The Golden Guide to Golden Gai

Lily Crossley-Baxter

One of those not-so-secret secret spots, Golden Gai is a quaint collection of mismatched, tumbledown bars lining alleyways in a darkened corner of Shinjuku.

Wandering through the sketchy streets of Kabukicho, wind through the touts and ignore the calls for the more unsavory drinking spots and instead head to Golden Gai, the forgotten corner of normally neon Shinjuku.

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While nearby areas have been redeveloped and look like any other part of Tokyo, Golden Gai retains the post-war charm of scruffiness often lost in the shiny modern city we are more familiar with. Frequented by celebrities and home to a few small restaurants, each night is an adventure into the unknown. With a similar vibe to nearby Omoide Yokocho, but focusing on cocktails rather than chicken, Golden Gai has been growing in popularity as visitors seek that elusive un-polished side of the city, but it isn’t hard to find. Bars tend to open from about 9pm, so don’t head over too early or you’ll find empty streets and empty seats.

Narrow down your narrow streets

Made up of six alleys tightly packed with independent bars, half the experience is wandering through, with each small entrance completely individual—covered in stickers, pristine and painted, or aged and battered. With many of the buildings housing more than one bar, the steep staircases can lead to a completely different experience.

There are well over 200 bars to choose from and knowing where to start is easier said than done. You may want to take a couple of things into consideration though: some bars do have signs saying ‘no foreigners’, ‘no tourists’ or ‘regulars only’—which is their right. With space for only a few customers, some wish to keep their few seats free for regulars who will spend the evening rather than bar-hopping tourists who will have one drink, loiter and leave. Take notice of the signs and choose somewhere else—after all, you’re not exactly short of alternatives.

If you see an English menu or catch the eye of a friendly bartender, head on in. There are also cover charges at some establishments, undoubtedly to help the bar-hopping issue, but they are clearly marked on doors and many bars are free to enter.

There are plenty of food spots if you look hard enough, some offering restaurant experiences while some offer a more relaxed environment. Head to second-floor noodle joint Nagi for some tasty ramen or Bistro Pavo for home-made pastas and risottos or follow the alleys until you see the signs for unlimited miso soup.

Themes galore

Be it a hospital-themed bar, a failed S&M club or green-grass-covered walls, you can find pretty much anything within these streets, if you’re willing to explore. Keep an eye out for Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu if you want something of the medical macabre along with your drinks or wander over to Bar Plastic Model. Head to Happy Bar for soul, rock and blues music from the good old days as well as some Showa-era music to match the surroundings. Hair of the Dog has some excellent music choices for those of us who enjoy 80’s punk and ska. La Jetee is a well known bar in the filmmakers’ circle, with the tiny space being used for scenes in the movie Tokyo Ga, and often frequented by cinephiles and actors alike.

 Local favorites

While half the fun is picking your own bar from the myriad options, if you feel a bit intimidated by it all and want some suggestions on where to start, then look no further:

Albatross: A stylish merge of Edwardian and Gothic, with gilded mirrors, chandeliers, stag heads and the odd disco ball, it is rumored to have once been a brothel. This two-floor bar with a makeshift roof terrace has room for small groups as well as the counter seats for couples and individuals. The staff are really friendly and there’s always an interesting selection of drinks, from Darjeeling liquor to homemade plum tequila. The have a 500-yen cover charge per person, but you do get snacks for it.

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Death Match in Hell: If you’re a fan of death metal, then this is one of the best spots. With no cover charge, loud music and hundreds of rock performance DVDs to choose from, it’s easy to while away a night among your heroes. The bar is counter only with some deep breaths needed to squeeze in, but once you’re in, you’re part of the family.

Bar Darling: One of the best bars for its female-friendly atmosphere, Bar Darling is a relaxed bar with fairy lights and over 100 different drinks to try. The female bar staff are welcoming and the owner is an actor. It’s often frequented by local stars, so you never know who you’ll be rubbing elbows with.

Bitter Orange: A cool and chic place to stop for a drink, the warming glows of Bitter Orange will bring you in on the coldest of nights. With cocktails, a beer and wine list, there’s something for everyone, not to mention that they’re open till 5am, so you can keep this gem till last. There are counter seats and a small table so you needn’t be alone to squeeze in.

Kenzo’s Bar: Guaranteeing a good welcome, Kenzo’s bar has leopard print wallpaper, 80’s music and alcohol – so basically all you need for a great night. He is a super-friendly host and welcomes foreigners – running a bar is only one of his roles, as he is an actor and screenwriter too. There is a 500yen cover charge but drinks are reasonable and you’ll probably find yourselves staying for more than one.

Ace’s: This place ticks al the boxes for any nervous first-timers: no cover charge, flat rate of 800 yen for drinks and English speaking staff as well as an eclectic playlist and great atmosphere. There’s a good mix of locals and visitors, and since it has a reputation as a tourist-friendly spot, there are no side-eyes coming from patrons, who want a cht as much as you do.

The Golden Rules of Golden Gai

The more general rule of “when in Rome” still applies, even when drinking, and is especially important in small bars like this. We don’t need to tell you to be conscientious revelers, but keep in mind that there will be no qualms about chucking you out if you make it uncomfortable for other customers. There are rules within individual bars, some normal (like seating charges), and some less so (like 5,000-yen sleeping charges), but you’ll always be warned by the staff beforehand so don’t worry.

The alley itself also has some rules, and they may seem hard to follow, but at least be discreet and try where you can. This includes no photograph. And remember, in Japan, you are not meant to use photos of people’s faces, so avoid this if you plan on putting them up anywhere, even Facebook.

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