Just one of the many faces of Tokyo's red-light district: Festival with portable shrine, Kabukicho. © Max Hodges

Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho. Guided By Voices

Recently, Max Hodges of White Rabbit Press has been pretty busy. With a camera and a microphone he started documenting the street life of Tokyo for Tokyo Realtime, a new series of English audio-guided walking tours of the city’s neighbourhoods that mix narration and interviews with music, sound-effects and sounds captured on the streets. The first audio CD is about Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red-light district, that also includes a map and a booklet with tons of nice, glossy photos of the area. PingMag took the one-hour audio tour to get a first-hand experience and had a little chat with Max on location.

Written by Andrew Lee

To give you first a taste, listen to the tour teaser:
[audio:kabukicho_preview.mp3]

I took the Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho tour on a Saturday night around 7 p.m., and was instantly drawn into the surreal experience of navigating the bustling streets with a voice guiding me along. To hear Max talk is to fall under his spell and I was reminded a little of Ryu Murakami’s novel In the Miso Soup.

Street life in Kabukicho outside Host Club Casanova. © Max Hodges

In the book, Frank, an American, visits Kabukicho and is shown around by a young Japanese guy who gives sex tours. The story meanders through the back streets of the area much as the Realtime tour does, and at times Max’s Texan-drawl made me feel like I was following in Frank’s footsteps, except that Frank, as it turns out, is a serial killer. Luckily Max is a much more reliable companion!

Hostesses outside a club, Kabukicho. © Max Hodges

The content of the tour spans the area’s history and covers a diverse cross-section of the people and places—with all the fun, excitement and darkness that makes Kabukicho such a fascinating place. In the course of the hour it took to complete the tour I visited a variety of places including: host and hostess clubs; a happening sex club; a love hotel; the Golden Gai bar area; crime-gang hangouts and a Shinto shrine. Max’s advice along the way was both entertaining and useful and I finished the tour feeling I really knew the place!

TS Music, Kabukicho. Live nude strip joint. © Max Hodges

A couple of days later, I came back to Kabukicho and met Max in person over a few beers and some great cha han at Lee Xiao Mu’s Chinese Restaurant—the second stop in the tour.

Max first visited Tokyo back in 1999. “I think travelling is a lot like time-travel,” he explains. “If you go to Mexico they still have beer cans with pull-tabs, and everyone has VCRs instead of DVD players, and they have retro video-games and stuff. And Paris is this dark, old city, that doesn’t have big glass skyscrapers, and it smells like piss and diesel. But coming to Tokyo was the first time I felt I’d gone forward on the time-line, instead of back.”

Festival at Hanazono Shrine, Kabukicho. One of Japan’s major Shinto shrines. © Max Hodges

A year after that first visit Max was back and living along the Seibu Shinjuku line—which terminates in Kabukicho. “I’d pass though Shinjuku on my way home,” he says “and realise I still had an hour or so to kill before the last train. That’s when I started coming here regularly; it was my last-chance whiskey before going home.”

About a year ago, when he decided to create the Tokyo Realtime audio guides, Kabukicho seemed the obvious place to begin. But since he found “lots of little discrepancies on the web, I started checking my facts on the street, and learning from the people who live out their lives here.”

Blowing off stream at Oslo batting center, Kabukicho. © Max Hodges

One such person is Kwon Choul, a fearless Korean photographer. “Kwon’s been shooting in Kabukicho every night for like sixteen years,” Max tells me, “seriously. He comes here at dusk, and shoots till morning. If there’s a fire or a murder, or if there’s an immigration raid; if something happens, like there’s a suicide, he gets the shots and sells them to the tabloid magazines like Friday or Spa! or Flash.” Several of Kwon’s images are included in the booklet which comes with the audio tour.

Gangster showing his stuff during a festival at Hanazono Shrine. © Max Hodges

Another resource Max discovered is Lee Xiao Mu, an expert on Kabukicho and the owner of the Chinese restaurant we were now sitting in. “Lee really knows this area and he’s been very helpful and supportive. We were shooting photos one night, and he helped us get inside a lot of places. He would call ahead and get permission for us, and he even had a couple of Japanese guys come and act as our escorts. We’d hop in a cab and go shoot at a tranny-bar, a strip–joint, or a hostess club, then come back here and Lee would send us out again to the next place. At one point we even managed to get this tattooed Yakuza guy to take off his clothes for us in a parking lot,” says Max showing me the photo. Lee was also interviewed for the tour and adds an extra level of authenticity to the guide.

