Exploring Shibuya With Tango Gameworks
You could walk past this section of sidewalk a million times and not think about it once. It’s a 15-foot patch of concrete the same as the 15 feet ahead of you and the 15 feet behind you. No different than the 100 feet beyond that. It’s nothing.
Until you look around, then, all of a sudden, you can see through time.
I’m standing in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, Japan, which, if it’s famous for anything, is its crosswalk, Shibuya Crossing, a massive scramble intersection allowing foot traffic to cross in all directions. For lack of a better analogy, you could call it Japan’s Times Square. You’ve seen it in everything about modern Japan ever.
Shibuya Crossing (35°39’34.7”N 139°42’02.1”E) feels like the future. Hundreds of people – maybe thousands, depending on the time of day – all walk at once while massive, animated billboards blast light and sound in every direction. Skyscrapers dominate the skyline – some no more than just a few years old, and plenty more being built all around. One of the world’s nicest, cleanest, and most modern subway systems takes millions of passengers to and from each day. Every single amenity, convenience, or vice you could want is no more than a few feet away at all times.
But I’m not there; I’m a block away, standing on this boring patch of sidewalk (35°39’37.5”N 139°42’03.3”E), seeing the past with Kenji Kimura and Masato Kimura (no relation), a director and producer, respectively, at Tango Gameworks. We’re looking down a connecting alleyway at an old tunnel allowing pedestrians to walk under the train lines. It’s full of bikes, covered in graffiti, and especially compared to all the high-end shopping on the other side of the street; it looks remarkably old and dingy. It’s captivating. A glimpse at what this area used to look like decades ago (the earliest picture I found dates to 1951) before the world around it evolved and modernized. For whatever reason, this tunnel stayed the same.
Kenji and Masato helped lead the development of Tango’s most recent release, Ghostwire: Tokyo, an open-world game based in Shibuya. In fact, this tunnel is in the game, a block away from Shibuya Crossing, just like in real life. Ghostwire isn’t a horror game, but it is spooky, dealing with the supernatural and the weird. This juxtaposition of old and new, the way the unordinary (the tunnel) sits next to the ordinary (the expensive buildings around it), strikes at the heart of what these two find so appealing about Tokyo.
“That’s the ordinary world; that’s the unordinary world,” Kenji says, pointing at both sides of the street. “They’re so close together, but the appeal is in the unordinary that sits so close to it.”
Masato adds to Kenji’s thoughts, saying, “It’s that spookiness. That mysteriousness that you feel on the unordinary side [...] when it’s so close to the ordinary like this.”
For the next few hours, Kenji and Masato are my tour guides through Shibuya – from the flashy lights and loud sounds to the hidden temples and seedy backstreets, they show me the vast contrasts of the area, telling me how it all made its way into Ghostwire.
And it all starts with our first steps through the tunnel, into the unordinary.
On the other side of the tunnel, we find ourselves in the post-war Showa Era, in Nonbei Yokocho (35°39’36.6”N 139°42’05.3”E), or “Drunkard’s Alley” – which is actually two alleys, but nevertheless. Nonbei Yokocho is a densely packed section of dozens of tiny bars packed into long, narrow developments, mostly sharing the same roof. Notably, the bars are so small (only allowing a few customers at a time) that they don’t all have bathrooms. A handful of small bathroom stalls are along the alley’s streets.
Nonbei Yokocho’s history dates back to immediately after World War II when food cart operators set up their stalls in the area. In 1951, the tenements I’m currently looking at were built when those operators were given small 100-square-foot pieces of land. While only a small number of original bars are left, some patrons have been coming to Nonbei Yokocho for decades. In 2021, the area celebrated its 70th anniversary.
Nestled tightly between the train tracks and all of the high rises and redevelopments engulfing it, Nonbei Yokocho feels like the past hanging on for dear life – even if, as Kenji points out, parts of the surrounding area have already been lost to time.
“The city changed so quickly while we were developing [Ghostwire Tokyo],” he says before turning his attention to the neighboring redevelopment, which used to be an outdoor park area full of trees and bike parking. Now it’s the entrance to a shopping mall. “It used to be big; it used to go all the way down here. [...] We had to change a lot of stuff because of the way construction kept going and going and going. It’s the same with the train station, too. The location of the ticket gates was changing constantly.”
