Roppongi is Tokyo’s toilet bowl

Walking from Nogizaka Station to Tokyo Midtown this morning, I joined thousands of commuters who were forced to step over what appeared and smelled to be a smear of human feces on the Roppongi sidewalk. Was it anti-capitalist terrorism, or just the work of a partier who couldn’t contain himself?

Now that some of my anger has subsided, I can’t help but see this as an aptly pungent metaphor for modern Roppongi. While conveniently located in the center of Tokyo, for a long time the Roppongi area was not considered a business district but overwhelmingly the notorious nightlife center of Tokyo. But the construction of business centers such as Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown over the past few years has re-branded the area as office-friendly. Yet as long as the dozens of clubs continue to infest the Roppongi Crossing area, workers such as myself will be forced to commute each morning using the same streets taken by the drunks and gangsters to go home the previous night. I have had more than one run-in with drunks returning from a night out, but needless to say today’s experience trumped them all.

66 thoughts on “Roppongi is Tokyo’s toilet bowl”

  1. Perhaps it’s because Joe’s piece is just before this one and lawyers were on my mind, but I read that phrase as “the work of a partner who couldn’t contain himself”.

  2. Me too. Hey, it’s a bad economy.

    Adamu, your outrage is amusing coming from someone who is always talking about moving back to the U.S. You do realize that this type of disgust is what you’d have to deal with almost everyday in most U.S. cities, right?

  3. Mulboyne, thank you for your comment. As someone with a longer history in this city, do you think I am out of line being offended here? I mean, I didn’t blog about it when the Nepalese man holding an open Corona at 9am asked me for a job and the location of the nearest church, but this was just gross.

  4. Well I never encountered feces in DC, but then they also don’t try and locate prime office space in the worst possible neighborhoods, except maybe for that Chinatown development.

    This gets at the heart of what I am trying to say about cross-country comparisons. Generally you’re right, but I think living in the US just wouldn’t be comparable. This is complaint-worthy by Japanese standards. At least in the US my expectations would be lower. I went a year and a half with clean sidewalks and now this. *Sigh*

  5. Weren’t the clubs and gangsters there first? Sure it sucks having it all mixed together, but I don’t think the business people have much right to complain about the neighborhood they chose to build their giant office park in. The developers and execs knew what they were getting into.

    That said, human feces on the street (or even dog) is always fair game for complaints.

    Curzon; I’ve lived next to NYC basically my whole life and been there hundreds of times and I don’t think I’ve actually seen human feces on the street like that. I have seen some pretty horrible things though, but I could have avoided around 50% just by never setting foot in the Penn Station main concourse bathroom.

    I should also add that I’ve seen at least one salaryman vomiting on a street, train or train platform on every single trip I have ever taken to Tokyo.

  6. Meh, you live in a megalopolis with tens of millions of people (see also Mexico City, Mumbai, Jakarta . . .). It’s more miraculous that you don’t come across scenes of staggering filth the other 364 days of the year.

  7. Roy, feces is just one example of the smells/obstacles/hazards/danagers to be experienced in the American city. You can also enjoy homeless people heckling you for change, the smell of rank urine in any back alley, unhealthy food and drink with few viable healthy alternatives, and a crime rate that would probably bring on martial law in Japan. For transportation you’ve got crumbling infrastructure, whether it be the broken and never-timely public transportation, crowded and pot-holed streets for those with cars or bikes, and streets that are rarely swept or snow-plowed. Houses may be larger but they’re generally run-down.

    Adamu, just thank God you live in neighborhood that is a good “halfway house” to adjust between life in Japan and the U.S. I’d hate to think how prissy you’d be if you lived in Nishi Azabu.

  8. The last time that I was in the States was Chicago airport – somebody missed the toilet by a few feet and tracked footprint evidence of the result out into the main area. One of the half dozen most disgusting things that I have ever seen.

