Friday night, time to hit the road. The bright lights of Roppongi twinkled for kilometers in all directions as I approached the Crossing from Nogizaka, the packed streets lined with touts and hostesses, handing out flyers and soliticing passersby. "Nama oppai wa ikaga desu ka? Bare tits! Come on in! Nanjikan mo ichimanen! Iyarashii desu yo! Stay as long as you wish for 10,000 yen! Extra perverted!" I strolled behind a shield of dark-suited salarymen in their forties, who drew all the attention and allowed me to proceed entirely unpestered.

I rounded the corner (smirking at the singularly starry-eyed Roppongi: High Touch Town slogan plastered on the side of the elevated expressway above the Crossing) and headed to the 6th floor of a nondescript building. Squeezed between Sexy Exciting Pub Safari and Members Club Spinach was a little watering hole remarkable primarily for serving the biggest mug of Sapporo beer in Roppongi for just 500 yen, taxes included and without a cover charge...

--Utsukushii yume wo (Beautiful Dreams), gn0sis

Roppongi (六本木, Six Trees) is an infamous nightlife district in Tokyo, Japan, second in importance only to Shinjuku's Kabukicho. But unlike Kabukicho, where most activities skirt the borders of legality and strangers of all sorts are less than welcome, much of Roppongi is actually oriented towards foreigners. During the day, there is absolutely nothing to see in the area, but at night it comes alive...

The center of Roppongi is the Crossing, the term used to denote the intersection of the main streets Roppongi-doori and Gaien-higashi-doori, coupled with Expressway Number 3 rumbling overhead and Roppongi station on the Hibiya and O-Edo subway lines underneath. Cafe Almond on the southwest corner has been there forever; nobody ever seems to go inside, but everybody meets outside it. To the west is Shibuya, a half-hour walk away (just follow the expressway); to the north is Nogizaka station on the Chiyoda line, only a few minutes on foot; to the east lurk the bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki, many of whom head to Roppongi at night; and to the south is the up-and-coming trendy district of Azabu Juban.

Most places of interest to foreigners are within a block of the Crossing. Of primary interest to visiting gaijin are the straight bars, where the booze is overpriced and you have to wheedle your members of the opposite sex the old-fashioned way. Undoubtedly the best known of the bunch is Gas Panic, packed tight every weekend with hungry meat. Many of the (mostly foreign) men are desperate, but Gas Panic's saving grace is that many of the (mostly Japanese) women are even more desperate: Roppongi is where Japanese women specifically looking for foreign men come into order to "deepen the level of international exchange" (国際交通を深める, kokusai-koutsuu wo fukameru), to quote an oft-heard euphemism. Drinks are relatively cheap, but Gas Panic is not a charity -- you must have one in your hand at all times or risk getting booted out! Most Tokyo expats claim that they avoid the place, but sneak in when they think nobody will know. Gas Panic has spawned a number of branches in the area; other long-time favorites include Motown and Charleston, both essentially variations on the same formula. At the other end of the spectrum is Velfarre, Tokyo's glitziest and largest night club, instantly recognizable thanks to its red-carpeted staircase and black-liveried doormen. But in these times of recession it too has been forced to go downmarket and entry fees, which were as much as 10,000 yen ($100) at their peak, may be as little as 2000 yen now. Sic transit gloria mundi...

The second big business in Roppongi are the less straight bars, where the staff aims to please but your booze will be even more overpriced to compensate. While there are a few Western-style strip clubs in the mix (including Tokyo's biggest and best, Seventh Heaven) -- a relative rarity in Japan -- most of these places cater to the opposite demographic, namely Japanese men looking for the company of Western women. As demand far outstrips supply, most of these men have to pay for the privilege, so the great majority of those gaijin girls who have figured out the lucrative way to visit Japan, work in Roppongi hostess bars. Do note, however, that actual brothels are rare if not non-existent in Roppongi, so despite their exorbitant fees most hostesses will not engage in any hanky-panky. All of these places are secreted away on the upper floors of the buildings around the crossing, and the touts and bunny-suited girls distributing their fliers on the street will ignore tourists and concentrate their efforts on Japanese salarymen.

Roppongi does have a few members of a third breed, namely bars of various (non-sexual) themes catering to more or less ordinary folk, including both Japanese and foreigners. While much more plentiful outside Roppongi, I can't resist the chance to plug one: namely Aurora, the only Finnish restaurant and bar in Tokyo! It's the one I briefly mentioned in the intro, and you can find it right at the Crossing on the 6th floor of the building with the First Kitchen fast food joint. Unlike almost all other bars in Roppongi, Aurora has no cover charge, not to mention all sorts of hard-to-obtain Finnish food like rye bread and Salmiakki Koskenkorva. (Summer 2002 update: it has, alas, now closed down.)

Last by not least, Roppongi has a number of the best clubs in Tokyo, many of them outside the immediate vicinity of the Crossing and rather hard to find. These include Yellow (eclectic), 328 (San-Nippa, rock/indie), Pylon (trance), and Luners (techno). I won't attempt directions in streetnameless Tokyo, as you really need a map to find them, so see "Links" at the end for a list of home pages.

A word of warning: Roppongi is one of the very few places in Tokyo that can be dangerous at times. The primary threat is not robbery or even pickpockets, but drunk US Marines from the naval base at Yokosuka intent on releasing their frustrations on someone. In some of the fleshpits fistfights are common and standard police policy is to arrest everyone involved (or just standing nearby) and detain them until things are sorted out and suitable apologies have been made. This is why many of the swankier places, including nearly all techno clubs, demand identification in the form of a passport or a gaijin card -- the reason is not that they care about your age (although you should be over 20), the reason is that Marines have neither.

Links

Luners: http://www.luners.co.jp
Pylon: http://club-pylon.com
Velfarre: http://velfarre.avex.co.jp
Yellow: http://space-lab-yellow.com
328: http://www.02.246.ne.jp/~azabu328/

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