Shinjuku is one of the neighborhoods in Tokyo that never ceases to amaze me. Buildings touching the sky, neon-blazed crosswalks, and now, a robot restaurant. But just a stone’s throw away from all the hustle and action lies an area so inconspicuous, I often forget it’s even there. The lake among the watering holes in town: Shinjuku’s Golden Gai.
In this tiny gai (or “district” in English), over 250 bar owners have set up shop. Quite a few have kept the drinks flowing since the 60s; passing the business down through the family. Although not officially a historic landmark, it’s architecture gives an idea of what Tokyo might have looked like, before the country’s economic boom brought about redevelopment.
Streets—if one could even call them that—resemble alleyways. Buildings crowd together like row homes. Most have no more than two floors, and barely a few windows. Power lines criss-cross above, blocking out the sun and giving the area an even darker feel.
Walking through Golden Gai, you get a sense that the district is quite characteristic of the city itself. Considering that 200+ establishments fit snugly into the small area, you realize that space has always been at a premium in Tokyo. This lack of space continued inspired how the city developed, well after areas similar to Golden Gai were destroyed.
Celebs, musicians, writers, and artists over the years have gathered at their favorite bars
Although there are some outliers, most bars can barely squeeze in a half-dozen guests. One film-themed bar called, La Jetee, simply has one long booth that starts at the entrance and wraps around the bar. I’m guessing everyone takes bathroom runs together, including the bartender. Each hole-in-the wall takes on a theme, often inspired by the personality of its owner. For this reason, Golden Gai brings in an eclectic group with more diversity than the usual salaryman spot. Celebs, musicians, writers, and artists over the years have gathered at their favorite bars to exchange ideas.
Given the close quarters atmosphere, some bars have developed into members only spots; saving their limited space for regulars who might come later in the evening. But with literally hundreds of options to choose from there will surely be a place for newcomers to drink at on any night of the week. If you’re worried about your Japanese level, just grab a can of liquid courage at the closest convenience store, and have a little pregame before heading in. Additionally, look out for establishments with copious English signage.
Although there’s plenty of options to choose from, a few good places to kick off your Golden Gai journey would be Albatross, La Jetee, and Bar Plastic Model.
Albatross has grown popular among years due to its more affordable cover and drink prices. It also has more space compared other bars, and lots of funky chandeliers hanging from its ceilings.
La Jetee is all about film. Drinks are more expensive, but surprisingly average compared to everything else in the area. The owner is nice and enjoys chatting it up about all kinds of movies.
Bar Plastic Model seems like a snapshot taken from the Back to the Future version of 2015. Lots of nostalgia, from rubix cubes to anime. The bar is lined with records with a retro flavor. For all the otaku out there, this bar was also featured in the video game, No More Heroes.
So that’s the tip of the iceberg. If you’re tired off all the bright lights and neon everything, Golden Gai definitely has a different feel compared to most parts of Tokyo. Go alone or with friends, drink with the locals, find people who share your common interests. You can do that all at Golden Gai.
From Shinjuku Station East Exit: Walk towards Kabukicho. Map
Contributed by GaijinPot in collaboration with Ooedo Living