    Damn, I’ve been back home for a few weeks only and I’ve already had one guy try to bum change off me in a supermarket and another sit down at my table in a coffee shop and tell me that his AIDS is making his cancer treatment tough and that he would really like $2 for a latte. Broken syringe on the street outside my brother’s apartment. Walked into a used bookstore my first day back and there was a guy in there ranting to the clerk about how they should nuke every goddam mosque and make a law against building new ones.

    So do I attract crazies or is Japan just… better? I know that Tokyo can be nasty, but in my corner of the Japanese inaka, seeing an old guy spit on the sidewalk counts as eventful.

  9. “unhealthy food and drink with few viable healthy alternatives”

    I was happy to see bottled green tea being sold in convenience stores back home – until I realised that it is 250 calories and tastes like a slurpee. Damn, most of the konbini around here give you a choice between the 800 calorie muffin and a bag of chips… for the healthy option.

  10. re: green tea – Imported Itoen brand tea has been a standard item in NYC stores for a couple of years now.

  11. “NYC stores”

    Even bodegas and 7-11s?

    It is not like you can’t get the stuff if you want it – just that you can’t count on getting it when you need it. Usually the only unsweetened option is $3 spring water.

  12. It’s Tokyo. The drunks and gangsters are the only part thats tolerable about Roppongi. The dipshit workers are the ones ruining it. Go back to Hong Kong, assholes.

  13. I think we can agree that Japan can do better, even in Roppongi. I lived in Bkk for a year and the whole city smells kind of rotten half the time, but I got used to it. They have all the problems Chris listed above times 10, except for a slightly less threatening violent crime situation and a very nice, if small, train system (this will sound bad, but the Skytrain sometimes seems kind of like a homeless dude somehow bought himself a Ferrari). Oh and the food is just dangerous, not unhealthy.

    I don’t expect problems if and when I move back to the states.

    The US really isn’t as bad as all that. Yes there are crazies and all but by and large it’s life as usual. For example, DC for all its faults is a decently run city and not all that bad in terms of crime and infrastructure, unless you count the super high apartment rents that make it tough to live there. The in your face beggars are a problem but you can turn it into a game of turn down the deadbeat and just remember that they are mostly lying and there are better ways to help cancer patients than handing spare change to the ones you happen to bump into.

  14. But Roy, is it Ooicha, Souken Bicha, Nama Cha, or what? What about houjicha or mugicha? And while I’ve only heard of this rumored tea, I can’t wait to try it next month when I’m back in the States. Oh for the consumer choices available in Japan!

  15. Adamu, you lightweight…

    I saw a smear of human feces on the platform to the Keiyo Line at Tokyo Station. I only saw it, and it was only smeared because I stepped in it. And that was two years before the economy went sour. I washed my shoes and carried on with the afternoon.

    Instead of blaming it on the drunks and gangsters (a label that may apply to a fair amount of rich businessmen working in that area), why not be thankful that you weren’t responsible for cleaning it up?

  16. “for a long time the Roppongi area was not considered a business district but overwhelmingly the notorious nightlife center of Tokyo.”

    Here’s a question: has this really been the case since, like, the Eighties? Because ever since I’ve been visiting/living in Japan (first in early ’90s, later in the early ’00s) I don’t think I’ve ever been to Roppongi in any context that hasn’t involved expats. Locals inevitably take me to Shinjuku or Ebisu or Naka-Meguro or izakaya somewhere. Maybe I’m just hanging with the wrong crowd.

  17. When I lived in Shinbashi, I was once walking around after the last train and I saw a suited-up salaryman who apparently passed out while trying to take a dump on the sidewalk. He was sitting upright against a building with his pants around his knees.

  18. “for a long time the Roppongi area was not considered a business district but overwhelmingly the notorious nightlife center of Tokyo.”

    I’ve always considered it to be exactly what you say it is–Tokyo’s toilet bowl.

  19. “But Roy, is it Ooicha, Souken Bicha, Nama Cha, or what? What about houjicha or mugicha? And while I’ve only heard of this rumored tea, I can’t wait to try it next month when I’m back in the States. Oh for the consumer choices available in Japan!”

