Discover the vibrant Shinjuku area of Tokyo, famous for its entertainment, shopping, business, nightlife, and having the world’s busiest railway station.
Table of contents:
Introduction to Shinjuku
Vibrant and lively, Shinjuku is considered one of the must-see areas of Tokyo and also boasts the world’s busiest railway station with more than 3.5 million passengers each and every day. From glowing neon to lively nightlife, world-famous restaurants to the city’s biggest red light district, Shinjuku has a bit of everything, and is known as a vibrant, bustling entertainment hub. Highlights and landmarks include Golden Gai, the Robot Restaurant, the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen park, the Samurai museum, the aforementioned Kabukicho red light district, countless ramen restaurants and Izakaya, and much more. It’s also one of Tokyo’s biggest shopping districts. In other words, there’s a lot to see and do in Shinjuku! Let’s take a closer look in our special guide.
A Brief History of Shinjuku
The history of Shinjuku is interlinked with the history of its famous railway station. The station originally opened in 1885 as part of the Shinagawa line which later became the JR Yamanote Line (this can be travelled today with the JR Pass - one ticket for unlimited travel on Japan’s famous domestic rail network). At the time, only 50 people a day used the line - a far cry from over three and a half million today! The area began to grow following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and gained a reputation as a popular shopping district over the next decade. In 1933, the department store Isetan (which still exists today) opened and quickly expanded. The next major change came after the end of the Second World War. This was when Shinjuku truly began to become the area it is now famous for. As kabuki and movie theatres opened up, adding entertainment to the mix alongside shopping, a nightlife culture also emerged with the red-light district of Kabukicho and the quirky drinking establishments of Golden Gai. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the area’s bars became popular among writers, artists and intellectuals. After this, Shinjuku transformed again with the addition of skyscrapers and high-rises, including the impressive Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building designed by Kenzo Tange, and a number of department stores in the area west of the station. Thus, Shinjuku became a unique melting pot of old and new and one of Tokyo’s busiest, most vibrant areas, as famous for its nightlife as its shopping and entertainment.
Things To See and Do in Shinjuku
As you’d expect from one of the most bustling, lively areas of Tokyo - itself one of the biggest cities in the world - there’s a huge amount to see and do in Shinjuku. Skyscrapers, parks, shopping malls, narrow alleyways, neon lit bars, cafes, restaurants, electronic megastores, and more - this area has it all!
- Shinjuku Gyoen
This large, beautiful, and sprawling park is a gorgeous green oasis in the heart of busy Shinjuku. Once part of Lord Naito’s family estate in Edo times, this park is now for everyone to enjoy and explore. This massive green space is the perfect destination during Japan’s cherry blossom season, and also during autumn. In fact, it’s beautiful all year round. Shinjuku Gyoen actually contains three themed gardens - English, French, and Japanese - and is open every day from 9am to 4.30pm apart from Mondays. It’s not the only green space in Shinjuku either - Toyama Park is also highly recommended, and is a popular cherry blossom viewing spot as well.
- Shopping in Shinjuku
Shinjuku is famous for shopping. From high-end department stores such as the long-running Isetan, to other major chains such as Keio, Odakyu, Takashimaya, and more, you’ll find buildings packed with multiple floors where you can shop until you drop - or run out of money! In the basements of stores, you can also find grocery and delicatessen departments for food lovers. There are also independent and boutique shops tucked away on smaller streets, such as the famous Daikokuya Inc, and more. As well as the finest designer items, Shinjuku also boasts a number of electronic megastores, such as BIC Camera and Yodobashi Camera, for those after the latest technology. For more on shopping in Tokyo read our guide to Omotesando, Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue (designer goods), Roppongi (more department stores), or our guide to Akihabara for those interested in electronic gadgets.
- Robot Restaurant, Kabukicho
Colourful and quirky, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku’s famous Kabukicho red light district is both a restaurant and theatrical experience all-in-one, with a show performed by dancers and robots throughout the day between meals. Alongside this fun restaurant experience, Shinjuku is also known for a wide range of Izakaya - a kind of Japanese gastropub where drinking and food go hand in hand. They are a traditional Japanese experience, and you’ll find them all over Japan. Check out our guide to Why You Should Visit An Izakaya in Japan for why they are so special. Shinjuku also has a particular reputation for ramen - one of Japan’s most delicious meals. Read our Beginners Guide to Ramen to find out more.
