Just about every visitor to Japan searches for that stereotypical traditional atmosphere where they can sit and breath in the “real” Japan. The truth is that this “real” Japan is fading fast, especially in Tokyo. It has been relegated to the shadows and corners of mainstream Japan and usually you need to head to the countryside to find a taste of traditional culture. Besides, the “real” Japan is not usually as clean and orderly as people think. One place that still pulses with the traditional back alley street culture can be founded tucked into a corner of Shinjuku, Tokyo’s red light district, Kabuki-cho.
Drinking in Golden Gai
Golden Gai is a small city block east of Shinjuku station made up of over 200 shacks, formerly brothels. The area consists of just 6 narrow alleys with even smaller passageways connecting everything. This atmospheric drinking area is renowned for the artists, actors and directors that frequent each nomiya (bar). Each small bar is big enough to fit a counter, stools and between six and fifteen patrons. The seedy image of Kabukicho, with its strip clubs, massage parlors, and breast bars (yes, you can suck on the breasts of waitresses and try not to think about the last guy had for dinner) keeps all but the most knowledgeable/adventurous visitor from discovering this oasis of small town Japan in the heart of one of the world’s largest metropolises. Each bar typically has a theme and caters to a slightly different crowd with the dimly lit streets and shanty-like building preserving one of the last areas of Tokyo not to be redeveloped.
In fact, despite a career of living in and passing through many of the seedier places on earth, I had yet to fully explore Golden Gai, assuming it was dangerous and controlled by the Yakuza. It turns out it’s anything but dangerous, but still has a grit to it that ensures you’ll walk away with a memorable night, if you can remember it.
Finding the Right Fit in Golden Gai
Finding the right bar can be challenging in the labyrinth like streets but is also part of the fun as you try to find the right atmosphere for you. My friends and I found our way to a typical bar , but with a Portuguese theme. Portuguese Port (where else could it be from) was the house specialty, along with three cute bartenders who just managed to fit behind the bar together, ready to keep the conversations going and the single customers engaged and feeling welcome. The bar was so small that each time a patron made a move towards the restroom everyone had to stand and press against the bar counter.
The bartender closest to me started working in the area a few months ago, moonlighting after her regular job as a theater actress for historical dramas ended. She figured she got around 3 hours of sleep a night and saw her French boyfriend even less. Next to me sat an architect who taught at a famous University nearby, next to him a women half his age hung on his elbow. Down the bar one man was too drunk to engage in conversation and the next was a political correspondent for Japan’s national news service NHK.
As three young Australian’s entered the bartender leaned close and said more and more tourists were stopping by as the area became fashionable in guidebooks and as the area cleaned up its seedy image. I guess I wasn’t a tourist as we were speaking Japanese.
Golden Gai Etiquette
Most bars are welcoming to visitors and happy for you to share their night. However, remember that many of these bars are filled every night with regular customers and taking their seats can cause a bit of an issue. Bartenders are generally good about letting you know if you are welcome or not. Just ask if it’s OK to sit down when you first enter. If they say no, don’t take offense or think it’s because your a foreigner. Most likely the seats left are for regulars. Say thank you and move on down the street, with 200 holes in the wall you’ll find someplace to call home for the evening.
The Curse of a Popular Traditional Area
It’s difficult to know exactly what Golden Gai is any longer. It is a remnant of a bygone era, the playground of the rich and famous, a bohemian wonderland in a stifling city, as well as a tourist cliche recommended by every guidebook and their grandmother. Yes, I realize the irony of posting this article!
The truth is bound to be different for everyone, on a different night in the Gai, and upon stumbling into different bars. Golden Gai sums up the Japanese experience better than just about anywhere else. It is a place with enough personalities to be different for each visitor, allowing you to interact superficially or to find a home among those of similar hearts. If you want to get pissed and walk away with a story, that’s fine too, the bars are happy to take your seating charge (usually between 800-1,000 yen).
Whatever Golden Gai is or isn’t, it is definitely unique. It’s a place that you should walk into with an open mind and not in search of the exact atmosphere, story, or experience related in a guidebook or travel blog. It’s one of those amazing places where the story writes itself and all you need to do is keep flipping the pages (buy more drinks).
Map How to Get To Golden Gai:
The entire Golden Gai is situated on one block just 5 minutes walk from Shinjuku East Exit- 1-1-8 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku
View Shinjuku’s Golden Gai Drinking Area in a larger map
Do you have a favorite place to drink in Tokyo? Share it with us in the comments below.