is that it’s focused on the performing arts, but admittedly, I’ve only been once or twice. From time to time they do have decent exhibitions, so check the website first. Also, there was a time when none of this was available in English, but it looks like their website is totally English-friendly now.
Konnō Hachiman Shrine and the Ruins of Shibuya Castle
Don’t get your history nerd hopes up too high. 金王八幡宮 Konnō Hachiman-gū Konnō Hachiman Shrine is really all you can see here. Well, that and the elevation of the terrain.
This shrine once sat on the grounds of 渋谷城 Shibuya-jō Shibuya Castle. Don’t imagine a beautiful white castle like Himeji Castle[xviii]. Imagine a sprawling fort on a plateau protecting the residence of a local strongman. In this case, the warlords in question were the Shibuya clan[xix] who made the hill their home in the Heian Period.
Nothing of the Shibuya “Castle” remains except for this shrine dedicated to 八幡 Hachiman, the Japanese god of war. This god was the 守護神 shūgoshin tutelary kami (tutelary spirit) of the Minamoto clan which rose to power and established the first 幕府 bakufu shōgunate in Kamakura in 1192. The Shibuya supported the Minamoto in their rise to power, so this shrine may be a tip of the hat to their benefactors in Kamakura. The site was destroyed in 1524, but there’s a single stone on the shrine grounds that the priests claim is a remnant of the original fortifications of Shibuya “Castle.” I’m not sure how anyone could prove or disprove this claim, but for what it’s worth, yeah, there’s a rock.
Shibuya “Castle” in all its glory. And yes, it may very well be made of mashed potatoes or Play-doh.
Oh, and one piece of trivia for you. Until massive redevelopment in the 50’s, Center Street was a small river called the 宇田川 Udagawa Udagawa River, hence that area is still called 宇田川町 Udagawa-chō Udagawa Town today.
In conclusion, visit Shibuya Crossing. Experience Hachikō Exit once. Walk down Center Street once. Go to Shibuya 109 once. Absorb it. Do it at day time or do it at night time. Then get the fuck out of there.
This is the same advice I’d give you about Roppongi or Shinjuku.
My original article on Shibuya:
[i] Long time readers know that “I don’t have a lot to say about x” is code for “this is going to be a long article.”
[ii] What is @BeingTokyo? It’s a rocur account on Twitter. What the hell does rocur mean? I had to ask too, so don’t feel bad. RoCur is an abbreviation of “rotating curation” or “rotating curator.” Basically, the account is owned (“curated”) by a rotating (or ever-changing) line up of hosts. In the case of @BeingTokyo, the curators change every week. The account ranges from super-hysterical, to really interesting & insightful, to insipid, to occasionally irritating to the point of wanting to smash your phone. In short, it spans the whole perspective of foreigners and foreign-friendly English-capable Japanese living in Tōkyō.
[iii] First favorites were Uguisudani and Ueno.
[iv] Usually referred to as 渋谷スクランブル Shibuya Sukuranburu Shibuya Scramble.
[v] A fashion movement from the late 80’s to early 2000’s that still exist in the mainstream as standard fashion, but in the sex industry still exists as an イメージ imēji “image fantasy.”
[vi] Longtime readers know what this means. If you just found the blog, the reason for the crazy name Marky Star is because I was a DJ and producer (mostly producer, I’ll be honest) of dance music. Don’t believe me?
[vii] There were many types of gyaru. Here’s a list of types of gyaru.
[viii] “What’s a yamanba gyaru?” you ask… Yes, this was a real thing.
[ix] Most of what she says is true in regards to everyday girls in Tōkyō. However, many people in Tōkyō are from the countryside, especially young people. There is still a large contingent of girls in 歌舞伎町 Kabukichō working in the 水商売 mizu shōbai “entertainment industry” and in 風俗 fūzoku the sex industry who maintain some of these looks. If you move out of Tōkyō to towns with thriving sex industries, for example 横浜 Yokohama, 沼津 Numazu, or 大宮 Ōmiya, you’ll find the classic ﾔﾝｷｰＪＫ yankī JK “bad high school girls” are very much still alive and well in real life and in “fantasy image.” To the best of my knowledge, most of these girls are university aged girls (not necessarily students) who roleplay this look to appeal to mid-career salarymen who always had a fantasy of getting with an exotic “bad girl” – something they never had the chance to do while young or couldn’t do outside of the privacy of the sex industry.
[x] There are other shit stations in Tōkyō. I’m looking at you, Shinjuku Station.
[xi] Which is a topic for another time. As a former DJ, I have strong opinions on the matter that probably don’t interest the average reader of JapanThis!.
[xii] And I use the term “genre” very loosely, it was more of a scene than a style.
[xiii] OK, I made up that reference to the Vale. Game of Thrones season 6 just started, so sue me. Interestingly, in Japanese, superiors are not required to use honorifics to their juniors. However, when they get angry, superiors often resort to using honorifics to their subordinates. The psychological effect is that junior is placed in an awkward and humiliating position where their superior implies that some shame has befallen them as a result of the junior’s mistakes. It’s for this same reason that feudal honorific terms like 貴様 kisama your nobleness and お前 o-mae honorable sir (both roundabout ways of saying “you”) have become potentially insulting ways to say “you” in Modern Japanese. O-mae requires a very close relationship, whereas kisama is pretty much a good way to start a fight. In the same way, the suffix –kō is used in racist epithets. For example, ｱﾒ公 ame-kō means “fucking American.” Not that words like this are thrown around much these days, mind you.
[xiv] See what I did there?
[xv] Or they may scratch their heads thinking, “haven’t heard that name in a loooooong time.”
[xvi] And I have heard some stories from my friends and exes lol. Legendary shit.
[xvii] At least not without some serious blowback lol.
[xviii] Himeji Castle and other Japanese castles that you usually think of are products of the final years of the Sengoku Period called the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. This is the transition from a century of civil wars and power grabs by samurai to the 250ish years of peace of the Edo Period. Because of its relative stability, samurai strongmen could build gorgeous defensive structures with solid military functionality and display their power, wealth, and authority. That’s the era when the samurai became a social and political class and were able to (literally) lord their power over all of Japanese society. Learn more about Japanese Eras here.
[xix] Many people attribute the name Shibuya to this clan. I wrote about that in my article about the area in 2013 and asserted that this was the most likely etymology. Since then, I’ve come to have a more nuanced understanding of the history of this place name. My original article does a crappy job of explaining what happened, so I’m planning to revisit the article and give it a makeover sometime this year.