America kind of sucks lately. Seemingly everyone is pissed off about something in the news and the Brooklyn Banks are still closed after decades of a lingering re-opening. Europe is also going through a rough patch with England leaving the European Union. If you’re living in the Western Hemisphere you’ll probably want to leave soon, even just for a little while. You can’t go south because you might not make it back. You can’t go all the way to China because the feds will put you on a Commie black list. That makes Tokyo, Japan your place to go. Tokyo is that sweet spot between the Far East and the Far West where you can meet a cute Asian girl or guy on Tinder and then get yourself a Big Mac to make you feel more at home.
With miles of knee-high rails and virtually untouched marble ledges lining the streets, it’s no wonder companies like Pizza, Pass-Port, and HUF have all put out Tokyo footage recently. But like any city, it ain’t easy to make it out there. Not looking Asian, being a skater, and not speaking Japanese (which I know you don’t) definitely doesn’t help.
This guide is meant to ease the transition and give you a running start in glorious Nihon—and more importantly—prevent you from being the foreign kook at the local spot.
Where To Stay
Unless you’re stupidly wealthy, you’ll probably try to avoid a “Western” style hotel with the queen size bed and your own bathroom. You don’t need that luxury to have a good time. All you need is a place to leave your duffel bag during the day, a sink to rinse the sweat off, and a bed to crash in at night. With this in mind, capsule hotels are definitely the way to go. Some capsule hotels go for as low as $15 a night and come complete with a private bed, locker for your stuff, and all the toiletries you can steal. Some more upscale hotels even have a hot tub and sauna for the post-skate unwind.
But if cramming yourself into a claustrophobic sleeping tube to listen to the guy in the tube next to you jerking off doesn’t sound like your thing, there’s always the more (relatively) spacious manga kissa, or internet/comic café cubicle for usually only around ten bucks more. Now you might be thinking that’s a strange recommendation for a place to sleep, but most internet cafés offer overnight deals (6-8 hours), have 24 hour kitchens to order food (alternate reading: beer), walls full of Japanese comics, and often even showers available to the customers. If you’re more the kind of traveler to prefer an actual bed, then there’s plenty of backpacker hostels for around 25-30 bucks a night (see Sakura Hotel).
Tokyo is huge, but all the good stuff is in Shibuya. Shinjuku is basically like the Las Vegas strip but with fewer lights and more grime/yakuza and robot restaurants. If you’re lucky enough to be with a Japanese friend, you might be able to get into one of the hundreds of hostess or sex clubs if you’re into that kind of thing, but it won’t be cheap. If you’re flying solo, then it’s best not to bother. If you’re not outright rejected at the door then you’re an easy target for getting scammed, charged up the ass, or getting in deep with some mobsters. Harajuku with it’s trendy quirk on the other hand, is the perfect place to find your future cute ex-waifu.
How To Get Around
Skating from spot to spot is a little sketchy. Japan is all about being polite so if you’re a huge sweaty foreigner flying down a hill and weaving between schoolgirls, the police will be peeved. The streets are often too crowded for transit anyway but every now and then you can find a nice stretch of street to push down. However, if you find yourself out past midnight, the streets are basically empty and skating from place to place is a viable option.
You can get anywhere in the city by train, so it helps to invest in a Suica subway card. It’s like a Metrocard for the New York Subway, but you can also use it for the bus and to buy beers from a vending machine (yes, that’s a thing). The subway line is cheap and almost everything has an English subtitle so being mobile is easy. If you’re planning ahead and have the cash on you, Japan Railways, the company that operates all the commuter trains in/around Tokyo and the rest of Japan, offers a commuter pass that gives unlimited rides on all JR trains in the Tokyo area for three days (including the bullet train to go to tourist attractions outside of Tokyo like Mt. Fuji).
Spots and Parks
During the day, your best bet for a good session is a skatepark. Up until very recently, the Nike park in the center of Shibuya was the happening place, but unfortunately, it was torn down to make room for an Olympic stadium. A few train stops past Shibuya you’ll find Tamachi Park, which is both a skate park and a heavily used community basketball court, so if your ledge game sucks, at least you can go work on your three-pointers and show those kids who’s boss.
Just a few stops southwest of Shibuya on the Tokyo Metro is Komazawa park, which features a pretty pitiful street section (just a large box with some strangely placed QP’s and a bank), but it does have three separate mini ramps of all different sizes. The locals here are pretty rad and the park is often pretty heavy with skater chicks if that’s your thing so it’s a good place to make some friends to practice your mannies with since that’s about all there is to do here. The signs say there’s no drinking in the park, but no one seems to care if you drink just outside the entrance as long as you dispose of the cans after.
