Nestled behind Shinjuku’s seedy Kabuki-cho nightlife district, the Golden Gai is from all outward appearances nothing more than a collection of alleyways lined with tiny, ramshackle bars. The narrow alleys are lit up with cheap neon signs that set an iconic, old-school Tokyo scene while steering drinkers to watering holes. Step inside of any of them and you’ll understand why the natives insist that these drinking establishments are a Tokyo institution.
Some history needs to be explained here. After World War II, Japan and especially Tokyo scrambled to reinvent itself in the post-war era as a modern, western-friendly economic powerhouse. Needless to say, this effort was a success by all measures, and it led to the city’s reputation for constant change and adaptation, as well as cultural and technical innovation. There was a downside to this emergence, however: the loss of regional eccentricities, local specialties, and a certain pre-war feel that many Japanese still remember with nostalgia.
As the bulldozers, cranes, and “accidental” fires took their toll on most of pre-war Tokyo, the Golden Gai was the hang-out that wouldn’t quit. Die-hard patrons petitioned and protested to keep their little slice of Showa (the emperor and epoch pre-dating WWII) alive. Amazingly, this collection of shacks won the war against modernization and remains today to tell the story of Tokyo past.
Background out of the way, let’s talk about getting in. Any train station in Shinjuku will take you within walking distance of the Golden Gai, just east of Kabuki-cho. You’ll know you’re there when the streets become too narrow for any kind of real car traffic, the shaky stairways approach ladder status, and bars loom for stories above you. Take a walk around, soak up the atmosphere – this place oozes a Blade Runner-esque take on the cramped eastern drinking district – and choose a bar that looks friendly.
Easier said than done. The Golden Gai is a two-sided coin: it was the loyalty of its patrons and its resistance to outsiders that preserved it until now, but these qualities also make it something of a challenge for visitors. It’s not uncommon for bars in Tokyo to refuse service to foreigners, and this can be the case in the Golden Gai. If you see a sign on the door of a bar saying something like “Japanese Only,” avoid it by all means. More often than not, the restriction is based on the language barrier: many bar owners are keen to promote a community in their establishment, which is impossible if patrons don’t speak Japanese.
However, times in the Golden Gai are changing – if only at the pace ordained by stubborn drinkers of the old guard – and for the most part bartenders will be happy to see a new face. Once in, expect to find space for no more than a dozen people (often as little as four), so bar hopping with a crowd is not recommended. Travel light with one buddy, and find a place whose décor fits your fancy. Tokyo’s artists, writers, and musicians are known to haunt these quirky spots with nostalgic memorabilia lining the walls. Take your Japanese phrase-book and try out a few lines, and you’ll definitely be met with a warm reception. You might even find some new friends itching to try out their English.
Expect to pay around 500 yen as a “table charge” (entrance fee, including a small snack), and 500 to 1,000 per drink. If you’re totally lost, ask the bartender for an “osusume” (recommendation) and they’ll suggest the right sake or shochu. Or, you might end up drinking or eating something you’ve never heard of before. But isn’t that why you’re in Japan?