I have explored, relatively speaking, very little of the great metropolitan sewer of Tokyo. An oval-shaped train line called the Yamanote runs through every major city center, and despite my making the full round of it many times, I doubt I have dismounted at half of the stops, and still fewer have I explored appreciably. That being said, this is less of a guide and more of a short summation of my experiences at the three I spend time at the most: Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro. One can get their fill of impersonal big city ass-grabbing and shoving at any of these three, but like anything else groping is multifarious. Your sphincter deserves to know the big differences and gritty details.
Of these three, I visit Shinjuku the least, but not for any particular reason other than that none of my friends live there. The biggest station in Tokyo, it is without a doubt the easiest to lose oneself in, and the surrounding area is no different. During the day it sees so many foreigners that, at any given Ramen shop, it is not uncommon to be offered a fork meant for use by a toddler. We paleskins are as a race very upset by the notion of long, uncut noodles in soup, and our kneejerk compensatory reaction is to start oppressing in the quickest and most natural way possible. The days of breaking national isolation with steamships and exporting opium forcefully and in mass quantities is over, but the denizens of Shinjuku have adjusted to our discomfort. That said, during the day Shinjuku is filled with foreigners, tourists and businessmen alike. The night is not much different, but it is much more suspicious. I have never felt unsafe during my time in Japan, but I have been to the Shinjuku area in the late hours once and it was the closest I have come. As is usual in late at night Tokyo, large bilingual Nigerian men stand in the streets advertising girls bars to foreigners and Japanese alike. What is unusual is the sheer number of foreigners nonchalantly browsing this area early in the morning. That was the only feature of note, however; everything else suspicious was ineffable and can only be ascribed to atmosphere. Let it be said that the seedy does exist in Nippon. If you’d like to find out to what extent, I’d suggest taking those Nigerian men up on their offers.
Unfortunately, I visit Shibuya the most. I have friends studying in the area and there is simply more stuff than where I’m situated. Shibuya is, in a word, childish. Imagine Times Square, but with more Disney and college-age girls and you have something close to the Scramble Crosswalk of Shibuya. Hellishly crowded and replete with foreigners, it is understandably a good visit for those who want to buy clothing or are interested in shopping in general. It is a newly developed area, its sheen matches its juvenile tenants and visitors. Screaming groups of young women with selfie sticks, oblivious to their surroundings and very much in the way (though at many places this applies to everyone), are a common site. Sufficient manspreading is necessary in order to carve a path for yourself. Another curious feature of the area is its abundance of catchers for fashion magazines looking to use foreigners. Outside one of the stations more crowded exits, a lone, tall foreigner who looks like they’re waiting for someone has an extremely high chance of being accosted by one of these people in broken English or Japanese for their measurements and contact information. This is still much less offensive than simply trying to walk through this ball pit of jetblack hair and sweaty backpacks. I recommend jumping in front of the train bound for Shibuya instead.
Last is gritty and local Ikebukuro. I am not an authority on the area, but I love the place. By an unfelicitous choice of Chinese characters and their readings, the name literally means “cumbag”. During my orientation I stumbled upon an extremely cheap Izakaya (a kind of Japanese pub) there and have going back to it ever since. I did not think much of it at first, but as time passed I realized that compared to the previous two, although similarly large, it is less developed and feels more local and authentic. It may be a trick of the eye, but it does not feel so replete with foreigners. It is also home to an unofficial Chinatown north of the station which I can vouch for as delicious, colorful, and as far as Chinatowns go pretty accessible for those who don’t speak the language. As prejudice would dictate you may find some untrustworthy spots. Apparently the Ikebukuro area is known for large department stores as well as its dining and entertainment, but I know nothing about that. Unlike Shibuya and Shinjuku, it is a pleasant place to simply walk and observe. The station itself does not change appreciably from the other two, however; you will still lose your way and find yourself facedown on the tracks occasionally. If you are run over and the trains are delayed, the cause will be listed as a “bodily accident”, so you can rest assured no one will be bummed out.
Having said all this, I recommend you go to none of these places and visit Kanda instead. It’s got a lot of used book and antique shops.