Tokyobling's Blog

Shinjuku Golden Gai

Posted in Places, Shops by tokyobling on March 17, 2014

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 Many travel guides gives the higher number of around 200 bars but I believe this is outdated information as some bars have more or less permanently closed while others have merged to make enough space for slightly bigger businesses.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!

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5 Responses

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  1. sarabanto said, on March 18, 2014 at 9:12 am

    This is a pretty interesting place, it has some eerie aura around it, but not exactly in the bad way of saying. It’s mysterious? I guess walking on the street just make you feel even more like it, having dropped in a world, similar and totally different at the same time.

    Like

    • sarabanto said, on March 18, 2014 at 9:12 am

      ah..I was Timi..no idea why it’s logged in with this account:D

      Like

    • tokyobling said, on March 26, 2014 at 12:48 am

      It can be eerie, especially in the afternoon where there are no people about and all the bars are closed. The place lives up at night when the narrow streets can get pretty crowded.

      Like

  2. […] place and some, at least, of the establishments in the area are courting new clientele. Tokyobling, a popular blogger, recently called it “One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo”, which sounds about right. […]

    Like


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