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Shinjuku Going for gold

As the human race moves faster, reaches higher, pushes harder, records are always being broken. And the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics will undoubtedly see countless records fall as competitors strive for gold. But Shinjuku district has held its world record for a while, and it won’t be letting go of it soon

Words and Photography by Mark Parren Taylor

Shinjuku in the west of the capital, neighbouring Shibuya (home to the famous ‘scramble crossing’ and alternative fashion scenes) is a business and entertainment hub. Commuters and partygoers pour in from across Tokyo and its suburbs 24/7, while travellers and daytrippers head out from there to destinations across central Japan, including, coincidentally, Enoshima Island, the setting for Olympic sailing events.

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All of this to-ing and fro-ing adds up to one thing: Shinjuku Station is officially the busiest on the planet. Its platforms see a record 3.6 million passengers… every day.

The station is a mind-bending maze of rail and subway lines linked by concourses connecting with department stores and underground shopping malls; if there was a gold medal for the most perplexing public space then it would win that too.

The statistics suggest that at rush hour, when passengers are squeezed into already jam-packed trains by white-gloved guards, 68,000 people will probably pass through in under 15 minutes.

That, by the way, is how many spectators fill the New National Stadium, which will host the Olympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the track-and-field events.

The stadium is just a 20-minute walk from the thumping heart of Shinjuku, and the most direct route is also the sweetest: straight through Shinjuku Gyoen. This enchanting park (entrance ¥100, or less than US$1) is officially the ‘national garden’, but in many ways – and in the spirit of the Olympic Games! – it is wholeheartedly international with traditional Japanese, English country-style, and formal French gardens. Two quaint teahouses serve green tea accompanied by a classic Japanese sweet (¥700, around $6) and are a charming way to spend an unhurried half-hour.

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To get a sense of the geography of Shinjuku, and to see how the park and stadium fit into Tokyo’s vast ecosystem, head to the top of the twin-towered Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, aka Tokyo Tocho. The 45th floor observation decks are free, and open till 11pm (10.30pm last entry). The 634m-tall Tokyo Skytree in the east of the city and romantic Mount Fuji (95km to the west) punctuate the sweeping panoramas like giant exclamation marks!

From this eyrie, it’s soon apparent that Tokyo is by and large a low-rise city – and it’s a characteristic that’s not limited to residential or heritage neighbourhoods. Tucked away amid the high-rise clamour of central Shinjuku, the most pleasing areas are often those that are on a human scale. At the north end of the station, for example, Omoide Yokocho, or ‘Memory Lane’, is a lively little corner of shoulder-toshoulder eateries, mainly yakitori grills with room for no more than half-adozen diners at any one time.

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A similar mood permeates Golden Gai, 10 minutes’ walk away. This huddle of lanes is lined with dozens upon dozens of tiny cafés and izakayas (casual bars); ramshackle on the outside, perhaps, but inside many have a shabby-chic finesse to them. (I make a beeline for Ramen Nagi (n-nagi.com) and its delicious two-style noodles served in an umami-rich broth madefrom dried sardines.) The district even has its own pocket-sized Golden Street Theater. Performers sometimes head outside to draw in passers-by if they have any empty seats.

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South of Yasukuni-dori Avenue, in lively Sanchome district, Suehirotei Playhouse (suehirotei.com) showcases an old-school comic storytelling called rakugo. It’s so popular that some late-coming spectators pay to stand! It was established here in 1897, although the fine wooden structure it currently occupies was erected in 1946. Just around the corner, Isetan is another local cultural treasure, unusual you might think for a department store… but it has occupied the same splendid art deco home since 1933.

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If Shinjuku suggests that Tokyo is a big city made up of lots of little moments, it also shows that Tokyo is future focused with one foot firmly in the past.

At the eastern edge of Shinjuku ward, Kagurazaka district is a stepping-stone to that past: take a day to explore its cobbled lanes, cafés, and restaurants, and quirky boutiques. Time spent wandering the hushed, haphazard alleys will seem a million miles from the new stadium, filled with cheers as Olympic records topple one by one.

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From Colours February 2020

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5 Senses – Sight
A Relative Hush

For a moment’s break from noisy Shinjuku streets, treat yourself in Isetan’s foodhall – head to the Suzukake counter for its little bell-shaped cake called monaka, for example, which is moreishly yummy – and then escape to the peaceful rooftop garden for a self-indulgent, away-from-it-all bite. The Marui department store opposite also has a fine landscaped roof.