    I recall they had green tea, white tea, jasmine tea, hojicha, oolongcha, and I believe mugicha as well. Not every single store had every variety of course, but many did. Also 2 litre bottles at Whole Foods, which I bought regularly (the one in town, not all the way in the city.)

  20. “On my way out to a bar in Kasumigaseki the other day, I ran into a bunch of drunken salarymen puking all over the train platform and generally annoying well-behaving fellows en route to their evening plans. To say nothing of all these people cramming into the morning subway at peak hour, when all you want is get home to a good night sleep.
    I mean, I know the area used to be exclusively a business center, but now that party-goers also frequently congregate there, couldn’t daily professional just try and make an effort.

    Yea, I know… it would sound outrageously stupid a statement to make…
    Saying the mirror-opposite about Roppongi isn’t particularly more valid: drunken assholes have as much purpose being there (if not more, historically) as non-drunken ones. And I say that as someone who thoroughly hate Roppongi and the generally sub-level breed of fratboy partygoers that hang out there…

  21. “overwhelmingly the notorious nightlife center of Tokyo.”
    “Maybe I’m just hanging with the wrong crowd.”

    Yes – notorious for all those American sailors and navy guys and other dicks, perhaps. That may well turn off a lot of Japanese.

  22. Roppongi has changed many times over the years. There have always been a number of embassies in the area so foreigners have been around there for a reasonable time. The site of Midtown was an army barracks during wartime so the Occupation forces moved in and used it when they arrived. When they left, it reverted to Japan and became the HQ for the Self-Defence Forces and there are still a few older taxi drivers who will understand you better if you say Boecho rather than Midtown as your destination. US forces also used the site between Nogizaka and Aoyama Cemetery which became known as the Hardy Barracks. Over the years, the US has gradually handed back land from that site – most recently for the National Art Centre – but they still retain possession of some property there today.

    I’ve mentioned it before but a 1968 guide for foreigners described Roppongi as a place to take your girl, not to find a girl. The area has always been cosmopolitan in the post war period but it had a sophisticated sheen too. If you wanted down and dirty, then foreigners would find it in Akasaka or further towards Shimbashi. Certainly, gangsters were always around but the same was true of Ginza and yet no-one had a problem seeing that as a classy area.

    There were plenty of foreigners around in Roppongi during the bubble but you didn’t see touts on the street or find strip clubs blatantly on show near the crossing. I maintain that the big shift downmarket for Roppongi took place in 1995 which is when Seventh Heaven opened for business. It wasn’t the first strip club – the Flamingo Bar used to pack them in a location a few doors down from the new National Art Centre – but it was perhaps the first lap dance club. Up until then, most people associated that kind of place with an area like Shinjuku. If you mainly know Roppongi from after that date then you won’t have a clue why anyone would think it used to have a sophisticated side.

  23. Meh – I’ve worked in Mumbai on and off over the years. I’ve seen more of this both the results and live action by the road everyday on the way to work. Some memories are better left unearthed.

  24. I actually like Roppongi one is for it’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and two for there are quite a few restaurants with reasonable prices and three for my fond memory of holy trinity of bubble culture of the 80’s,Cine Vivant Roppongi)the arthouse movie theater)WAVE(the trendy record shop)and Aoyama Book Store.

  25. Actually, if you are to go by descriptions of pre-war Tokyo in some of Mishima’s books, Roppongi was then a very fashionable place for Japanese cultural elites to go get a drink…

  26. I’m really glad I don’t live in Tokyo….

    Roy, your post got me hankering for some Japanese green tea. I found a 1.5 litre, but for $8! The exchange rate shift is nasty.

    One thing back home blows away all Japanese equivalents – the bagel. I do try to enjoy what’s good where I’m at rather than getting too hung up on what I can’t have.