A bit further down the line—conveniently located a block from Tokyo Disney—is Maihama Skate Park, which used to suck but has recently been renovated and now feels a lot like a miniature version of a Street League course (training for the Olympics?). The good thing about Maihama is that it’s huge and flowy, making it easy to push forever without getting bored or revealing how bad you are at pumping transition.
Daytime street spots are few and far between. Skate culture is cool in Tokyo—everyone and their grandma is wearing Thrasher or Palace hoodies complete with pre-ollied Vans—but actually putting your board down and skating is a no-no. During your travels, you will see dozens if not hundreds of ledges and banks to drool over, but unless you’re a local, you won’t be able to discern the skatable from the un-skatable. For example, skating the red brick transition in front of the Supreme store seems like a no brainer, but in reality, Hypebeasts are going to take photos of you on their phones and a well-dressed employee will tell you you’re banned from the property.
If you want to skate in Tokyo without getting kicked out of everywhere, you’re going to need to befriend the natives. Luckily for you, this is an easy task. Skating in Japan is way more user-friendly than most places. There are a lot fewer haters and therefore a lot fewer conflicts. Regardless of how good you are, what you dress like, or how awkward your style is, skaters accept other skaters. Unlike a lot of the scene in the West, there’s an overwhelming sense of camaraderie in Japanese skate culture, and most people will just be stoked to meet a foreign skater.
A lot of locals speak English to some degree and want to practice their skills, so when you get to the park, say hi to people and ask them to recommend you some other parks or spots. Break that ice. Once again, Japan is all about being polite, so if you practice good etiquette, say “please and thank you”, and act generally non-dickish, you’ll more than likely get invited to the bar or the drinking session that will inevitably follow.
Now that you’ve assimilated successfully into a local crew, the session comes to an end and your new friends tell you that there is an A) street-brand release party, B) Homie art show, C) Skate video premiere, D) Nightclub opening, and that you should join them. You should definitely join them because there will definitely be potential hook ups, and there will definitely be free alcohol. Your friends tell you that the party starts at 8 p.m. and that you’re going to go to a bar for a little bit first, but keep in mind that there is a language barrier. The party actually starts at 11 p.m. and you’re going to get plastered drunk at two or more closet-sized bars. Your friends will sip on thimbles of lite beer while buying you Chu-Hi’s and pressuring you to try every kind of disgusting seafood snack they can find.
Eventually, you will arrive at the party and as promised, there are hotties and beers. The people don’t speak English which is encouraging because they won’t understand you if you say something stupid, but terrifying because your chances are based solely on what they can see, which is a drunk and sweaty post-skate foreigner. This confusion is blatant and often crippling, so here are a few helpful words of wisdom to get you wooing in no time.
Traditional Japanese culture puts men first and women second into an overly submissive and sexist role. In recent years, though, the quiet, submissive Asian stereotype has been slowly fading into history. The Japanese woman of today is career driven, independent, and is putting marriage on the back burner. These changes, ironically, are going to play to your benefit if you’re a straight dude.
If you find yourself in the happening part of Tokyo, wander over to Roppongi and get yourself into a Gaijin (foreigner) bar, where Japanese people go specifically to meet foreigners. To have a foreign friend/boyfriend is a status symbol for a lot of girls in Japan, which makes you exactly the kind of Tinder hook-up they’ll want to tell all their friends about (pro tip: get Tinder, mention skating and your home country in the bio, and thank me later).
Straight girls in Japan, as in most of the world, love confidence and chivalry. If you’re lucky enough to find an elusive skater-dater (they’re out there), your chances are through the roof. Being the cute-stupid-foreign-boy-who-cant-even-speak-the-language is precisely what you want to be. If you’ve bought her a couple drinks and she’s taught you how to ask “Where’s the library?”, it may be time to throw out the daring offer of getting a hoteru—a hotel that can be rented by the hour for those hook-ups that just cant wait. If somehow she giggles and says yes, you’re looking at a charge of about ¥3000 (about $27), so get in there, do the deed, and show her your best Instagram edits for the remaining 45 minutes.
All the good gay bars and hang outs are in Shinjuku, but if you’re not Japanese it might be hard to get into or even find a legit place. There are always people on the street passing out flyers trying to advertise their bar or club, and sometimes these people can be nice enough to point you in the right direction. It also can’t hurt to download Grindr and Line/TalkApp while you’re at it. Grindr for the meet-up and Line/TalkApp to keep in contact. Almost everyone—gay or straight—uses Line instead of iMessage or texting, so it’s a good idea to get it regardless of your orientation.
