Visit Tokyo’s Most Wanted Streets
During his trip to Tokyo, Travel+Leisure India and South Asia contributor hits the playground of 90s Japanese Yakuza underworld with true-crime novelist Jake Adelstein. By Nupur Singh
Tokyo often surprises travelers with its benevolent soul, breathtaking bullet trains, eclectic street fashion, endless nightlife and gastronomic offerings. And if the sensory load is too much, you can just as easily stroll through the Ninomaru Garden, stroll through a Buddhist shrine or jump on a train – in less than an hour you could even be bathing in the forest.
I’m in Tokyo with the novelist Jake Adelstein, who after 12 years as a crime reporter with Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest circulating Japanese newspaper in Japan, quit his job and published a memoir of a true crime of his time on the hit of the police. The novel Deputy Tokyo exposes the world of organized crime in Japan through the lens of a crime reporter. A world where chaos, macabre and mystery lurk beneath the surface. He is also the executive producer of the eponymous show on HBO which was released in April.
Where do the yakuza live
In present-day Japan, there are approximately 12,300 existing members of the organized crime syndicate known as the yakuza. The group was at its peak in the early 1960s, the Japanese government estimated the number at around 2,00,000 members. The three major yakuza groups operating in Japan are Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, and Inagawa-kai.
Yakuza men follow a strict code of conduct and hierarchy. they play sports irezumi (a distinctive Japanese tattoo style), sleek combed-back hair, tailored suits, and are best known for following unconventional rituals like yubitsumeamputation of the left little finger.
Adelstein first takes me to Kabukicho Street, which is anything but sensitive to its connection with the crowd. In the northern part of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, if you come across a street lined with a platform of neon streetlights in front of a red archway, you know you’ve come to the infamous Kabukicho.
In conversation with Jake Adelstein, we pass the historic yakuza playground. The street is lined with fetish clubs, bathhouses, love hotels, cafes frequented by yakuza, massage parlors, cheap crash pads and luxury hotels. It was a fairly sketchy neighborhood where sexual services were sold openly, and almost all legal, Adelstein says.
I step back in time to 1999, an unspoken era when more than 20 yakuza organizations were striving to be on top, and the heady mix of cigarette smoke, izakaya, yakitori and mad adrenaline swept through the streets.
Taste of Kabukicho
Right in the middle of Kabukicho Street was a sprawling cafe serving nothing exotic, just sliced cakes and coffee. Incidentally, this cafe also doubled as a DMZ for the yakuza. A quarter the size now, remodeled and a few name changes later, Café Parisienne is still located in the Furin Kaikan building and serves cakes, coffee and plates of omurice (a Japanese comfort food of egg fried rice topped with an omelet rolled with ketchup).
Adelstein remarks, “While I was working on the crime beat, I would just walk into the cafe and pretend to read an English newspaper, and listen for information about nefarious plots, and none of the yakuza ever doubted of me. Because, in the 90s, it was unheard of to have an American crime reporter in Tokyo who was fluent in Japanese.
Walking together in Kabukicho, Adelstein recounts how, by sheer luck, he once found a witness to a murder case, and the guy turned out to be his favorite bartender at a bar named Propaganda in Roppongi.. “He now works in Union Square , a bar in Roppongi. Great bar, great restaurant. Go during happy hour. Yasu, the bartender will make you a mean martini. Try not to ask him about the murder; it might stress him out, but if you do, tip him a good tip,” adds Adelstein.
Pointing to a building under construction, Adelstein reveals: “It was once the legendary Ai Hoten, a pioneering host club since it opened in 1971.” It closed in 2020 after 50 years of operation but moved to another location in Kabukicho. Adelstein adds, “It was Japan’s first real hostess club,” and pulls out a photo from yesteryear. Gold-plated carousel figures, glittering chandeliers, brown silk interiors, nude Greek Bronze Age statues, pretty manicured waiters, and the hosts stare at me from the photo.
Adelstein adds that yakuza gods living in marble halls would only frequent tasteful establishments like Ginza’s elite hostess clubs. Zen hostess club, in operation since 1982, is one of them. The chic Blue Note Tokyo in the chic Minamiaoyama, a bar frequented by the yakuza, always organizes jazz evenings. It has a dark, refined atmosphere and has carved out a niche audience for itself.
“Yakuza bosses always checked into hotels in incognito mode,” Adelstein says. The check-in was done in someone else’s name and the key card was then awarded to the top dog. New Otani Hotel ChiyodaThe Okura in Toronamaonand The Imperial Hotel in Hibiya were the mafia’s favorite luxury hotels at that time.
During Japanese summer festivals like Sanja Matsuri, you can see yakuza taking part in processions even now. Sanja Matsuri is one of Tokyo’s three major and craziest Shinto festivals. It takes place in May and offers a rare chance to see heavily tattooed members of the yakuza walking around shirtless, carrying a mikoshi (or holy shrine).
Another meeting place of the world’s oldest and most secretive crime syndicate was the Azabu Kokubisui Takenyou Hot Spring located opposite the Chinese Embassy in Minami Azabu. Founded in 1913 as a “radium hot spring”, this sento’s name translates to “Azabu’s Black Beauty Water”. The dark color of the water comes from ancient plants that melted into groundwater, and is said to make skin smooth and heal muscle aches and exhaustion.
A Japanese sent can easily be one of the best pleasures of your trip to Japan, but keep in mind that most of these establishments don’t allow people with tattoos. This stigma is due to the yakuza and still prevails.
As we end our ride, Adelstein gazes down Kabukicho Alley with a sideways smile. “In the 90s, Kabukicho was as dark as black gets. Back then, there were Mercedes-Benz cars driving in and out of the streets, gangsters walking around, and constant fights in the streets. Everything had a slanderous vibe,” he says. “It was nothing like it is now; there were no commoners lounging, sipping sake under the starlight, no influencers posing with the structure now iconic Godzilla on the Toho Cinema building in Shinjuku. It wasn’t a place for everyone, it was a dark secret,” Adelstein whispers.
Getting to Tokyo
All Japanese airlines offers a direct flight to Tokyo from Delhi and Mumbai.
Aman Tokyo in Otemachi Tower draws inspiration from the Japanese design tradition, with ikebana displays, washi paper doors and engawa platforms (doubles from INR 56,882 ).
Shangri-La Tokyo at Marunouchi is known for its luxury and exquisite service (double from INR 22,752).
Related: Inside Napa Valley’s Most Amazing Winery Mansion – And The Spooky Ghost Story Behind It