  27. What, you stopped to smell it?

    On a vaguely related note, I recall seeing a news segment on FujiTV that asserted Roppongi was the smelliest place in Tokyo. They researched the issue, and laid the blame on buildings with improperly constructed sewage cisterns. Apparently the area was overbuilt and due to unanticipated high density, it has inadequate sewerage capacity (like every place in Japan, probably). So the big buildings all have cisterns in the bottom to collect the sewage during peak use during the day, then slowly pump it out at night during times of less demand. The problem is, the stuff ferments and the sewer gas has to go somewhere, so the gas is vented (illegally) at street level through manholes etc. So they set up a sewer smell squad to track down the gas discharges and make them fix the problem at the source.

  28. M-Bone – can you get the powdered stuff more cheaply? Eight bucks is nasty. All this talk about foreign green tea reminds me of the first time I bought it outside of Japan, from a vending machine in Singapore. I was shocked to discover it was made with milk and sugar. Even in China you see bottles of green tea or oolong tea otherwise identical (literally) to Japanese ones, but with “low sugar” on them.

  29. “can you get the powdered stuff more cheaply? Eight bucks is nasty.”

    Yeah, I should have mentioned that I didn’t buy it. I’ll just make my own.

    Re: the milk and sugar thing. I think that eating miso soup with a spoon or insisting on having it before the meal at a Japanese restaurant in NA is okay – a bit of a hick thing, but I won’t hate on it too much. But now I hear that so many people insist on sugar and cream in their green tea that the servers in local restaurants have taken to putting it on the saucer….

  30. “I actually like Roppongi one is for it’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and two for there are quite a few restaurants with reasonable prices”

    Okay, I will admit a fondness for Pizzakaya. I have yet to find better pizza in the Tokyo area.

  31. http://www.itoen.com/tea/

    Here’s all the varieties of unflavored Japanese tea that Itoen sells in America, which is no different from the Japan-side stuff (except oddly fortified with vitamin C, according to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ito_En). I recall that prices were slightly higher than in Japan, like $1.50 or $2 for a small bottle in a bodega/conbini and maybe $3 or $4 for the 2 litre at the supermarket. Needless to say, I usually got the 2 litres, but the same is true of say Coke. Apparently they made NYC / metro area their central location and are gradually expanding. Maybe someday they’ll read Canada.

    “Even in China you see bottles of green tea or oolong tea otherwise identical (literally) to Japanese ones, but with “low sugar” on them.”

    In Taiwanese convenience stores you often see virtually identical bottles of the stuff next to one another in both sweetened and un-sweetened varieties. However, cheap restaurants often have only sweetened oolong tea.

    “One thing back home blows away all Japanese equivalents – the bagel”
    Ugh yeah. NYC bagels and pizza are easily the top two items from home I miss. The Japanese equivalents of both* are just a mediocre substitute at best.

    *Some Japanese Italian style pizza is quite good, but it’s a very different product from New York style.

  32. I remember a Japanese bagel discussion from way back and the verdict was “bad” – has anyone found a good one since?

    The tea that I was complaining about is from Lipton. Snapple has a green tea-like thing but I couldn’t muster the courage to try it. Methinks that Itoen can sell widely in New York because of the huge number of Japanese there (I mean, they have a Bookoff for gawd’s sake) but Snapple and friends are likely to rule the rest of the continent. Green tea is, like, healthy!

  33. Bagel x Bagel is fine by my standards, and my standards are that supermarket Lenders bagels are acceptable, though the frozen ones give me pause.

  34. (disclaimer: East Coast bagle snob)

    I have found acceptable bagels in Japan, but ultimately they are ruined by the inability of the store clerk to properly toast the damned thing, or they are ruined by the price.

  35. Hah. American Chinese food in Japan. That would be pretty awesome.

    I liked Jennifer Lee’s take on it [paraphrasing here]: “Some Chinese guy said ‘How will we get Americans to eat our food?’ And then he realized the solution: ‘Fried chicken… that’s SWEET!'”

