November 12, 2009
A beginner’s guide to the venerable Shinjuku drinking district
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on November 2009
If you get it right, Golden Gai can be unlike any other experience in Tokyo. It’s a place where, just for a brief moment, even newbie foreigners can feel truly local. Get it wrong, though, and you’ll leave feeling more “gaijin” than ever.
The area’s origins can be traced back to the seedy postwar period, when it was a place of black markets, yakuza and the sex trade. Nowadays, it’s a much cleaner affair—so much so, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that the sleaze of Kabukicho is just around the corner. The cramped alleyways, eateries and bars are still littered with wandering obasan, but they’ve been joined by ultra-trendy Japanese fashionistas.
Golden Gai can be a little intimidating to first-time visitors, what with nearly 180 bars to choose from. We’d suggest getting there early, which will allow you to find a bar that suits your interests—and budget. Even the kindliest old crone is more than capable of bleeding your wallet dry, so watch out.
The area is enjoying something of a boom at the moment, with new bars opening up nearly every month. Those who once frequented the dark and dingy alleys have since grown up and bought their own drinking spaces, leading to the emergence of two distinct communities: the wealthy obasan defending their turf, and the rich young hopefuls capitalizing on Golden Gai’s success.
Foreigner-friendly bars are also becoming more common, run by bilingual owners who are keen to keep their language skills up. Discounts are offered for non-Japanese customers, including free entry or cheaper drinks. Here are five of our favorites.
One of the more bizarre haunts in Golden Gai, this bar-slash-art-gallery-slash-poser’s-lounge bears more than a passing resemblance to something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. We didn’t have any trouble getting in, but just make sure you look as trendy as possible. Local artists can take advantage of the exhibition space upstairs. There’s a ¥1,000 cover charge, and beers are ¥500.
Owned by an ultra-hip young Japanese guy, Albatross G takes advantage of the area’s sordid past to create a two-floor bar, where a small ladder leads up to what was once the bedroom of a brothel. With one tiny table, plenty of candles and a dark, dingy interior, this is definitely one of the seedier “Gai” establishments. The cover charge seems to vary according to how much the owner likes you, and most drinks come in at ¥600, though expect to pay more if you want to take advantage of the massive selection of spirits.
One of the freshest faces on Golden Gai, having only been open for a couple of months. Roostar’s charming owner, Ricca, is a keen art fanatic and—bizarrely—a tarot card reader. You can play piano or guitar there, and drinks are relatively cheap at ¥500 a beer. Quiet and not too intimidating, it’s a good first port of call, and there’s no seating charge for foreigners. Get a few cheeky beers in here and then move on to somewhere a bit livelier. Oh, and if you’re interested, a tarot reading costs ¥1,000.
Definitely one of the rowdier drinking dens to be found in Golden Gai. Bar owner Tsuyoshi opened this place six years ago after returning from a four-year stint in Colorado. It’s always crammed with trendy Japanese music types, most of whom are keen to practice a bit of English. Expect plenty of Pink Floyd and Led Zep, as well as free entry. Beers are the usual ¥500 a pop, with spirits coming in at ¥700.
This one is hard to miss, with a pink exterior and a massive Sex Pistols poster plastered on the door. Loud, mad and boasting one of the best selections of all-time classic punk records—with customers free to take their pick. Brits, be warned: the barmaids will expect you to know every record inside-out. It’s ¥800 to get in, with beers rolling in at ¥600.