As the sun dips behind the skyscrapers on a bitterly cold evening, hordes of shoppers swarm towards subway entrances, a blaze of neon flickering in their wake. Within an hour the streets reverberate to the banter of the inhabitants of Tokyo's hedonistic milieu: hosts and hostesses, hawkers, touts, prostitutes and carousing salarymen. Kabukicho, the Japanese capital's red light district, has come out to play.
But for how much longer? With Japan eager to host the 2016 Olympics and the city's proselytising governor keen to clean away sleaze and crime, the ramshackle collection of ageing buildings housing bars and clubs catering to every sexual proclivity is in the authorities' firing line. Armed with this political mandate, police are zealously enforcing a new law requiring sex clubs and hostess bars to close their doors at midnight and turf out their last customer by 1am.
A handful of clubs flout the law by dimming their lights and paying protection money to yakuza crime syndicates, but law-abiding owners say takings have plunged. "The police crackdown has halved the number of customers here, and the recession isn't helping," says Hiroshi Iwamoto, a doorman at the topless Glamorous Lovers' Cafe. "I've been in Kabukicho a long time and I'd hate to see it change. This is where people come to make something of themselves."
The facelift is being led by Renaissance Kabukicho, a network of public and private bodies. "We don't necessarily want to get rid of all of the local colour," says Mitsuo Hirai, who leads the project at Shinjuku city hall. "Of course we want to preserve the character of the place and strike a balance. If we can do that then it's not going to do the Olympic bid any harm, although we were always determined to clean up Kabukicho and make it a place where people can walk around in safe and pleasant surroundings."
Patrols of volunteers attempt to clamp down on dozens of touts who assail passers-by with descriptions of the delights, innocent or otherwise, that await them inside. Junior hosts, immediately recognisable by their crimped long hair and tight-fitting suits, rub shoulders with sex industry scouts and Nigerian touts who steer inebriated men into bars with promises of encounters with foreign women.
Campaigners admit they have barely dented the sex industry's presence. The patrols have improved community relations but failed to stop touts seeking the commissions they need to make a living. "Soon after we started the cleanup we realised we couldn't get rid of organised crime or the sex industry altogether," says Koichi Teratani, a documentary maker and authority on Kabukicho. "I can understand people who think that if the neighbourhood becomes too sterile, it'll end up being boring and the place will die. We're aiming for a mix of old and new, raunchy and wholesome."
Signs of Kabukicho's creeping gentrification have emerged over the past year with the opening of a Best Western hotel, the closure of an ageing theatre to make way for a new development and the arrival of one of Japan's best-known talent agencies.
Yet to the casual visitor and the growing number of foreign tourists who come for a peek at Japan's moral underbelly, Kabukicho is still a place of contradictions; where jazz clubs and restaurants compete for space with massage parlours and love hotels, and a yakuza office stands in the grounds of a Shinto shrine.
It is an odd mix, but one that has proved remarkably resilient to change, says Mark Schreiber, a sex industry writer and Kabukicho regular for more than 40 years. "Japan is once more in recession, and the sex industry is again proving to be the closest you get to pure capitalism, because it's quickest to respond to changing circumstance," he says."At the end of the day, the authorities have to get the agreement of the residents to move. But the vast majority pay their taxes, have proper business licences and don't have any intention of leaving."
Many Kabukicho locals say they support the Olympic bid, but are quick to point out that their neighbourhood has already built an admirable ethos of its own.
"There's no discrimination here, everyone is accepted for who they are," says Maki Tezuka, a celebrated host at the club A Place in the Sun.
"No one cares about your past, even if you've made mistakes. This is a place where people come to start over again. And after that, who knows what they might make of themselves? That's the great thing about Kabukicho."