Like most major cities, Tokyo is experiencing rapid redevelopment; many historical and iconic landmarks, such as Harajuku Station and Nakagin Capsule Tower, have been torn down and replaced with modern buildings. In Japan’s specific case, there is a fairly good reason to tear down old buildings; the nation experiences more earthquakes than any other country. Laws put forth over the last few decades require new buildings to meet strict guidelines for remaining structurally sound during major quakes. It’s hard to imagine Nonbei Yokocho’s old bars staying intact through an intense earthquake; it’s probably safe to assume the buildings here don’t meet the most recent requirements.
This isn't lost on the neighborhood cooperative helping protect Nonbei Yokocho. Shigeru Murayama, the head of the cooperative, told The Japan Times in 2015 he's received calls from many developers trying to buy up the land. But since the cooperative owns the land as a collective, keeping individuals from being bought out, they've been able to retain the small area of Shibuya's past.
"However, we will eventually have to consider tearing it down in order to pass on the yokocho (alley) culture to the next generation," he told the outlet. "It is our duty to rebuild a yokocho that is safe in order to preserve it for the future."
Japan is losing parts of its physical history; changing with the times means deciding what parts of your past to get rid of. But in 2022, when areas like Nonbei Yokocho do still exist, it creates a fascinating mismatch between past and present.
“It’s not very planned out, ‘This section will be new, this section will be old,’” Masato says. “It’s just the way the different mixed pieces are glued together [that] makes Tokyo feel like it’s welcoming to all these different ideas.”
To that end, when creating Ghostwire’s world, the team decided not to make a carbon copy of Shibuya. Of course, Tango created certain parts one-to-one, but as Kenji tells me, most of the developer’s philosophy was finding ways to create a game world that felt representative of all the different flavors of the area. To cut down on having to constantly remake portions of the game’s map as new things were built around the city, Tango set Ghostwire in August 2020, creating an artist’s rendition of that specific time and place.
“We gave up on making a complete copy of Shibuya very early,” Kenji says. “Instead, we thought about how to make it more distinctive and interesting in our way. To deform it in a way that’s more interesting.”
“People in Japan seemed to have caught on [to] the distinctive portions of Shibuya that we were able to create,” he adds. “People would recognize those and say, ‘Hey, that is Shibuya! That feels like Shibuya.’”
As we walk on from Nonbei Yokocho, exploring the neighboring modern sidestreets and alleyways, a large red staircase at the back of a bowling alley stops Kenji in his tracks (35°39’36.4”N 139°42’11.0”E). The places you can’t go in Shibuya are the most appealing for him and the Ghostwire team.
“It makes you want to climb up there,” he says. Masato backs him up, adding vertical exploration was one of the pillars of Ghostwire’s development. Tango considered how it could utilize the city’s real-world architecture, incentivizing a desire to explore. The difference, of course, is that in the game, you can actually do it. In real life, we walk on, leaving the roof unexplored.
“It’s those kinds of locations that you walk by,” Kenji says. “It does tickle your curiosity; it does make you want to go in there. But you can’t in real life because, in kanji, it says ‘Employees Only.’ If it’s a game, you can.”
Mere feet from the red stairs, another oddity stops the pair. Between two office buildings is a tiny alley, hardly big enough for a person to walk through; on the second floor is a door leading outside. But using that door, at best, would be a massive inconvenience (35°39’36.3”N 139°42’11.7”E).
[Editor's note: This one takes a bit of work to find, but changing the street view date to Nov. 2009 should get you there.]
“These are just crazy,” Kenji says. “There’s a ladder there to a small door that has an air conditioning fan just blocking the door. Even in the game, it might look like a bug to create architecture like that. But it’s in real life!”
We end the first half of our tour at Miyamasumitake Shrine (35°39’35.4”N 139°42’13.9”E) – believed to have been built between 1673 and 1681. The shrine sits atop a high staircase sandwiched between two skyscrapers. Its nearest neighbors include a post office, a burger place, and a massage therapist. Shibuya is an astoundingly loud place; there’s the normal city traffic, but also speakers constantly blaring music and advertisements. But up here, just feet away from the chaos on the street below, it’s almost completely silent. We all have a moment to think and talk to each other at a normal volume. If you close your eyes, you could forget millions of people surround you.
It’s a nice place to stop and catch our breath before stepping back into the chaos.