  36. Joe: Good idea. I’m sure they wouldn’t. And if they WOULD mind, that just means they have a suicidally bad level of business acumen. I seriously don’t know why they decided the north end of Kyoto was a good spot for a bagel shop, but she said they do strong business in the morning commute.

    Re American Chinese food: It’s not like Chinese food was exactly lacking in fried chicken before-there’s a reason that KFC is by FAR the most popular fast food chain in PRC-but General Tso’s adds that awesome batter and the tiniest hint of spiciness that your typical meatloaf eating Midwesterner would have found exotic 30 years ago. I do love me a good General Tso’s Chicken.

    “Methinks that Itoen can sell widely in New York because of the huge number of Japanese there (I mean, they have a Bookoff for gawd’s sake) but Snapple and friends are likely to rule the rest of the continent. Green tea is, like, healthy!”
    I do think that American food tastes are generally on an upswing in recent years. Not universally or anything, but the market for things like decent bottled tea definitely has growth potential even in areas without any Japanese. I actually saw it first in a Whole Foods in Jersey, and then noticed the following year that it was becoming ubiquitous in shops throughout the City. Of course, the large Japanese expat community in NYC made it the ideal place to set up shop initially.

  37. How did a conversation about finding human shit on the street of Roppongi turn into another one about bagels? I really need to take a trip home this summer.

  38. “How did a conversation about finding human shit on the street of Roppongi turn into another one about bagels?’

    Easy. One is %#$@ing disgusting and we didn’t want to talk about it any more.

    Did anyone notice that we went from MF’s longest disscussion ever to MF’s most revolting discussion ever and that this is now turning into MF’s most delicious discussion ever?

  39. Somehow now I’m imagining a horrible future in which I get shit-faced in Roppongi, a quest for bagels somehow ends up involving feces, and it’s the worst night of my entire life. I may never set foot in Roppongi again. Except maybe to try that pizza place Mattalt recommended.

  40. “it’s the worst night of my entire life.”

    And Jesus from Toyama pounds you into mochi while the Jewish ninjas look on.

    Jade, have you ever had General Tso’s? There must be some “back home” food that you are hankering for right now….

  41. I’ve never heard of General Tso’s, actually. There are some back-home foods I wouldn’t mind, but you cannot get them in Japan in any form, or at least not remotely close ones, which is one reason I am slightly bemused by the fuss over bagels. I see them all over the place in Japan, and they seem fine to me as such things go. Mind you, I say that never having had a NY bagel. Maybe they are to the local bakery bagels as my local sushi place is to shopping centre foodcourt sushi back home. In other words, it’s the difference between hankering for things you cannot get (why can’t I get dates in Japan?, and please do not quote me out of context) vs. things you can get that aren’t quite right.

  42. “I see them all over the place in Japan, and they seem fine to me as such things go.”

    I was really ho hum on bagels until about a year ago when I had one that went straight near the top of my “baked things” list.

    “as my local sushi place is to shopping centre foodcourt sushi back home.”

    That about sums it up.

  43. Gyro is another one, yeah. You can get a decent kebab pita sandwich or falafel, but I’ve never seen actual gyro meat. Whatever that hell that’s actually made of.

    “I’ve never heard of General Tso’s, actually.”
    It probably only exists in North America, since it’s almost definitely not based on any actual dish from China. Apparently the name in Chinese is “左公鸡”, but I imagine that name only exists to put on the Chinese column in American menus, not because they eat it in China or Taiwan. Although it’s certainly possible that it’s filtered back to Taiwan or Hong Kong at some point since it came into existence in the 1970s.

  44. I don’t often eat bagels so I’m no help. However, some time ago, friends told me the best place was the Jewish Community Center in Hiroo. Have they stopped selling them or was it never true that they were good?

    On Roppongi, it has been popular to disparage the place for years now. I don’t spend much time there but, pavement faeces aside, it’s not a total washout. Here’s a few things off the top of my head which make the place worth a visit. I’ll leave out Nishi Azabu.