- Golden Gai
A semi-mythical Tokyo nightspot, Golden Gai is world-famous. Golden Gai means ‘Golden Block’ in Japanese and refers to a block of six narrow alleyways (called Yokocho) in Shinjuku, with around 200 bars, pubs and places to eat packed together to form a legendary nightspot that comes alive from 8pm each night. Golden Gai is especially unique for being relatively untouched by the post-war ‘Japanese economic miracle’ that transformed the rest of Shinjuku into a mass of futuristic buildings. It’s truly a unique place to experience. Read our full guide to Golden Gai, Tokyo’s Mythical Nightspot, for a more detailed overview.
- Omoide Yokocho
Technically this alley is called ‘Memory Lane’, but it is more famously known as ‘piss alley’. This narrow street in Shinjuku is packed with Izakaya pubs and is another unique attraction in the area. The name comes from an inaccurate translation of the alley’s Japanese name as well as its popularity as a drinking spot. Like Golden Gai, Omoide Yokocho is popular with locals and visitors.
- Skyscraper district
Shinjuku has a stylish skyscraper district that contains many landmark buildings as well as the area’s aforementioned department stores. One of the many iconic buildings is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which is not only home to 13,000 workers, but also has two free observation decks at the top, a cafe, and souvenir shop. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is a 10-minute walk from Shinjuku Station West exit.
- Hanazono-jinja Shrine
A large Shinto shrine in the heart of Shinjuku, Hanazono-jinja is the most important shrine in the ward and is dedicated to Inari Okami, the god of trade and worldly success, who guards the district’s merchants, craftsmen and artists. Several festivals are held throughout the year at Hanazono shrine, including the Reitaisai Festival in late May and the Tori-no-ichi Festival in November. The shrine is also popular for Sakura viewing during the Cherry Blossom season.
- Visit Shin-Okubo - Tokyo’s Koreatown
Shinjuku is also where you’ll find Shin-Okubo, which has been described as Tokyo’s Koreatown. This is a fun and fashionable area to visit with its own shops and eateries.
- Park Hyatt Hotel
Just around the corner from Golden Gai is the famous Park Hyatt Hotel, which was immortalised in Sofia Coppola’s Oscar winning film, Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. You can visit this hotel, admire the stunning view of the city made famous in the film and even dine at the 52nd New York Bar & Grill where Bill and Scarlett hung out. For more on the locations featured in this film and other movies shot in the country, read our guide to Japan on Film.
- Museums in Shinjuku
There’s lots of art and culture to discover in Shinjuku, which might come as a surprise for an area known for its shopping and nightlife. Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Museum Art in Shinjuku features work by Seiji Togo, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne. The area is home to the Japanese Sword Museum which (you guessed it) features more than 150 Japanese swords. The Yayoi Kusama Museum, dedicated to Japan’s Queen of Pop Art, is unmissable for art lovers while The Samurai Museum is also recommended for anyone interested in Japan’s famous warriors.
How To Get There
As the busiest railway station in the world, Shinjuku is connected to almost everywhere - about a dozen different railway lines to be exact, including the JR Yamanote Line - and is very easy to get to. Use the orange trains on the JR Chuo Line from Tokyo Station, which takes 15 minutes, or the JR Yamanote Line from Ueno Station, which takes around 25 minutes. Shinjuku is accessible via all the JR lines, making it ideal for anyone with a Japan Rail Pass.
Top tip: you’ll want to invest in a prepaid travel card such as an ICOCA, PASMO or Suica card for Tokyo’s public transport, as well as a JRailPass for getting around the rest of Japan. Check out our Top 30 Tips for Using Japan’s Metros for advice and guidance on using the city’s subway network.
- Shinjuku is busy and vibrant, and Tokyo itself is vast. If you find yourself in need of directions, language tips, or etiquette advice from your mobile device while you’re on the move, you’ll want to invest in PocketWifi to make sure you stay connected and avoid unexpected charges.
- Tokyo has many exciting areas to discover. If you want to find out more about Tokyo’s other famous and popular districts, check out our guides to iconic areas like Asakusa, Ueno, Chiyoda, Akihabara, Odaiba, and more.
For a mega city, Tokyo also has a surprising number of beautiful green spaces and public parks like Shinjuku Gyoen to enjoy. Read our guide to Yoyogi Park, green getaway in the metropolis, for inspiration and ideas.