In Shibuya’s Mark City building is Okamoto Taro’s 98-foot-long painting “Myth of Tomorrow,” depicting the moment the atomic bomb struck Japan during World War II. It’s a portrayal of fire, death, and destruction. Per the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum’s website, it’s also about “proudly overcoming even the cruelest of tragedies and giving birth to ‘a myth of tomorrow.’” It sits just feet from Shibuya Crossing. A stark juxtaposition of death and rebirth slammed against high-end shopping and Boba Tea. No less chaotic, though.
“For me, it’s not a political message that I take from it,” Kenji says. “I take the power and energy that this artist is trying to express. I try to receive that power so that I can output the same.”
Kenji says he comes here to reenergize himself. When he first started work at Tango on Ghostwire, he came here to receive Okamoto’s energy. I’m not sure I personally receive any particular energy from the painting, but it is undeniably striking. We’re in a shopping mall effectively, but the massive piece steals your attention. Looking at anything but its colors and twisting shapes is difficult. It takes me far too long to notice the hundreds of people trying to shuffle around us as we all stand in the middle of the walkway staring up at “Myth of Tomorrow.”
This is Kenji’s first time back to the painting since the game was released. Standing here, looking at Okamoto’s masterwork – once thought to be lost in its original home in Mexico in the late ’60s before being brought to Japan and restored in 2005 – I ask him how he feels.
“It makes me feel like I want to do something new,” he replies. “I want to do the next thing.”
We, too, are onto the next thing – seeing the greatest hits of Shibuya landmarks that inspired Ghostwire.
We leave and enter the sea of people around Shibuya Crossing. Kenji points out a small newspaper kiosk (35°39’32.4”N 139°42’00.5”E) directly outside of Mark City – an apparent hot spot for local graffiti artists. Its old, messy exterior makes it stand out in stark contrast to the sleek newness of everything around it.
“This kiosk here is very Shibuya for me,” Kenji says as we walk by. “Even in the game, I felt that this shop should be exactly right here because it’s so iconic. That’s why we have a nekomata store [there] in the game.” (The nekomata are the floating cat yokai that run Ghostwire’s in-game shops)
Kenji and Masato flow through the foot traffic effortlessly while I stumble my way past people like the white guy visiting a foreign country that I am. It's hard to imagine this many people all walking at once unless you're actually here or live in a comparatively-sized city. I live in Minneapolis, Minn., so I'm completely out of my element. Especially compared to where we came from earlier, everything around us feels like highly organized chaos.
Despite Tokyo’s size and the fact that it’s one of the world’s more documented, photographed, and recorded cities, people here are strict about when and where you can take pictures. More than once on this trip, I get yelled at for taking pictures of something that wouldn’t be a big deal anywhere else. Signs banning photography are everywhere. If you watch Japanese YouTubers filming outside, you’ll notice the great lengths they often take to blur the faces of people walking by (it’s easier these days since everyone is wearing a mask due to the ongoing pandemic).
This made capturing reference material for Ghostwire a bit of a problem. When developing a game, developers often shoot photos of real-world locations their game world is based upon. But doing that here, at best, can catch the ire of those around you. “They would stare at us in a very bad way,” Kenji admits.
Ghostwire’s specific take on Shibuya also created some unique challenges for gathering reference material. Namely, aside from the main character, Akito, and the yokai roaming around, Shibuya in the game is completely empty. Standing here, it’s hard to imagine this place with nobody on its streets. But the Tango team had creative solutions.
Right before dawn, the streets are relatively empty, Masato tells me. The team would come here to try and replicate Ghostwire’s empty setting as best it could. Kenji adds that the sound team would also come here in the middle of the night to capture Shibuya’s ambient sounds.
As we walk on, the two point out more landmarks they put in Ghostwire. There are obvious spots, like the Shibuya109 (35°39’34.6”N 139°41’57.9”E), a famous mall full of department stores catering to youth fashion. “It’s difficult for older men to walk into this building,” Kenji says, making Masato laugh. And the TOHO Cinemas Shibuya (35°39’33.5”N 139°41’55.1”E), which just barely made the cut. “We didn’t have it in the game initially, but we felt not having a movie theater there didn’t feel like it was Shibuya,” Kenji says. There are also the walkways connecting many buildings, specific streetlights, and even one exact staircase (35°39’33.3”N 139°41’53.7”E) connected to another shopping mall. “It’s very memorable; it made me feel like it should be in the game,” Kenji says.