    Geronimos/Motown – Yes, it’s cool to find “hidden bars” where you are the only foreign customer but sometimes these “foreigner bars” are fun too. They do what they say on the tin.
    Roppongi Hills viewing gallery – Great view of Tokyo
    Shin Hokkaien – Great dim sum
    Chinese Cafe Eight – Cheap Peking duck and gyoza
    Hollow Point – Air gun shooting gallery bar
    Hobgoblin/Legends – Best place to watch international rugby in Tokyo. (The Clubhouse on Shinjuku used to be good but is too unreliable).
    Bernd’s Bar and the Ex Bar – Both good for German beer & hospitality
    Bauhaus / Abbey Road – Cover band bars
    Billboard Live – If someone you like is playing and you can afford the tickets, It’s a great venue to see them.
    Kushihachi – President Jimmy Carter went there. He got a better deal than George W. Bush did with Gonpachi. Bincho is another well-known yakitori.
    Hard Rock/TGIF/Tony Roma’s etc – If that’s how the mood takes you. A lot of areas have these chains now but Roppongi has them clustered together.
    Panic Cafe – Cheap & cheerful teppanyaki. (although I hear it could do with a renovation these days)
    Mr. Stamp’s Wine Garden – You can eat there or just choose from an excellent selection of wine.
    Inakaya – It’s a rip-off – you seem to get charged 15,000 yen a head no matter what you have – but, if you can afford it, foreign visitors usually love the show.
    Aoyama Book Center – They stock a lot less these days but it opens until 5:00am. it’s a good place to wait for the first trains to start if you are full of beer, out of money or both.

    If I spent a bit more time, I could probably think of more places. As it is, there are a number of other good restaurants but I’d have to rifle through my meishi box to remember the names.

    If ever I have visitors in town for a few days and they don’t speak Japanese, I’ll almost always hit Roppongi at some time. Partly because I’ll be bored with translating but also because it gives them a chance to recalibrate. I can also leave visitors on their own there, with a few cursory instructions, and know they’ll find something to get up to.

    Also, if you want to (or have to) take a big group of westerners out on the town somewhere in Tokyo, Roppongi has to be one of the easiest places to do so.

  45. That’s a pretty impressive list of recommendations in Roppongi, but I doubt I’ll see many/any of them unless I’m actually living in Tokyo sometime. However, next time I’m visiting Tokyo (weekend of April 18, friends getting married) I’ll look for the shop in that Jewish center for sure.

  46. “I remember a Japanese bagel discussion from way back and the verdict was “bad” – has anyone found a good one since?”

    I used to live across the road from a pretty good bagel shop. It was in Osaka on the 阪急箕面線, so Roy, you can try it too. I’m not sure if their bagels are only a breakfast dish, but from memory, I don’t think so. The bagel shop (Hiro) is here:
    http://www.tabi.tv/gourmet/72096/index.html

    A good day trip would be to stop there on the way to the Mino falls and then head back to Ishibashi for dinner or drinks (there is a bar above the Tsutaya – everything is 300 yen!). It takes a little over an hour from Hankyu Kawaramachi.

  47. There is only one legitimate bagel store in Japan as far as I know. Maruichi in Yoyogi.

    http://www.maruichibagel.com/

    I’ve tried all the others and they are awful. Frozen Lenders are better than that soft bullshit that is a typical Japanese bagel.

    Maruichi, on the other hand, is a great bagel.

  48. It’s a bit of a walk from Roppongi but if you want a great pizza, and by that I mean a Napoli-style pizza, I strongly recommend Savoy in Juban. They have one in Nakameguro too, iirc.

  49. Gen mentioned Maruichi Bagel above as the best store for bagels in Tokyo. In case anyone is thinking of heading to Yoyohi Uehara to try them, they should check the link he included because the store moved to Shirokane Takanawa in early April. The Yoyogi Uehara shop is no more.

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