Last weekend Mrs. J-List and I took our first trip down to Tokyo since February, both to check out that the pipes in the condo we rent hadn’t burst in the two months since we’d last visited, and to check out Tokyo in general, and see how the city was getting on. While most of Japan is finally coming off emergency restrictions and opening up, Tokyo the surrounding prefectures is still on a fairly strict lockdown due to COVID-19. I hope you enjoy these pictures of Shinjuku in the Age of Corona, which show images of Japan’s capital that would have been unthinkable before.
A year and a half ago my wife and I moved to Tokyo on the weekends, taking a bus from Gunma down to Shinjuku. Since our kids had grown up and left the nest, we wanted a place where we could explore and find new restaurants, museums, and (for me), interesting bars.
We live in West Shinjuku, which is close enough to Kabuki-cho and Golden Gai, which are fun places to pub-crawl. Pretty much every part of Japan is famous thanks to appearing in some film or anime or game. If you know Kabuki-cho, you probably know it from the Yakuza game series.
More images of Shinjuku in the Age of Corona: the Toho movie theatre, famous for having a life-sized Godzilla on the roof, which breaths fire every hour. The Big G’s breath is currently silent, and the movie theatre chain is shuttered, with no reopening announcement in place.
Want an extra shock? Here are some photos of Tokyo from January 2020 a follower tweeted to me.
If you follow me on Twitter, you might know I’m partial to visiting Golden Gai, an old-timey drinking district that’s usually filled with foreigners, thanks to becoming famous on the Internet. Now 85% of the bars are closed with apology notices on their doors, with no plans to reopen, though May 31st is being discussed in the news media as the end of Tokyo’s official lockdown. One bar had tried to switch business plans and was selling Tonkatsu, along with drinks for whatever customers would come in. But who the hell goes to Golden Gai to eat food?
More than Golden Gai, I can usually be found at Omoide Yokocho, two enjoyable alleyways filled with bars where you can order food. During the Rugby World Cup last year, it was overflowing with drunk Brits and Irishmen to the point that I had to stay away because there were no open seats. Now nearly all the bars are shuttered…
But not all! I found one defiant Master (you always call the owner of a bar or restaurant “Master” in Japan, which I assume is a British thing) who was keeping his shop open, so I had a nice drink and some meat-on-a-stick and Hoppy, a beer-like non-alcoholic drink you order with a separate glass of shochu alcohol. It’s my favorite go-to drink.
Back closer to our condo, a lot of the shops near us were still closed, though most announced that they’d be opening later in the month.
This is a crisis that will force businesses to change and adapt, or go out of business. Already in West Shinjuku, there was a tradition of restaurants selling bento boxes to passers-by to make extra income because there are so many government and office workers who need to eat quickly in this area. Now restaurants who hadn’t bothered with this have started selling bento in an effort to get income. I picked up a nice oyako-don, “parent-and-child rice bowl” made with chicken and scrambled eggs.
Sadly, not all businesses are innovating as much as they should. I mentioned in a blog post that a favorite ramen restaurant had seen a near-total drop-off in customers because they’d taken no steps to show they were taking customers’ health seriously. No staff wore masks, there was no hand sanitizer for customers…it was eerily like the liquor store Kanamori described in Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, which went out of business because they refused to innovate and change.
More changes to Shinjuku in the Age of Corona. While many businesses are having a hard time in the crisis, some are flourishing, like Arms, our favorite restaurant in the Yoyogi Park area. They sell everything from great burgers to grilled cheese sandwiches and make a killer corned beef on rye. They’d converted from a dog-friendly eat-in establishment to 100% take-out and had more business than they could handle.
This is what retail businesses are like in Tokyo: customers keeping separation from each other, with store clerks wearing masks and protected behind plastic barriers.
One game I’m enjoying is playing “Where’s Waldo?” (or Where’s Wally? for non-Americans), looking for that one person who’s not wearing a mask in Tokyo. About 98.5% of people you see on the street is wearing one. pic.twitter.com/lVftViUEkT
— Peter Payne (@JListPeter) May 18, 2020
One benefit Japan had going into this crisis was its existing mask culture, with many people wearing protective masks that provide various benefits even without a health crisis. While 25% of people would habitually wear a mask before the virus, the number shot up to 98% with the new crisis. It’s quite fun to walk down the street in Tokyo and try to find someone who’s not wearing a mask, like playing Where’s Waldo? I think I found three the day I was looking.
Like all countries, Japan had trouble making enough masks for people to wear, and I ended up having my mother-in-law sew some for me, plus some extras to send to my family in the U.S. Inevitably the price of masks rose as high as $80 for a box of 30 masks on online sites, but the “mask bubble” seems to have finally burst. I picked up some masks which were just $6 for a package of three.
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some photos from Shinjuku in the age of Corona. Hopefully, things will continue to improve and we’ll all start getting back to a more normal state, perhaps with a heightened level of awareness of the importance of hygiene going forward.
Thanks for reading, and play stay safe, wherever you are in the world!
Our customers love the cute Megumi stickers we send with your orders. We’ve got some extra stickers, including rare items we’ve given away in the past, which we’ve bundled up into random sets of 8 Megumi stickers you can get for $5. Hurry, as there aren’t many of the sets available!