Eventually, we turn away from the chaos and people down a mostly empty street full of two distinctly different (and somewhat similar, depending on how you look at it) things: sex and death.
As told by Tadayuki Horie, who’s accompanying us and serving as translator, there’s a lot of cemetery land around here. People don’t want to live where cemeteries are, so businesses set up shop instead. In the specific part of Shibuya where we’re ending our trip, that land was bought up for nightlife (35°39’33.7”N 139°41’46.9”E).
“Strip clubs, host clubs, hostess bars,” Horie says. “[At] night time, you might not want to pull your camera out. A lot of yakuza businesses.”
We’re in the redlight district of Dogenzaka – or, as it’s often called, “Love Hotel Hill.” There are hotels where you pay for a room by the hour, seedy bars, and stores advertising underwear and “uniforms” – and that they buy “used” clothing. Tango took reference footage here, too, Kenji says, but since they wanted a Teen-rated game, the seediness was toned down considerably.
Plenty of reputable-looking businesses are also here, such as a few music venues where Kenji likes to see shows. But nevertheless, it is a surprising little pocket of sin less than half a mile from Shibuya Crossing, with its massive Ikea and Starbucks. Compared to, say, Times Square, which was famously “cleaned” of all its adult theaters, sex shops, and the like in the mid-1990s before becoming a tourist trap, here in Shibuya, mainstream consumerism and back alley activity seem to live together somewhat harmoniously. Or at least no one has gotten brave enough to kick out the landowners yet.
“The owners of the land are not the kind of people who are going to accept any of that,” Horie says.
But perhaps more surprising than all of this being just a few streets over from an Outback Steakhouse is what’s nestled right in the corner of all this sleaze: Chiyoda Inari-jinja Shrine (35°39’34.4”N 139°41’45.7”E), dating back (not in this specific location) to the 1400s.
“There’s a sense of spirituality,” Masato says. “These shrines are definitely sacred grounds that should not be removed or reduced.”
“In most cases, there’s a sense of the old stuff within the new,” he says. “That keeps us hopeful and happy.”
Everywhere we went today, everything we saw, all of it sits within less than a mile. If you want, you can make the same walk in about 15 minutes. Instead, it took us hours to explore this tiny little part of Shibuya, one ward in one of the biggest cities in the world.
As far as I’m concerned, the tucked-away secrets in alleyways and off-the-beaten-path side streets are the most interesting parts of exploring Tokyo. Everywhere you go, there’s something to catch your interest and scratch your head over. But of course, I’m a tourist; this is all new to me. Everyone else mostly looks down at their phones, ignoring everything I find amazing.
Which makes sense; they see it every day. I don’t walk around Minneapolis marveling at the same Trader Joe’s I pass every day of my life, either. Even if you live in the best city in the world, once you fall into a routine, you stop paying attention to the good in a place. If anything, you start to focus on the negatives. When I think about it, all those sidestreets and back-alleys would be a massive pain to navigate each day if I was on my way to work; I’m certain I’d opt for the most direct path instead, and I’d stare at my phone the whole time I walked it.
Kenji is from Tokyo originally; he’s lived here all his life. He used to come to Shibuya a lot as a student, and now he only lives one train station away. He knows the area well, seeing movies here twice a week, he says. But like anyone, after decades of living here, he stopped paying attention to all the unique parts of the city. Making Ghostwire, a game celebrating Tokyo, Tango had to go boots-on-the-ground, exploring the parts of the city its developers had long since ignored in their daily lives. At one point, Tango even rented a satellite studio in Shibuya while working on Ghostwire’s storyboards so it could be right next to all of the real-world locations.
The team re-discovered its love for Tokyo, showed it to me, and in turn encouranged me to go out of my way to explore more of my city. Minneapolis may be smaller and less exciting, but I’ve found dozens of unique places and neat pockets I never knew existed. There’s always something to find off the beaten path.
“When we were making the game, initially, we had a lot of those main streets – like we said, the daily, ordinary streets,” Kenji tells me. “We tried to think about what kind of cool things we could do. But when we walked around the city, it’s the smaller alleys where we felt our heartbeats go up, and we [started thinking] about all the cool things that might happen there. Since those were the things that were more exciting to us, we felt we could do more of those in the game. Definitely, by walking around the city, we were able to rediscover the cool things like that.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 352 of Game Informer.