The bar looms at the entrance of Golden Gai, Tokyo’s famed drinking quarter. The streets around it look deserted as I wander among the small lanes. It promises to be an interesting evening.
Tokyo is famous for its modernity and high sky high buildings. And Shinjuku-ku in Tokyo is legendary for its maze of neon lights, narrow streets and crazy attractions. It isn’t unusual to find robots dancing in a bar, while a life-size statue of Godzilla looms over the next street in Shinjuku-ku. But hidden in these very narrow lanes is Golden Gai. Golden Gai or the “Golden” district is a small atmospheric night life area in Shinjuku-ku, set up in a small grid of streets. It’s probably one of the most unusual night life districts in the world. On my Tokyo visit, I set out to Shinjuku-ku to see if I could grab a drink in one of it bars.
The first thing that you notice when you enter the Golden Gai area is how small it is. Golden Gai is spread over six small narrow streets, that are connected with even smaller passages. These passages are often so narrow that only a single person can sometimes move along them. Those narrow lanes are packed with some with 200 small bars, some so small they can barely seat 4-5 people at a time !!!
Golden Gai is in many ways a time machine into Tokyo’s history. Large parts of Tokyo resembled the one or two story buildings that are packed into the streets of Golden Gai, in the not too distant past. The streets were as narrow then, before Japan’s rapid economic growth and so in many ways Golden Gai mirrors that past.
Each bar has its own unique style of décor and even drinks. Some are styled after outlandish themes, even serving drinks in beakers !!! The bars are usually very tiny, with just enough space to seat maybe 4-5 people, leading to a very snug drinking area. Most bars have a table/ cover charge and then charge for each drink (prices vary and be warned that they can be expensive) and serve small eats. Many of the bars still only serve regulars, and the only way to get a drink in one of them is to go with a regular. But a number of them are going out of their way to appeal to tourists, with menus printed in English and some even waiving off the cover charges for tourists.
After wandering about a bit, I finally decided to step into one of these tiny watering holes. The bar I chose was called Nagune, and was set up more like an art gallery than a bar. Nagune means wanderer or traveller and the bar tries to connect travellers with local photography and photographs. The pristine white walls were adorned with photographs and the whole place had a nice feel, in spite of being tiny. Since I was probably quite early, there wasn’t anyone there. The bartender at the bar was very accommodating and I had some sake at the bar. We spent some time chatting about things to do in Shinjuku-ku and she also served me some delicious local bar food. The delicious Buta no Kakuni or Japanese Pork Belly was superb and just literally melted in the mouth.
After finishing my drinks, I bid goodbye to Nagune and Golden Gai, happy that I got to sample the atmospheric eccentric bar scene of Tokyo.
Golden Gai is a short walk from the east exit of Shinjuku-ku Station, between the Shinjuku City Office and the Hanazono Shrine. Shinjuku-ku can be reached via the Shinjuku line on the Tokyo Metro
What to do
While Golden Gai’s gritty exterior and dim lighting may seem sinister, the area is fairly peaceful and safe. As long as you stay away from touts, you should be OK. Look for bars with English signage, as these are generally more welcoming of tourists. Try Champion (drinks from ¥500, no cover), Asyl (Cover charge ¥300 (including a snack), drinks from ¥600) and Albatross G (Cover charge ¥300 (including a snack), drinks from ¥500) for a quick introduction to Golden Gai. Most bars are open from 19:00 to midnight.