In yesterday’s post I promised to tell a little bit more about the history of Shinjuku’s famous Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街). On August the 15th 1945 a black market was opened on the firebombed fields east of Shinjuku train station. The organizers were a quick to take advantage of a the chaos of war and the lack of civil jurisdiction in the midst of the hand over from a wartime government to the incoming occupational forces of the Allied Countries under General McArthur. Food, clothes and goods were all heavily rationed by the government and the only way for some people to survive was to rely on these unregulated black markets. The market was located in the spot where the Zara main store in Shinjuku is these days, about 100 meters to the east of Shinjuku station. In 1949 the GHQ (the military occupational government) ordered all the black markets away from the major stations and the gangsters who ran the “Shinjuku Market” had to move a few hundred meters to the old town of Sankochou (三光町) that lay just to the east of the old Street Car Train line. The town had been almost completely destroyed in the firebombings a few years earlier and there was noone around to enforce building regulations, zoning laws or even to draw up proper streets. The black market quickly morphed into a series of stalls serving food and drink. One of the few remaining pre-war streets in this area is the tree lined alley that you could see in the first photo of yesterday’s post, it used to be where the train line ran.
The police and the military drew a red line on the maps around the areas where they would not tolerate black markets and so the area of what would become Golden Gai became known as a “red line area”. The market and food stalls changed into a red light district and brothels sprung up and prospered, not least because of the close proximity to the large U.S. Air Force barracks in what is now nearby Yoyogi Park. Still the area could not be regulated and people had taken it into their own hands to build rows of narrow houses. In 1958 police added a second line to their maps, a blue line within which prostitution would not be tolerated and so the nature of Golden Gai changed again, and the present day area was finally formed as a place of bars, drinking and loud music but absolutely no prostitution. The name Golden Gai was set in 1960.
Today there are two merchants associations in the Golden Gai. The North consists mainly of bars that are 2.5 meters times 2.5 meters. The south association consists mostly of even smaller bars that are no wider or longer than 1.7 meters! There is a long waiting list to be allowed to operate any of the bars here and every year between 5 and 10 bars close and new ones take their place. The oldest bars have been in the owner’s family for at least three generations! Legally Golden Gai is not quite a autonomous free town, but it is pretty close to being independent. Naturally, this legal limbo is not very popular with city officials and the last few years the Tokyo Mayor has been very outspoken in his dislike of the area. Right now there are not unfounded fears that the city government will order a crackdown on Golden Gai to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Naturally it would be a massive loss to Tokyo and to the world if Golden Gai were to be abolished. I sincerely hope that no Tokyo politician will be so foolish as to destroy this fantastic piece of Tokyo living history.
One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo and one of the most interesting places in the city is without a doubt the Shinjuku Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街), a miniature city within the city. The Golden Gai is the remnant of a peculiar mix of shady businesses, black marketeers and lack of urban planning. Despite the area being only about 2500 square meters (the six tiny streets and a dozen tiny alleys making up the Golden Gai can be placed inside a square with sides barely 50 meters long), there are about 140 bars, many of which are have just enough room for a bartender, a counter and a handful of barstools. Many travel guides gives the higher number of around 200 bars but I believe this is outdated information as some bars have more or less permanently closed while others have merged to make enough space for slightly bigger businesses. It is still a wonderful rambling mess of old wooden houses and a complete disregard for building codes, rules and regulations.
According to aficionados, there are ten “classes” of bars in the Golden Gai: Orthodox (regular bars), Eateries, New Wave Bars, Shot Bars, Music Bars, Movie Bars, Russian Bars (vodka bars), Gay Bars (mostly for men, cross-dressers and transsexuals), Horse Racing Fan Bars, and Mystery Bars (bars with an occult or philosophical non-conformist theme). If you want to go drinking here though, you need to throw all your preconceptions and notions about right and wrong, morals and manners out the window. Being admitted to any bar here is a privilege and absolutely not a right. Some bars love foreigners, others are not interested at all in serving foreigners. Some bars are only for female customers and will charge high entrance fees to keep male customers away. Other bars are invitation only and a few other bars might be hiding something completely different from what you see on the surface. You enter this area at your own risk. Almost all bars also have “service charges” or “table charges”, ranging from a couple of hundred yen to several thousand yen for the most exclusive establishments. Usually these charges are posted outside the bars but if not you should always ask before being seated.
In the Shinjuku Golden Gai there is a strict hierarchy where the owners and staff are on the top, regular customers come second, known faces third and drop in tourists last. Since seats are limited, even empty looking bars might prefer to keep seats and places for regulars they know are coming so don’t be too upset if you are not invited to sit down even in an empty bar! It is a place to visit for the atmosphere at least as much as for the food and drink.
Having written all these warnings, I can still recommend taking a walk through this area. There are places that are very welcoming to occasional tourists and a normal dose of common sense and humility should see you safely through an evening drinking here. Thanks to modern technology you can even see inside quite a few of the bars using Google Street View! You are most likely to enjoy the experience of drinking here if you are invited by a friend who knows the barkeeps, but even on your own it could be an interesting experience. For the beginner and the tourist, I’d say that the by Golden Gai standards massive Albatross G bar might be the safest and most cost effective bet. The bar has three floors and could probably cram in about 20 customers in a pinch. The cover charge is very cheap (less than the price of a drink) and the bartenders have always been very welcoming when I brought in foreign friends from all over.
I’ll write a little bit more about the history of Golden Gai in tomorrow’s post, complete with plenty more photos and directions. Stay tuned!
Last weekend Shinjuku saw the annual Hanazono Shrine festival, the Hanazono Retaisai (花園神社例大祭 in Japanese). Most shrines have several festivals or matsuri doing the year, but the one to look out for is the reisai or reitaisai, which is a name give to the most important festival of the year for the shrine in question. As with all reitaisai, the different neighborhoods belonging to the shrine did their part and fielded huge teams of omikoshi bearers, standard bearers and musicians. I got a little late to the festival’s last day, but I managed to catch the Sankouchou (三光町) team as they finished their rounds, on the small back street between the shrine and the fantastic little area knowns as Golden Gai. Sankouchou is the old name (pre-1970s) for what is today, mostly Kabukichou Ichoume (歌舞伎町一丁目) and a handful of other locations around that area. Most interestingly, it includes Golden Gai and a large part of one of Asia’s largest red light districts, Kabukichou. Like churches and parishes in Christian countries, the old parish boundaries are still usually in use when it comes to festivals and traditions, which is also true in Japan. The address you live in decides which “parish” shrine you belong to, and you should look it up. It is not always the biggest or the closest shrine to your house.
The Hanazono shrine is the main shrine of the area to the east of Shinjuku station and therefore one of the most important shrines in Tokyo! The festival is a huge three day event and the last day saw a lot of streets being closed of for traffic to accommodate the omikoshi and the crowds. Great fun and definitely one of the most accessible shrine festivals in Japan. It’s a family thing with lot of people from all ages and all walks of life, from the underworld to the highest ranking politicians, and at the end, some really tired children. Enjoy!