You have walked a long day through Tokyo to discover some of the major gems this beautiful city has to offer and you are still thirsty for more? Why not head to Shinjuku Golden Gai, one of Tokyo’s legendary bar streets.
A district known for its prostitution until 1958 – when Japanese government banned it – Shinjuku Golden Gai has since developed its activity as a major drinking area, with some of the first bars dating back to 1960. Located in the red light district of Kabukicho, this neighborhood has always been the place for mafia activities, but somehow has survived and thrived. In fact, in the 1980s, many buildings were set on fire around the area by yakuza, except for Golden Gai where some of its supporters kept a close watch on it during the night to keep the place safe from the flames.
The first quite unusual thing once you enter the area is the height of the buildings. Indeed, Shinjuku Golden Gai consists purely and simply of only 6,612 m² on which there are around 200 bars and a few restaurants of a height of maximum 2 (or rarely 3) floors. Because of that, from above the area looks like a square of small houses surrounded by the huge buildings of Shunjuku.
At the main entrance (closest to Shinjuku station), you will be able to find a map of all the establishments in the zone, with their name and location. And believe it or not, all the shops written there are ACTUALLY packed in this 6,612 m² area. Even if it looks overwhelming at first, it is literally this space splitting which makes Sinjuku Goldgen Gai so attractive, warm and unique.
First of all, before diving into the cute narrow streets of Golden Gai, you will probably notice some signs saying it is forbidden to take pictures, to smoke, to drink or to be too loud in the streets. Even though you will only see few people abiding by those rules, please try to respect them. And if it is not enough to prevent you to do so, please know there are cameras pretty much everywhere in this area and if you are too obvious, policemen from the nearby koban (police station), at one of the corners of Golden Gai, will come to you reminding you of the rules here.
Now, time to choose your bar, and there is another specificity of this place: the cover charge. But what is it? Because Golden Gai contains so many establishments, and because bartenders want to avoid customers to fly from a bar to another aiming to try them all, the district has developed the policy of cover charge. Before even sitting at a bar, you will potentially be asked to pay a certain amount of money (one time) and you will be then allow to normally order your drinks. The fee may vary from 0 to 3000 yen (or more for really exclusive places). No worries, more and more bars tend to be foreigners friendly, removing that charge fee and displaying signs and menu in English.
For your information, some of the “exclusive bars” don’t even accept new customers and will only allow a member already introduced by the former manager. Nevertheless, the range of bars is so large that you won’t even have to care about it.
Once you enter a bar (and it applies for every bar there) you will be struck by the astonishing ambiance. In fact, even if most of the time the bar won’t be able to welcome more than 10 people, Golden Gai has known to change its weakness into a strength. Because of its reduced space available, a unique and war environment has risen from it, allowing each bar to have its own specificities and bringing the customer in a whole different tiny world each time. More than the place itself but still because of the proximity, the bartenders and the customers present will also bring another dimension to your wonderful experience. Most of the time, the bartender will be happy to know more about you and where do you come from.
But a picture is worth a thousand words, and even if I wanted to write down my feelings for this particular place, I couldn’t. It needs to be experienced.
Finally, to properly choose the place you are going to spend a part of your night in, try to get the hints left outside by the managers, including the cover charge your are willing to pay or if it seems foreigners friendly (it would be written in English in that case). But most importantly, follow your heart. And by this I mean try to feel the potential ambiance of the place by having a quick look inside or by listening to the music played if there is.
Again, because the best part in Golden Gai is to discover “the” place which fits your expectations the best, I would only recommend one place, as a sample. It could also be a bit reassuring if it is your first time.
Contrary to most of the bars in Golden Gai (if not all of them?), you could find in Kenzo’s bar a central table where all the customers can gather around it, which easily allows for a discussion. Of course, this is obviously not the first thing you will notice. In fact, the entire surface of this establishment is covered in leopard print. Furthermore, the bartender, Kenzo, is really easygoing and you will be able to communicate, even in broken English.
Cover charge: 500yen.
I hope you know more about what to expect of Golden Gai, so please try to visit it if you pass by Shinjuku. You won’t forget it.
Remember when you go there, do not be afraid and just try some establishments. I am sure you will find what your are looking for.