Clubbing Tokyo

By manone (manone) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(by Luciana Lopez) Although I’d been in Tokyo for less than two weeks, already I was itching to go out clubbing. My first twelve days or so in Japan had largely been occupied with such banalities as setting up my new apartment, deciphering the earthquake warnings on my gas appliances, and learning enough of the occasionally-overwhelming train system so that I could find my way home. However, once those details had been gotten rid of, my night-loving nature reasserted itself, and I found myself casting about for the dance scene in Tokyo.

And yet it was almost by accident that I stumbled upon information for upcoming club events in the city. I was in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood, popular with the 20-something and under set, impatiently waiting for an acquaintance’s haircut to be finished. Only once my boredom grew oppressive did I sit at one of the trendy-looking salon’s small glass-and-metal tables.

I’d taken the cards scattered across the round glass top to be ads for hairstyling or cosmetic products, but found, on idle examination, that these were actually flyers for trance and house parties at clubs scattered around Tokyo. I scooped a handful into my satchel, resolving to examine them more closely at a later date. Only months later would I realize my luck in finding these flyers so easily; while Tokyo may be known for many things–wild fashion, packed trains, and the ubiquitousness of vending machines all come to mind–rarely are its denizens accused of partying too hard, and the dance scene in Tokyo is lower-key than in my hometown of Washington, DC.

Nevertheless, on the night of August 4, my second Friday in Japan, I was still unaware of this; I only knew that, despite the heavy humidity that coats the country during the summer, I was heading out to experience the Japanese club scene. I’d settled on a party called Hits, at a Shinjuku-area club called Code; with listings for not only house and trance djs, but also drag queens and hostesses, the flyer had jumped at me from the pile I’d scattered across my kitchen table.

Shinjuku itself is something of a 24-hour party. The liberal use of neon on essentially every building ensures that darkness is far more easily found inside the myriad small shops than in the streets themselves; were it not for the traffic, still heavy at one and two in the morning, one could read a book in the middle of any road without fear of eye strain. Sleazy young men in dark suits and tans line the division of Shinjuku called Kabukicho, offering photos of women employed at local massage parlors to passers-by; McDonald’s franchises and Japanese fast-food outlets vie for customers with posters of cheap (both in price and quality) food.

Code is located squarely in the heart of Kabukicho, and I found myself walking past drunken salarymen and aggressive pimps on my way to the club. Despite the clearly marked map on the lower left hand corner of the flyer, though, I had difficulty locating the venue, until I looked up in consternation: unlike the places to which I’d become accustomed to in the United States, this particular club was on the fourth floor of the Koma Stadium building, a sprawling affair with restaurants lining its lower levels.

Once inside, the differences continued to manifest themselves. DC clubs are notorious both for their large quantities of available drugs and high levels of violence, the combination of which usually leads to the employment of security forces to pat down entering customers. Identification cards are similarly heavily scrutinized for signs of falsification, and lines can create waiting times of up to–or even exceeding–an hour.

Nevertheless, the total time elapsed from stepping off the elevator to making my way into the club clocked in well under three minutes–no identification needed, no waiting in line behind an underage, glowstick-bedecked teenager trying desperately to score some drugs to make the night pass more quickly. I handed a flyer to the doorman in order to receive my 500 yen discount, paid the outrageous cover charge of 3000 yen (at the exchange rate of the time, nearly $30, almost on a par with the $35 cover at New York City’s Twilo on a night with two of the world’s most famous djs, Sasha and Digweed), and strolled in.

My midnight entrance was early enough that there were still few people there. The absence of a coat check stymied me briefly, but the wall of lockers–both more convenient and cheaper than the average cloak room–soon solved my problem.

Though J-pop, characterized by nearly-interchangeable “idols” with all the shelf life of milk left outside the refrigerator, still tops the charts, club music was clearly not anathema to Tokyo audiences–the hard beat of house washed over me as I stuffed my satchel into a locker, ripping at the key in my haste to get to the dance floor. I paused in the darkness as I stepped down the stairs from the bar/lounge area into the club proper, slightly stunned.

What a contrast to chaotic clubfloors I’d seen in the United States, Europe and Brazil! My first impression of the Japanese audience before me was that they were all engaged in some kind of line dance with whose steps I was clearly unfamiliar. Literally every dancer was facing the tall, imposing dj booth at one end of the room, stamping out a rhythm echoed by almost every other person. A few more minutes of inspection, however, showed that the audience was not actually moving en masse; subtle differences soon became apparent. Months later, a conversation with a Japanese dj would reveal to me that the idea of club dancing is still fairly young in Japan, a concept requiring less self-consciousness than many Japanese people possess. At the time, though, I only found myself blinking in surprise.

My own entrance to the dancefloor was much less subtle, the freeform style so popular in DC standing out sharply in the crowd. There were few enough foreigners that night that I would have stood out under any circumstances.

Already in my two weeks in Japan, I’d noticed that Japanese are often quite shy when speaking with foreigners. Various factors influence this–lack of English language skills, as well as relatively few chances for contact with other cultures, for example. Nonetheless, in a dark club at two in the morning with a heavy bass beat in the background, such reasons tend to melt away, and after my first few hours of dancing I found people constantly introducing themselves to me, complimenting me on my dancing or simply wanting to say hello. I was deluged with friendliness and curiosity, an outpouring I’d not yet experienced in Japan.

The generation of DJs, dancers and wannabes confronting me opened themselves as the night wore on. One girl took a pair of Polaroids of the two of us, then offered me my choice of the two. On the one I selected, she carefully wrote her name, Sayuri Ono, and the date, with a black felt-tip pin; I wrote my own name on her photo.

Train schedules dictate much of life in Japan, and it wasn’t until after the trains began running again in the morning at 5:30 that the club truly began to empty. Those of us remaining until the last encore had played itself out near seven were left with ringing ears. We straggled out, filling the elevators in silent and sleepy groups, clutching flyers in one hand and train fare in the other.

The day awaiting us was harsh on our eyes, a sudden surprise of light against the artificial night the club had painted onto our retinas. Even at that hour, the humidity settled onto us, sandwiching the smell of tobacco smoke against our skin. We joined the last diehards emerging from other clubs and bars headed toward Shinjuku station, the cries of ki o tsukete–“take care”–echoing across the lanes of morning traffic as we said our goodbyes on a Tokyo Sunday.

Luciana Lopez

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