Don't ask me why, but I'm really into visiting filming locations. In October I went to North Bend, Washington to eat lunch in the diner from Twin Peaks. I once made my girlfriend drive to Wales in the rain so I could wander around Portmeirion, the village where they shot cult '60s TV series The Prisoner. I've also been to the Water Gardens of Dorne in Seville, the Ghostbusters firehouse in New York City, the set of The Good Place in Los Angeles, and… well, you get the idea. I just really like going to places that have been in things.
But I'd never been anywhere from a videogame before, which inspired me to take some time out of a recent holiday to Japan to visit locations from two of my favourite series, Yakuza and Shenmue. I've spent many memorable virtual hours in Kamurocho and Yokosuka beating up street punks, feeding kittens, and looking for sailors. But what would it be like to actually go there?
I was based in central Tokyo for a few days, which made getting to Kabukicho (the real-world basis for Yakuza's seedy Kamurocho district) easy, and Yokosuka (the setting for Shenmue, about 40 miles south of Tokyo) slightly more difficult, but basically still easy because of Japan's super efficient rail network.
I decided to start my journey on the mean streets of Kabukicho, the neon-splattered stomping ground of the world's nicest gangster, Kazuma Kiryu. I'm not sure why they renamed it Kamurocho in the Yakuza series (and, more recently, its brilliant spin-off Judgment), but it's obvious the second you arrive that it's the same place. This has been the setting for multiple Yakuzas and is one of those game worlds that almost feels like a second home to me. Of course, I went at night to experience the full force of all those colourful signs.
After navigating the crowds in Shinjuku Station, which is said to be the busiest in the world and absolutely felt like it, it was just a ten minute stroll to the iconic red gate of Kabukicho. As fans of the Yakuza series will know, this is a red light district, stuffed with dodgy bars, love hotels, host and hostess clubs, and other debauchery. You can't walk an inch without a barker trying to lure you into a club or bar, which makes being there a fairly intense experience.
Kudos to the artists and sound designers at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, because they absolutely nailed the loud, relentless atmosphere and cluttered, people-stuffed streets of Kabukicho. It was deeply surreal actually being in that space for real and I was even able to navigate using my knowledge of the games. Everything I expected was there: vending machines, convenience stores, tiny ramen shops, sex clubs, arcades with UFO catchers, garish advertisements for preened hosts and hostesses, and I even found a batting centre.
It started raining when I arrived which made the place look even more chaotic and atmospheric, with neon signs reflecting in the puddles and people rushing around with umbrellas. Before I left I squeezed into the Golden Gai District (called the Champion District in the games) which is a network of tiny, cramped alleys filled with charming, ramshackle little bars. This is one area Yakuza doesn't get exactly right. The basic layout is the same, but the real thing feels way busier and more hectic. It was more like being in Blade Runner.
Thankfully I made it out of Kabukicho without bumping into Mr. Shakedown or having to fight off a load of thugs with a swordfish. About the worst thing I encountered was a fat, wet rat sniffing around some bin bags. If you're ever in Tokyo I highly recommend checking Kabukicho out, and don't worry about the fact that it's a red light district: a lot of that stuff is hidden behind closed doors and there'll be plenty of other tourists there. And if you want to know more about the area, and how much seedier it was in the 1990s compared to today, check out Jake Adelstein's brilliant book Tokyo Vice.
The original Shenmue is one of my favourite games. It's probably in my top five, actually. And ever since I first played it on Dreamcast back in 1999 I've always wanted to visit the city where it's set, Yokosuka. Getting there from central Tokyo by train involves a few changes and takes about an hour and a half, so you'll need to devote a good chunk of your day to going there. When I arrived at the station and walked outside, the first thing I saw was a stretch of water and, in the distance, the docks where Ryo Hazuki worked as a forklift driver.
So far so good, but the real reason I was there was Dobuita Street: a little shopping district and a major location in Shenmue. If you've played the game you'll have ran up and down here hundreds of times, quizzing the locals and chatting with hot dog vendor Tom. Walking there myself, I was a little disappointed by how different it was to the game. You can tell it's the same place, but it felt more bustling and city-like than the quiet, parochial little streets in Shenmue. But the game is set in the 1980s, I guess.
Yokosuka is a weird town, mostly because of its large American presence. A nearby U.S. Navy base means the city is frequented by sailors, and I saw several very American-looking dudes in full camo strolling around, shopping, and eating in restaurants. And the local businesses reflect this, with stars-and-stripes flags, English signage, and even some saying they accept U.S. Dollars. It was by far the least Japanese place I visited in my two weeks in Japan.
You know how a lot of Japanese restaurants have plastic food outside to show you what you're ordering? They had that on Dobuita Street, but with plastic burgers and onion rings. One restaurant even had an Obama burger. I also saw a number of tattoo shops, which of course Ryo Hazuki finds himself searching for at one point in Shenmue. Things felt more like the game when I drifted away from Dobuita Street into the quiet little side streets running parallel to it. I climbed a steep hill to some traditional-looking houses and it was really peaceful and leafy. I could imagine Ryo walking around here.
Even though it was a little deflating how different Yokosuka was to how I imagined based on the game, I'm still glad I visited. Before I left I had tacos in a lovely place called Taco House Yas, which you should definitely visit if you're ever in the area, and I returned to Tokyo feeling like I'd experienced a unique part of Japan. But of the two videogame locations I visited, Kabukicho felt the most like being there. It's remarkable how well the Yakuza games have captured the feel of that crazy place, and seeing it first-hand was a real buzz.
Here's me walking along Dobuita Street in Yokosuka, a place I've wanted to visit ever since I first played Shenmue. pic.twitter.com/aG6WV5B7CQNovember 10, 2019