Exit Shibuya Station’s busiest portal onto the teeming Hachiko Square, so named for the statue of the famous, faithful dog who met his owner every day at the station, and obediently continued to wait several years after the man’s death. Today’s Hachiko is hardly lonely—it’s the most popular meeting point in Japan. Youth from all over the Tokyo megaplex flock to Shibuya to shop and play, nearly all of them congregating in the square as they wait for friends. The silver, cylindrical Shibuya 109 lords over the square—a youth fashion Mecca and Shibuya’s literal and figurative epicenter.
Schoolgirls in their blue sailor uniforms and baggy “loose socks” parade in packs; local students establish stylistic trends that engulf the archipelago. Civilian fashion ranges from the funky to the haute couture. Nonsensical English slogans—“We are all fuzzy robots”; “Feed borth to the deer”—race across t-shirts, while dainty legs perched atop strappy heeled sandals flow upward into miniscule denim skirts. Other breeds favor designer skirts and blouses, every inch from head to toe perfectly manicured, with name-brand handbags dangling from wrists and shoulders. Men like their jeans and t-shirts tight, and wear bushy, unkempt hairstyles. The hip among both genders streak their hair with a tinge of orange, blond, or brown. Decorated with stickers and available in a rainbow of colors, cellphones squawk incessantly and move beyond the realm of mere communication tool to essential fashion accessory. Like an extra organ, phones attach themselves to bodies—pressed to an ear or clutched in a tangle of fingers—but rarely get banished to a purse or pocket.
Hachiko Square basks in neon, highlighted by three giant video screens attached to buildings. On one a teenage pop group gyrates, blaring the neighborhood’s soundtrack. Above a multistory Starbucks, another screen rises 10 floors of the building’s glass façade; a hologram of a life-size brontosaurus saunters past. Pedestrians advance away from the station and line up to cross the world’s busiest intersection, known as “the Scramble.” Wait for the light to change to find out why—cars halt and pedestrians from all directions swarm into the intersection.
Between video screens, at the mouth of the Center Gai pedestrian avenue, wait “catchers”—greasy men in cheap suits determined to recruit women for porn, hostess bars, massage parlors, and prostitution. Such encroachments are the highest form of Shibuya flattery—and some women (and girls) even say yes. Ignore them and proceed to Center Gai, a teeming market-like alley lined with small shops that spill out into the street. Clerks stand on boxes, microphone in hand, touting daily specials—camera phones! shampoo! watches! Waiters pass out menus, gesturing to the almost-edible plastic displays in front of their restaurants. Teenagers and college students distribute free tissue paper, the wrappers advertising contact lenses, arcades, pharmacies. Idealists dressed in their parties’ colors campaign for their candidates in the upcoming nationwide election; vans equipped with speakers circulate through the back alleys blaring the candidates’ slogans and virtues. Next to a familiar golden “M,” stick-like figures spell out McDonald’s in Japanese; enormous replica French fries adorn the exterior. Vertical signs with Chinese characters climb the building walls.
Keep going as the crowds thin and the neon wanes. Wind through the unnamed alleys, past the rambunctious boutiques and inviting storefronts. It’s different now—forbidding, secretive. A stench percolates, fueled by uncollected trash, urine, and empty beer bottles. Those who pass by do so briskly, with shifty eyes and hunched shoulders. Men with slick hair and toothless grins stand in doorways, smoking and scanning the alley. They don’ts speak unless spoken to—the signs with pink writing and fleshy images say enough. Probe deeper, and the love hotels appear—some opulent and grandiose, catering to every erotic fantasy; others chaste and to the point.
Nestled among the debauchery, and wedged between a porno shop and small strip club, lies the Dragon Tail, a cramped and seedy tavern. Its neighbors feature gaudy neon lights and pictures and silhouettes of women, while the Dragon Tail boasts neither a sign or windows—only a small insignia of a fire-breathing serpent. Unless otherwise informed, passersby don’t know it’s called the Dragon Tail, or that it’s even open. And that’s the way its proprietors and clientele like it.