One of those not-so-secret secret spots, Golden Gai is a collection of mismatched, tumbledown bars lining alleyways in a darkened corner of Shinjuku. Here’s how to experience it of an evening.
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, a semi-forgotten part of normally neon Shinjuku.
While surrounding areas have been developed 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 small bars and restaurants, each night is an adventure into the unknown and awesome.
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. 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, we’re told. With space for only a few customers, some wish to keep their seats free for regulars who will spend the evening rather than bar-hopping tourists who might have one drink, loiter and leave. Take notice of the signs and choose somewhere more welcoming—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 in Golden Gai, some offering restaurant experiences, while others 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.
Be it a hospital-themed bar, a failed S&M club or green-grass-covered walls, you can find pretty much anything within the Golden Gai 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 sounds to match the surroundings. Hair of the Dog has excellent music choices for those of us who enjoy 80s 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 frequented by cinephiles and actors.
Local favorites in Golden Gai
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 merger 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 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 cover charge per person, but you do get snacks for it.
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 place with fairy lights and over 100 different drinks to try. The female bar staff are welcoming and the owner is an actor. It’s 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 and 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, 80s 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 ¥500 cover charge, but drinks are reasonable and you’ll probably find yourselves staying for more than one.
Ace’s: This place ticks all the boxes for any nervous first-timers: no cover charge, a flat rate of ¥800 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 to chat as much as you do.
The Golden Rules of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai
The more general rule of “when in Rome” still applies in Golden Gai, even when drinking, and is especially important in small bars like these. 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 sleeping charges), but you’ll always be warned by the staff beforehand—so don’t worry.
The alley network 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 photographs. 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 on a carefully-restricted Facebook page.
This post was first published in October, 2017. Last update in June, 2018.
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