Tokyo is a sophisticated and wealthy city.
But just like every city, not every part is sophisticated and wealthy.
Shibuya is a neighborhood on the northwest side of Tokyo. We planned on just a short visit—to cross the “busiest crosswalk in the world” and take a picture with a famous dog statue. But after a long day in Ikebukuro, we decided to make Shibuya our home for the night.
We didn’t plan on it becoming our haunt for 3 days.
We didn’t plan on crossing the busiest crosswalk in the world 10+ times
or chilling by Hachiko because he has the best free wifi.
And yet we did.
That first night we arrived in Shibuya around 8 o’clock and planned to find a “love motel”. Yes that is exactly what you think it is. They are actually quite nice. The sheets are always light colored, I assume so they can be bleached every night. And there are always flatscreen televisions, nice showers (and tubs), and plenty of towels.
We squeezed four girls into a love motel in Busan with no problems, so we just assumed Tokyo would be the same.
Do not assume this.
We knew the love motels wouldn’t be in clear sight, so we got off the subway, crossed the busiest crosswalk in the world, and turned down the first sketchy alleyway. We saw a large red gate and walked under it—just under a hunch. Turns out, we had stumbled on “love motel hill” —a one way paved road up a hill, lined with lovely neon signs advertising their services. “Hotel Diamond” “Le Paris” and “Motel Zero” were the on the main strip and seemed promising enough.
At first we tried honesty because we like to think we are okay people. The three of us walked in and asked for a room, offering to pay a little extra for the third person.
After being turned down by 4 different places (all across the street from each other) we decided that honesty wasn’t the best policy. We didn’t feel that bad…it’s love motel hill. So I was designated the third man out—to wait outside with the suitcases while Silvia and Maria went in to book a room as if it was just the two of them. I stood outside “Fifteen Love”—a two story building with light pink, peeling, stucco walls and “Fifteen Love” scrolled in mauve cursive scrawled across the facade.
5 minutes passed. 10 minutes passed. 15. I was enjoying watching the couples cross the hill and watching the signs change from “open” to “closed.”
But around the 20 minute mark I started to get worried. We had phones but no Japanese service and limited wifi.
What had happened? Were they okay? Had Fifteen Love swallowed them?
This was starting to get not-entertaining. Do I go inside and try to find them—risking the same fate as theirs? Or do I wait here worrying?
Luckily, the moment I reached this conundrum, they appeared from entryway looking like they’d just emerged from a haunted house.
I started to ask but they just quickly and silently shook their heads, grabbed their suitcases from my hands, and Maria mumbled under her breath “wait till we are off the hill.”
We descended down the paved road and to the main strip silent till we found a Family Mart—the Japanese 7/11 (although they also have 7/11) with wifi. We sat down on a ledge and watched dozens of people pass by as they reiterated their story.
Finding a room was not a problem. They had to pay upfront, but it was the cheapest we’d seen so far so they decided to go for it. Cheapest isn’t always the best option.
The room was spatious and the bed could easily fit three girls horizontally. It didn’t have wifi but hey you can’t have everything you want.
They set down backpacks and went to talk to me when they tried the door and…it was locked.
They were locked in.
From the outside.
I wasn’t there so I can’t relay all of the details, but the general feeling radiating from them was horror. Apparently they were knocking on the door and Maria was trying to undo the fire safety at the top and Silvia was playing with the phone on the side. It took 20 minutes of increasing terror until eventually she found the right combination of numbers and got hold of the front desk and begged them to let them out.
The guy did come, but he was not happy about it. He asked how long they would be gone and they said just an hour, and they scurried outside to meet me.
Thoroughly shaken, we watched the prostitutes and pimps outside Family Mart try to get business which was absolutely fascinating. After an hour we decided to go back to Fifteen Love—they had already paid.
Sneaking in was no longer an option. The creepy front desk guys were clearly waiting for their return…and now they had a third person. We played the “I just got here I didn’t know because I can’t read Kanji or English” card and he grumpily let us in when we dealt some extra cash.
Maria stuck something in the door to keep it open, and desk man forcefully pulled it out and closed the door. Locking us in again.
We took some deep breaths and after showers and pajamas, I collapsed on the bed asleep in minutes.
Thankfully there was no fire, and at 10:40am the phone rang, reminding us that checkout was at 11. The door unlocked right at 11 and we scurried out. In the daylight, Fifteen Love looked just as sketchy as it sounds and much more sketchy than it looked at night.
We locked our bags in Shibuya Station and headed our for another day (more details later) because it was convenient and memorable; not because we planned on staying another night. Yet, once again we arrived too late to actually make a nice reservation and ended up on love motel hill, with the same sketchy overweight japanese guy on the corner smoking and observing. We decided that we were willing to pay a little bit more if it had wifi and didn’t lock us in at night. Hotel Diamond, which had a sparkly floor, even offered to let three people in a room but for an extreme extra when they saw we were foreigners. We turned them down, but not before asking if being locked in was normal to which the lady looked like we were crazy. Obviously not!
We passed Fifteen Love and down to another motel, which we approached honestly and she let us in at a decent price, with extra towels, and wifi! The interior was nice enough to belong to any budget hotel and we were pleased.
Friday night we tried to stay there again. Unfortunately, it was a different lady at the desk who was not very nice. Even shoving extra cash in her face she refused us. Perhaps because it was Friday night. Or maybe because she didn’t trust us. We were sweaty and gross after a day around shrines and temples.
Once again, we ended up on the ledge outside the Family Mart using their wifi to search for reservations online. We found an open place that appeared to be just up the road. It took at least an hour of circling downtown Shibuya, crossing the world’s busiest crosswalk a least 6 times, and asking multiple Family Mart employees only to realize it was just up the street from love motel hill.
The room was the size of a double bathroom—but it was a real hotel. Not a love motel. Which we considered an upgrade. In the end, we were out until 5:30am anyway and had to check out at 11. We basically paid for a nap and a shower.
We spent the final day in Shinjuku, which I will talk about later. We had to leave for the airport at 5am, so we decided to skip the whole sleep thing and spend the night wandering downtown. You have to understand something—this isn’t some sleepy place where the the stoplights turn off at 9 and the doors shut at 10 and the streetlights dim at 11. This place was hopping. Hundreds of people roamed the sidewalks and dozens of restaurants, host bars, and gift shops are 24 hours.
We weren’t alone.
It ended up us swapping life stories at a Burger King until the guy kicked us out at 2am because my knee caps had swollen from walking so much. Then we went next door to a fancy, 9 story karaoke place where we sang for 2 hours in room 991. We were in Japan—we had to go to karaoke! The guy showed us the English menu, but we immediately switch to Hangul when he shut the door.
And that’s the story of how I spent the night in a karaoke room.
We decided 4am was close enough to 5am and headed to the airport.
Moral of the story—if you’re sophisticated and wealthy, Tokyo is the place for you. If you’re not sophisticated and wealthy—Tokyo is the place for you.