Tokyo’s tiniest drinking dens a guide to Golden Gai

The comprehensive guide to Tokyo’s Golden Gai

The comprehensive guide to Tokyo’s Golden Gai

Shinjuku, Tokyo, is known for skyscrapers, seedy nightlife, suited businessmen and a time-warped tumble of bars called Golden Gai. This perennial haunt of Tokyo’s salarymen has been getting a lot more international attention lately – and for good reason.

While the city offers an endless range of flashy, neon-drenched clubs, bars and lounges, arguably only in Golden Gai can you see vestiges of the Japanese capital’s postwar nightlife – down to earth, locally-minded and still wonderfully bizarre.

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So, what exactly is Golden Gai?

Golden Gai (“Golden District”) is one of those rare places in Tokyo that, through some combination of luck and stubbornness, hasn’t been bulldozed and redeveloped. Instead, it’s just a couple of blocks packed with tiny, slightly ramshackle but buzzing bars.

The number of punters who can squeeze into each establishment ranges from about five to thirty, though most of them are on the smaller side. Each bar has its own hook, whether outlandish decor (from troll toys to hospital-themed uniforms), a signature drink or the promise of free, painfully off-key karaoke at all hours.

What’s the etiquette?

Most of the bars accept visitors now, but some still only welcome regular customers – if there’s a price list or anything in English posted out front, you’re probably not about to cause an awkward scene. Alternatively, just walk in, smile politely and see what reaction you get; chances are that if it’s a regulars-only bar you’ll be told there’s no room (empty seats or not).

Most of the bars have a cover charge, though a small number are free to enter. Sheer physical proximity means you may end up making friends with your neighbour – it’s amazing how quickly the language barrier disappears after a glass or three of shōchū.

Talking of the language barrier, if you’re up to it then a bit of basic vocab will definitely be well-received. “O-susume” is “recommendation” – a surefire way to make a new friend. The simple but polite way to order is “[drink] o kudasai”. Finally, most vitally of all, be sure to make judicious use of “oishii” or “umai” (“delicious”) and, of course, “kanpai!” (“cheers!”).

Golden Gai bar, Tokyo, Japan – Creative Commons1

Which bars are worth visiting?

If you’re at all nervous about accidentally wandering into a frosty reception at a regulars-only bar, muster up some Dutch courage first at one of the better-known gaijin-friendly establishments.

Arriving via Yasukuni-dōri, the first bar you’ll reach is Champion – it’s large and has no cover charge, but the karaoke might put you off your drinks. Another popular choice is the plush Albatross, which has a makeshift rooftop terrace with a pretty impressive view of the lights of Tokyo.

To really get a feel for Golden Gai, though, you need to head away from these larger bars and start peeking up staircases and through doorways to see what takes your fancy.

Golden Gai bar, Tokyo, Japan – Creative Commons

Zucca is a small, friendly bar with Halloween-themed decor (the name is Italian for pumpkin). The bar staff here not only know most customers who come in by name, but also their usual drink, the state of their health, and myriad other personal – and occasionally incriminating – details, presumably divulged after a few glasses.

Another standout is Blue Square, on the edges of Golden Gai up a staircase marked by a small blue sign in the shape of a circle. It’s tiny – four can sit at the bar, if you don’t mind knocking elbows a little – but it attracts some interesting characters. The bar owners had originally wanted it to be an S&M joint, hence the spiked and studded bras hanging on the wall, but couldn’t afford such specialised staff – so they ended up with a regular bartender from Osaka! In classic outspoken Osakan style though, she says “don’t go asking me for a spanking, I’m definitely not paid enough for that!”