The Last Train
Eventually, midnight comes, and your friends are sober as ever and ready to take you to the street spot of your dreams and you must make an important decision: do you catch the last train back to the capsule hotel or do you give yourself over to the night?
In Tokyo, hardly anybody lives in the city. This means that they rely on the trains to get them to and from their homes. Party in the city, sleep in the country. The trains all stop running at around midnight and don’t start up again until a bleak 5 a.m. If you live outside the city and miss the last train (as many poor souls do), you’re basically fucked. Your options are to drunkenly stumble for however many miles and hours it takes to reach your bed, or sleep on the street; most choose the latter.
However, if you’re a skateboarder just visiting Tokyo, night time is prime time. The hours where the trains are still and the city is empty are the only hours where you get to go skate the street spots you’ve dreamed of. The decision to miss the last train is a difficult one to make. On the one hand, you could catch that crowded last train back to your coffin-sized hotel capsule and there is no shame in that. After all, vacations are about rest and relaxation, right? But if you’re floating somewhere between drunk and asleep, you can’t find a hook-up, and you’ve got two more beers in your pocket, fuck it, go skate.
It is now around 3 in the morning and you’re getting hungry. By now, you’ve noticed that every street has at least one Family Mart or Lawson which are basically far better versions of 7-11 and are commonly known as ‘konbini’s. These konbini carry everything from Oxford shirts to whiskey-in-a-can and are open 24 hours a day, making them your best friends. They sell high-quality Japanese foods like musubi and ramen at astonishingly good prices, and while eating really good food in Japan is generally dirt cheap, you could only eat konbini food for the entire trip and be a happy camper.
Most importantly, they sell alcohol, which can be purchased at any time of day or night and can be enjoyed legally out in public. The legal drinking age in Japan is 20, but the system of checking age is by pressing a button on a screen that reads “I am at least 20 years old,” so it shouldn’t be too hard to cheat the system.
It’s the middle of the night and you’re trying to film a clip for your new friend’s next video when you see the blue lights come rolling up. The whole city is essentially a no-skate-zone so this occurrence isn’t too surprising. The crime rate is also so low in Japan that the police have run out of stuff to do, which means making a shit load of noise in the dead of night will probably attract a lot of attention. Two cops come out of the car and despite their cute outfits, they look pissed. There are a couple of ways to play this one out, but your best bet is to let your friends do the talking.
Your inability to speak the language is your greatest advantage at this point. If you play dumb, you’re probably in the clear. If they start talking to you, just keep rambling English until they stop. If things go south and shit gets real, you may be pulled into a police station and held for a while, but it is unlikely that you’ll be charged with anything. To hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, Tokyo native Kento Takahashi talks about his worst bust, saying “We got taken to a police station when we hopped a fence to get to a spot. Two or three police cars showed up, took us to the station and asked us questions for a few hours. They took our fingerprints too. When cops come out, just show respect, apologize, and act like some dude from another country.”
Generally, Japanese cops are not as gnarly as the cops you’re accustomed to, but nobody wants to be asked questions in Japanese for hours on end. Where police interactions become especially tricky is when drugs come into play, specifically marijuana. If you’re caught with that stuff, you’re looking at either immediate deportation or jail time. They don’t fuck around over there. As a citizen, you can even be investigated for suspected private marijuana smoking, and keep in mind it is within a Japanese cop’s legal right to stop and search whoever, whenever. All in all, if you’re not from there and you don’t know how shit goes, it’s probably best that you dare to be drug-free.
The Next Day
It’s dawn and despite your new friends’ best efforts, you’re sobering up. You can now return to your home country with stories of all the perfect rails, banks, and ledges you shredded at four in the morning, and you take that first train back to the hotel. You wake up a few hours later to a few discoveries: first, your tolerance for alcohol is far lower than you had previously thought. Second, capsule hotels require guests to vacate the beds at 10 am for cleaning and everyone was too nice to tell you that, so you’re the only one in the building. Third, you’ve gained a lot of Instagram followers because that is usually how people keep in contact with each other in Japan and it’s almost obligatory in some cases to exchange follows. Your new friends message you and tell you they’re headed to the skate park and that there is a party tonight, and you prepare to repeat the arduous process again.
Tokyo is an intimidating place, but it’s also probably the safest skate vacation you can take. There aren’t any muggers or fights or dudes smoking crack out of aluminum cans. Almost everyone there is happy to help you get where you need to go or find what you need to find if you ask nice enough. Just be polite and considerate and treat the place like it’s your mom’s house. Practice gratitude, don’t be a dick, and you’ll be Nihonjin in no time.