Tokyo by area: Roppongi

Moving on up- Tokyo's sleaziest area gets another facelift

Tokyo by area: Roppongi

This is the traditional heart of Tokyo's hedonism. With more than half a century of building a reputation as the place to go for sleazy revelry, deafening music and drink-till-you-hurl tomfoolery, Roppongi is the place you don't let your daughter anywhere near.

As a result, Tokyo's leading property magnate Mori Minoru raised a few eyebrows when, in 1995, he announced plans to build a huge, multibillion-yen, upmarket urban development right next to the bedlam. Roppongi Hills opened to great fanfare in April 2003, and its popularity has yet to wane. Official figures claim 100,000 visitors each weekday, rising to 300,000 each weekend. The complex is designed as a ‘city within a city', housing more than 200 cafés, restaurants and shops, hundreds of Conran-designed serviced apartments, a major art museum, the nine-screen Virgin Toho Cinemas, the Ashahi TV studio, several parks and the sumptuous Grand Hyatt Tokyo. With an emphasis on the luxury side of life, Roppongi Hills has only one thing in common with the Old Roppongi – the distinctly foreign feel; anyone looking for traditional Japan won't find it here.

Reaching Roppongi Hills is easy – the Hibiya and Oedo subway lines are on its doorstep – but navigating the complex is close to impossible, even with the official map. The layout swirls with corridors, escalators and floor plans so complex that you could almost believe the architects (who also designed Las Vegas's Bellagio casino-hotel) were instructed to disorientate visitors. In the middle is Mori's eponymous 54-storey tower – the top supposedly modelled on a samurai helmet – home to the world-class Mori Art Museum and an observation deck, Tokyo City View, and a wallet-busting private members' club. Louise Bourgeois's huge spider sculpture, Maman, crouches benignly in front of the tower. For more details of what the complex contains, visit

The arrival of Mori's mini city drove the area's image dramatically upmarket, and its success hasn't gone unnoticed. In March 2007 a rival complex opened on the doorstep of Roppongi Hills. Tokyo Midtown faithfully replicates Mori's vision, incorporating a landmark tower, a luxury hotel and an art centre, while eschewing the navigational nightmare. Midtown looks set to tip the area's balance towards New Roppongi and its well-heeled patrons.

But for now, just blocks from the high-end consumption, carnal pleasures continue unabated. To experience the flesh fest, head to the main crossing near Roppongi Station. Take exit 3 from the station, head right along Roppongi Dori, and you'll see a crowd milling in front of the Almond pastry shop, immediately recognisable by its pink-and-white striped awnings. This is a conventional meeting spot, where you'll encounter the first of many strip-club or karaoke touts.

The road immediately next to Almond is a neglected street of crumbling buildings and the occasional restaurant, which leads down to the Roppongi Hills complex. But take the main street just beside it – with the illuminated spire of Tokyo Tower gleaming in the distance – and you're in the heart of the action. Street vendors, more strip-show touts and gaudy bar signs provide the ambience. At the weekend each of the bars and clubs will be rammed with party people in various states of intoxication. The best known, and rowdiest, of the bars is Gas Panic, a legendary hangout that likes its music loud and its customers merry. But explore the side streets off this main strip, and you'll find many similar establishments. Bigger, marginally more sophisticated nightclubs include Alife, but there are plenty of other options.

If a night of debauchery doesn't appeal, Roppongi has plenty to offer on a culinary level. The area is short on Michelin stars, but the international crowds bring their international palates, and Roppongi boasts a greater variety of food than any other part of the city. Roppongi today betrays little of its roots. Until the seventeenth century, the area was no more than a thoroughfare for Shibuya's residents, but things changed in 1626, when shogun Hidetaka chose Roppongi for his wife's burial ground. The four Buddhist priests who oversaw her funeral were each handed generous rewards by the grateful leader. All four spent their riches building new temples in the area, giving Roppongi its first image – as a centre of spirituality.

In the mid-eighteenth century the area's official population was 454. It wasn't until the late 19th century that modern Roppongi began to take shape. The government decided to relocate a division of the Imperial Guard to the area, thus heralding the start of a long military association. Following World War II, the US occupiers also picked Roppongi as a base, and it developed to serve the various visceral needs of military men.

Sights are few and far between, though contemporary art lovers will enjoy Complex, an old building on the slope leading to Roppongi Hills that contains a cluster of diminutive galleries, including Ota Fine Arts. Further afield are a couple of small private art museums, both housed in upmarket hotels – the New Otani Museum near Akasaka-Mitsuke station, and the Okura Shukokan Museum of Fine Art near Roppongi-Itchome station.

South-east from the Roppongi intersection lies Tokyo Tower; it may have been trumped by taller buildings with better views, but it's still an iconic structure. The best spot for souvenir photos is adjoining Shiba Koen, with the tower and Zojo-ji Temple next door framed in a classic Tokyo shot. In the summer several pools in the park are open to the public and there are playgrounds and other attractions within walking distance. North of the tower is the NHK Broadcast Museum, which tunes you into the history of radio and TV in Japan.

In the other direction from the Roppongi crossing, up Gaien-Higashi Dori , lies Nogi Jinja, dedicated to the memory of General Nogi Maresuke and an example of the key role that ritual suicide played in Japan's past.


Before Roppongi Hills came along, Nishi-Azabu was the chalk to Roppongi's cheese. Loaded with stylish bars, restaurants and clubs, it pulls a sophisticated crowd. Like Roppongi, Nishi-Azabu lights up at sundown; unlike Roppongi, there's always an atmosphere of calm about the place. It's the perfect location for dates or entertaining clients. Nishi-Azabu has no station, so access is via Roppongi Station. Take exit 1 and walk down Roppongi Dori towards Shibuya. When you reach a crossroads with Hobson's ice-cream shop opposite you, that's the heart of Nishi-Azabu.

Further east is Azabu-Juban, another district rich in restaurants, though with a more traditional feel. This Azabu has a station on the Nanboku and Oedo subway lines, and it comes alive each August for the Azabu-Juban Noryo Festival, featuring taiko drumming and traditional dancing. It's also home to an onsen [hot springs] and a large import food store, Nissin. Also in the area, although not within walking distance, is Hiroo, an expat haven thanks to the numerous embassies nearby. Its shops, cafés and restaurants betray strong Western influences, and most employ English-speaking staff.

Time Out Tokyo Guide (5th edition published in 2007)

Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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