Hustling beneath garish neon lights, sidewalk touts coax pedestrians to sleazy hostess bars squeezed between massage parlors and striptease joints. Homeless bums slump in the subway station.
Tokyo's Roppongi district, infamous for prostitution and shady types, is about to get a much needed facelift with Roppongi Hills -- a sprawling complex of office buildings, shops and restaurants set to open in April that promises to be on the scale of the New York City landmark, Rockefeller Center.
Expansive enough to fit eight baseball fields, Roppongi Hills is by far Tokyo's most ambitious development in recent years.
What will remain unchanged for the area is its foreign clientele.
Instead of the lowlife loitering around today, the project by Tokyo's giant developer, Mori Building Co, is courting the top crust of the foreign population -- such as the on-the-go traders at Goldman Sachs and the computer-savvy at Yahoo Japan, both tenants at the main office building, a tower of glistening glass.
The marketing appeal of Roppongi Hills is its exclusivity. It's not for everybody and is marketing a sense of privilege.
Rent for the residential buildings, which feature interiors by Conran and Partners of Great Britain, start at about Japanese Yen 300,000 (US$2,400) a month for a tiny studio apartment to more than Japanese Yen 4 million (US$32,000) for larger condominiums -- outrageous even by Tokyo's pricey standards.
The residents will have their own medical clinic, swimming pool and gym. The staff will speak English as well as Japanese. School buses from major international schools will service the area.
The diplomats at some 60 embassies in the area are expected to frequent the members-only club on the 51st floor of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower to enjoy a spectacular view of the city lights, including nearby Tokyo Tower that looks surprisingly dwarfed.
There's nothing dwarfed about the fee for joining the club -- Japanese Yen 2.8 million (US$23,000).
For business and well-to-do travelers, Roppongi Hills offers the 390-room Grand Hyatt Tokyo hotel, which charges Japanese Yen 470,000 (US$3,800) a night for its most expensive ``presidential'' suite, with a private rooftop swimming pool within a Japanese garden. The cheapest room costs Japanese Yen 46,000 (US$370) a night.
Everything stays open after-hours to serve the jet-setters who work hard and play hard.
Even the museum is open until 10pm. The movie theater run by Virgin Cinemas, seating 2,100 people, stays open until 5am Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Except for discounters, stores usually close at 8pm and the last movie showing is at 7pm, making it almost impossible for an office worker to enjoy cultural events. But Roppongi Hills' biggest strength may be its biggest weakness.
By opting for an elitist Westernized environment -- sterile facades and monumental size -- the place ends up with little that's uniquely Japanese.
The Japanese-style garden with a pond scattered with rocks, restored to duplicate the one in a samurai's home, is the solitary exception.
Don't worry about finding the token sushi restaurant -- you will.
But the ambiance everywhere is cosmopolitan. The retail section boasts a lineup of luxury brands -- Bally, Christian Lacroix, Hugo Boss, Max Mara -- the same names that dot the shopping streets of New York or Paris.
The museum on the tower's 52nd and 53rd floors features Japan's first foreign curator, an Englishman, and is networking with some of the world's leading art museums. An exhibit next summer is a collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Up-and-coming artists may find an outlet at Roppongi Hills. The museum already produced a CD called "Open Mind," which compiles annoyingly scratchy digital sounds from Japanese "cyberartists."
A roofed outdoor stage is also billed as an entertainment space for less-established performers.
But visitors looking for a genuine flavor of Japan will do better to visit Kyoto to the west -- the ancient capital filled with temples and rock gardens that are sheer geniuses of design.
Other segments of Tokyo are brimming with Japonesque as well.
The Omotesando district gathers boutiques by internationally acclaimed designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake -- and the artsy crowd who frequent the area.
Nearby Harajuku is a cluster of kitsch with its outdoor waffle stands, teens in garish cartoonish costumes and stores bursting with knickknacks catering to street-fashion tastes.
The Ginza -- a trendsetter during decades of modernization -- now looks downright quaint with its old-fashioned department stores. One has a bronze lion sitting at the entrance.
With Louis Vuitton and Tiffany and Co next to bonsai and kimono shops, the Ginza still manages to be Japanese, heavy on the nostalgia for the go-go years of growth when McDonald's and rock 'n' roll symbolized freedom imported from the West.
Roppongi Hills will also be competing against similar plush Mori offerings in Tokyo, such as the 1986 Ark Hills, which has a concert hall with superb acoustics, and the Atago Green Hills, an office and residential complex finished last year.
The competition doesn't stop there.
Tokyo has been undergoing such a development rush lately, new office-hotel-retail areas are popping up almost everywhere one turns.
And the Hills will remain just blocks away from a sobering reality -- the rest of dumpy, down-and-out Roppongi.
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