On her trip to Tokyo, Travel+Leisure India & South Asia’s contributor hits the ’90s stomping grounds of the Japanese underworld of Yakuza with true-crime novelist Jake Adelstein. By Nupur Singh
Tokyo often surprises travellers with its kind soul, spiffy bullet trains, eclectic street fashion, never-ending nightlife, and gastronomic offerings. And if the sensory load is too much, you can just as easily walk into the Ninomaru Garden, stroll in a Buddhist shrine, or hop on a train—within an hour, you could even be forest bathing.
I am in Tokyo with novelist Jake Adelstein, who after 12 years as a crime reporter with Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest in-circulation Japanese newspaper in Japan, quit his job and published a true-crime memoir of his time on the police beat. The novel Tokyo Vice exposes the world of organised crime in Japan through the lens of a crime reporter. A world where mayhem, macabre, and mystery lie beneath the surface. He is also the executive producer of the eponymous show on HBO that was released this April.
Where Yakuzas Live
In present-day Japan, there are about 12,300 existing members of the organised crime syndicate known as yakuza. The group was at their peak in the early 1960s, the Japanese government estimated the number to be about 2,00,000 members. The three big yakuza groups operating in Japan are Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, and Inagawa-kai.
The men of yakuza follow a strict code of conduct and hierarchy. They sport irezumi (a distinctive style of Japanese tattooing), slick back-combed hair, tailored suits, and are most avidly known for following unconventional rituals like yubitsume, the amputation of the left little finger.
Adelstein first takes me to Kabukicho Street, which is anything but squeamish about its mob connection. In the northern part of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, if you come across a street lined with a deck of neon street lights past a red arched way, you know you have arrived at the infamous Kabukicho.
In conversation with Jake Adelstein, we pass by the historic stomping grounds of the yakuza. The street is covered with fetish clubs, bath houses, love hotels, yakuza-frequented cafes, massage parlours, cheap crash pads, and luxury hotels. It was a pretty sketchy district where sexual services were sold openly, and almost all of which were legal, Adelstein explains.
I travel back in time to 1999, an unspoken era when more than 20 yakuza organisations were muscling to be on top, and the heady mix of cigarette smoke, izakaya, yakitori, and mad adrenaline swept through the streets.
Taste of Kabukicho
Smack dab in the middle of Kabukicho street was a sprawling cafe serving nothing exotic, just cake by slices and coffee. Incidentally, this cafe also doubled as a DMZ for the yakuza. One-quarter the size now, remodelled, and a few name changes later, Café Parisienne is still located in the Furin Kaikan building, and serves cake, coffee, and plates of omurice (a Japanese comfort dish of egg fried rice topped with a rolled omelette finished with ketchup).
Adelstein remarks, “While working on the crime beat, I would just walk into the cafe and pretend to read an English newspaper, and eavesdrop to get intel on the nefarious plots, and none of the yakuzas ever doubted me. Because, in the 90s, it was unheard of to have an American crime reporter in Tokyo who was fluent in Japanese.”
Walking together in Kabukicho, Adelstein shares how, by sheer dumb luck, he once found a witness of a murder case, and the guy turned out to be his favoruite bartender at a bar named Propaganda in Roppongi. “He now works in Union Square , a bar in Roppongi. Great bar, great restaurant. Go during happy hour. Yasu, the bartender will make you a mean martini. Try not to ask him about the murder; it might stress him out, but if you do, do tip him well,” adds Adelstein.
Pointing toward a building in construction, Adelstein reveals, “That used to be the legendary Ai Hoten, a pioneer host club since its opening in 1971.” It shut down in 2020 after 50 years of operation but has relocated to another venue in Kabukicho. Adelstein adds, “It was Japan’s first real hostess club,” and pulls out a picture from the yesteryear. Gold-plated carousel figures, glittering chandeliers, maroon silk interiors, nude Grecian bronze-age statues, pretty manicured boys, and the hosts peek at me from the photograph.
Adelstein adds that the yakuza gods living in marble halls would only frequent tasteful establishments like the elite hostess clubs of Ginza. Zen Hostess Club, which has been in business since 1982, is one of them. The classy Blue Note Tokyo in the posh Minamiaoyama, a yakuza-frequented bar, still holds jazz nights. It has a dark, refined atmosphere, and has carved a niche audience for itself.
“The yakuza bosses always checked in to hotels in incognito mode,” explains Adelstein. The check-in was done in another person’s name, and the key card was later handed over to the top dog. Hotel New Otani in Chiyoda, The Okura in Toronamaon, and The Imperial Hotel in Hibiya were the favourite mafia luxury hotels at that time.
During Japanese summer festivals like Sanja Matsuri, you can see the yakuzas taking part in processions even now. Sanja Matsuri is amongst the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo and the wildest. It takes place in May, and offers a rare chance to see heavily-tattooed members of the yakuza walking topless, carrying a mikoshi (or the sacred shrine).
Another hangout of the world’s oldest and the most secretive crime syndicate was the Azabu Kokubisui Hot Spring Takenyou located opposite the Chinese embassy in Minami Azabu. Established in 1913 as a ‘radium hot spring’, the name of this sento translates to ‘Azabu black water of beauty’. The dark colour of the water is from ancient plants that have melted into the underground water, and it’s said to make the skin smooth, and heal muscle pain and exhaustion.
A Japanese sento can easily be one of the top few pleasures of your trip to Japan, but do bear in mind that most of these establishments do not allow tattooed individuals. This stigma came about due to the yakuzas and still prevails.
As we wrap up our jaunt, Adelstein looks at the Kabukicho lane with a side smile. “In the 90s, Kabukicho was as dark as noir gets. Back then, there were Mercedes-Benz cars pulling in and out of the streets, mobsters strolling, and constant brawls on the streets. Everything had a slanderous vibe,” he says. “It was nothing like it is now; there were no commoners lounging around, sipping sake under the starlight, no influencers posing with the now iconic Godzilla structure on Shinjuku’s Toho Cinema building. It wasn’t a place for all, it was a dark secret,” Adelstein whispers.
Getting To Tokyo
All Nippon Airways runs a direct flight to Tokyo from both Delhi and Mumbai.
Aman Tokyo in Otemachi Tower is inspired by Japanese design tradition, with ikebana displays, washi paper doors, and engawa platforms (doubles from INR 56,882 ).
Shangri-La Tokyo in Marunouchi is known for its exquisite luxury and service (doubles from INR 22,752).