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 Many travel guides gives the higher number of around 200 bars but I believe this is outdated information as some bars have more or less permanently closed while others have merged to make enough space for slightly bigger businesses.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!
Few tourists miss out on Shinjuku, the heart of Tokyo and possibly the shopping capital of Tokyo. There are also all kinds of restaurants and entertainment, especially here in the eastern part of Shinjuku. I took these photos as the last of the sunlight was fading out and the lights and signs comes on. The New Year’s holidays have started, and it is unusually long this year, giving office workers all over the country a much needed break.
Walking around in the heart of Tokyo, the district called Shinjuku, I took these photos of the night views and Christmas decorations. The name Shinjuku (which means New Station got its name in 1634 when the building of the Edo Castle moat forced several temples and villages to shift westwards, and there was room for a new way-station on one of the main the national roads, the Koshu Kaido. The new way-station lay close to the Daimyo villa of Naito, so the area was known as Naito-Shinjuku until 1920 when it was merged with Tokyo. The old Daimyo residence is now the famous Shinjuku Gyoen park. Today Shinjuku is the place of the busiest train station in the world and the Tokyo Government buildings which makes it the capital of the capital of Japan. It is also the most popular place with tourists, maybe not as much by choice as by necessity.
With these photos I wish you all a Merry Christmas! I trust you have all had either your Christmas fried chicken, Christmas Cake or at least had a nice date with an attractive member of your preferred gender!
Today, November the 15th is the second of the annual Torinohi, two or three days in November when traditional tornoichi markets are being held in many shrines and temples throughout Japan. The fact that both religions, shinto and buddhism, celebrate this tradition is interesting, the only difference between them is their reason for doing it. In all places the main object is to trade in the traditional kumade (熊手, or bear’s hand) decoration pieces, sometimes as small as 500 yen coin, and sometimes big enough to cover a small wall, there are all kinds of kumade and all the traders take great pride in displaying as much of their wares as possible. The basic form of the kumade comes from the humble garden rake, and the kumade is said to symbolize the raking in of health, happiness and health. It is traditional for local business to buy one each year to display in their shops. Whatever your belief is, the magic of the kumade actually works as it attracts customers. I personally always stop in front of a shop displaying a good kumade, giving the proprietor of the shop a chance to wheel me in and make a sale. The tradition is always buy a larger kumade than last year, so if you plan on following the tradition I would recommend starting out as small as possible, even though the sly tradesmen will always try to sell you their biggest!
The torinohi is counted using the old sexagenary system, where each cycle has twelve days, so in every year there will be two or three cycle endings. It is said traditionally that years with three torinohi in November are especially prone to house fires so sales of kumade with additional fire prevention prayers stuck to it increases. This is one of those years, and the third torinohi this year is on the 27th.
But today is also Tokyobling’s blog’s 5th year anniversary! The first post was on November 15th 2008. Time really does fly. I didn’t mean for it to become a daily job though. When I started I was inspired by the Boston Globe’s blog, The Big Picture which was started in May 2008 by Alan Taylor. The Big Picture is easily one of the best news sites in the world and very significant in the way news media has evolved online since then. The idea behind the blog was to tell news and stories through big images, with little or no text. Taylor was a web guy who was not satisfied with how the newspaper he worked for used photography online, so he started the blog on his own initiative. I could relate to that as I was in very much the same situation, seeing a lot of gorgeous images coming in and then being cut down so small that they hardly mattered in online news media. I was also reading a lot about photography online and I was very unhappy with the way so many talented photographers felt the need to diminish their work by reducing it in size and load the images with their names and watermarks and logos in an attempt to combat online image theft. I decided that I could do better than that by using the example of The Big Picture blog and post large images without useless copyright notices or logos inside them (people will steal your images no matter what you do if they are good enough to be stolen). Back in 2008 an image being 1200 x 798 pixels (my standard size, but only if you click them, the actual display is much smaller: I couldn’t find a good WordPress theme to use back then) was plenty large enough but these days I feel that it is much too small. Ideally someday I would like to find the time (and the skills needed…) to revamp the blog and start posting much larger, full size images at about 4000 x 2400 pixels or similar. Sure, it would be much more work, since I can hide quite a lot photographical errors by reducing images in size (soft photos, bad focusing, etc.) but I think it would be useful in the end, for me and for the viewer, you.
You can read more about the philosophy behind the blog at my About page. Now, let’s get on with working towards the 10 year anniversary in 2018!