Hosts work rain or shine trying to lure customers to their clubs. © Max Hodges

Max had some other help too, from Osada Steve, a bondage artist who showed him the ropes at SM clubs around town, and from a street tout named Dennis who set Max straight on why Japanese girls go to host clubs.


Tokyo Realtime audio tour booklet cover, by White Rabbit Press.

“When I first came to Kabukicho,” recalls Max, “I would see these attractive young girls checking the photos outside host clubs, and then watch as they went inside where they would’ve had to pay hundreds of dollars to drink and hang-out with the hosts. The whole concept was hard for me to get my foreigner brain around. So I asked Dennis about it, and he explained it this way, ‘If you want to buy jewellery, or a watch, where do you go? To a department store, right? You don’t buy it from some guy in the street, because you don’t know what you’re getting. Same thing here. When these girls want a guy, they go to the store and pay for one.’”

As we leave Lee’s restaurant and head back into the Kabukicho streets three girls in high-school uniforms run past being chased by a middle-aged salary man, people turn to watch and laugh. The moment is pure Kabukicho and highlights what Max tells me once we are sitting in a bar in Golden Gai. “When I was recording sound for the tour,” he says, “I realised that the sound you hear most in Kabukicho, perhaps more than in any other neighbourhood, is the sound of laughter. You can hear it right now. Just listen.”

Enriching! We have to say that this really is a fine tour on CD plus booklet package, whether you’re actually in Tokyo walking around or overseas listening to it on your mp3 player. Folks, get Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho for your own audio pleasure. And by the way, Max is right now working on the next guide for the Harajuku area.

  • Aroldo

    Wow! That’s some good stuff to listen on my mp3 player…! :D

  • otakugirl

    I like the idea of time travel!

  • bakemono

    so cool….now i want to go there…..

  • Fearless

    Great place to visit and now with a guide like this, it become accessible.

    I know what i am giving for X-mas this year!

  • Rita

    great story, but you could have left the Miso Soup spoiler out of it….

  • http://www.nihonsun.com Shane

    I read about this audio tour recently and thought it was a great idea. Thanks for taking the time to interview Max and review the tour for your readers – it sounds like it would be great tour for visitors and residents alike.

  • http://www.whiterabbitpress.com Max Hodges

    I’m the author of this product, and I’d be happy to answer any questions here that anyone many have…

    Best,
    Max

  • Joakim

    Thanks for doing this Max, I love products like these with some originality and quality!

    I was wondering how you came up with the idea for this project?

    Also, thanks for taking the time to answer our silly questions on this blog here! :)

  • http://www.whiterabbitpress.com Max Hodges

    Hi Joakim,
    We had finished up our kanji and kana flashcard series so we were looking around for new ideas, and a friend of mine in NY told me about Soundwalk tours. I immediately recognized that it would be a good business model for us, but we’ve taken a different approach stylistically. I thought many of the Soundwalk tours emphasized style over substance and leave you feeling like you didn’t really learn much about the district. So I wanted the Tokyo Realtime tours to be richer with compelling content, so we really tried get below the surface and dig up stories and insights only a true insider would know.

  • http://www.whiterabbitpress.com Max Hodges

    PS: buy it!

  • Pingback: Top 10 Tourist Destinations in Japan - Nihon Sun

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    I read about this audio tour recently and thought it was a great idea. Thanks for taking the time to interview Max and review the tour for your readers.

  • http://www.tokyorealtime.com Max Hodges

    Thank you for the comments! We have a community forum for Tokyo Realtime where we’d love to hear your thoughts:
    http://bit.ly/if4Uwi

    also the faecbook fan page for the project is here:
    https://www.facebook.com/TokyoRealtime

    Kind Regards,
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    Producer, Tokyo Realtime

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    Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho. Guided By Voices
    10 Nov 2008 Category: Japan, Photography, Products

    Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho. Guided By Voices
    Just one of the many faces of Tokyo’s red-light district: Festival with portable shrine, Kabukicho. © Max Hodges

    Recently, Max Hodges of White Rabbit Press has been pretty busy. With a camera and a microphone he started documenting the street life of Tokyo for Tokyo Realtime, a new series of English audio-guided walking tours of the city’s neighbourhoods that mix narration and interviews with music, sound-effects and sounds captured on the streets. The first audio CD is about Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red-light district, that also includes a map and a booklet with tons of nice, glossy photos of the area. PingMag took the one-hour audio tour to get a first-hand experience and had a little chat with Max on location.

    Written by Andrew Lee

    To give you first a taste, listen to the tour teaser:

    I took the Tokyo Realtime: Kabukicho tour on a Saturday night

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