In the middle of Tokyo’s bustling commercial area of Shinjuku lies a slice of old Japan, where hundreds of tiny back-to-back bars create one of the coolest places in the world for a tipple. The experience: unmissable, fascinating and impressive.
I’ve never seen anything like it. Alley after alley – each too narrow to fit even a small car; some intersecting ones wide enough for just one person – lined with hundreds of back-to-back ramshackle bars that seat no more than a handful. A sense of mystery oozes through the passageways that show quick appearances of different characters ducking in or out – young, old, businessmen, arty types and a small dollop of tourists.
I’m in Tokyo’s nightlife district Golden Gai, a glimpse of Japan’s recent past with its tiny two-storey buildings. Despite the great 1923 earthquake and even fire in the 80’s, the area miraculously survived retaining its original architecture whereas more than half of the city redeveloped with concrete high-rises. Walls decorated in provocative posters, animal heads, autographs, biology diagrams; hubs for poets, cat-themed joints, art exhibitions, theatres, bartenders in nurse outfits… Each distinct bar caters for a specific clientele. While it’s easy to spot those that cater to tourists (spot English signs), the Golden ‘District’ is first and foremost for the locals.
It’s 10pm on a Thursday evening and either everyone’s hidden underground so well that this confined area appears rather quiet in Shinjuku’s CBD – I feel like I’ve stumbled across a hidden gem -, or the renowned city that doesn’t sleep does sleep (on weeknights anyway) after all. Whichever, I’m keen to check one of these watering holes out.
“Which one?” tonight’s partner in crime – my mother – asks me, overwhelmed with choices.
“The only one with the ‘jazz music’ sign,” I respond, thinking it’d be a safer option for mother-daughter time as opposed to its grungy-walled neighbours. Extra points for that I love the genre.
A steep dark stairway leads us to a dimly lit timber-walled space centred around an L-shaped bar seating nine people. There’s no live jazz (physically impractical) but this is quickly forgiven with the quality records that crisply pour through the intimate room. Drop lamps hang close to patrons’ heads and out of the shadows I see a typical Japanese salaryman with a loosened tie sitting ever so contently by himself, his eyes closed with a cigarette in one hand, swishing his fingers in the air to the rhythm. A young couple talk amongst themselves in the corner. Thousands of jazz CDs and cassettes are piled up against the walls and ceilings, and for what spaces are left are posters of legendary musicians, abstract photos and wooden hangers for coats.
Not every bar requires a cover charge but this time, for a small fee of 400 yen ($5) per person, Mum and I are seated comfortably and relax over refreshing Yebisu (Japanese beer) and addictive bar snacks served by the one-man team: a grey-haired fellow dressed in army-print pants and a beaten sweater who appears stern but softens with a warm smile once you speak to him. He’s a man of many stories.
The solo male patron looks up: “Yesterday…” he says to all of us, taking a sip out of his bourbon, “… in 1991, Miles Davis passed away.” With sheer honour of the departed artist, he hands over to me the CD cover of what’s spinning: ‘Miles Davis – Cookin’ at the Plugged Nickel’. We smile in acknowledgement, continuing to bop our heads into the night.
Dig a little deeper in Tokyo and you’ll find peaceful joy amongst locals in a quirky joint like this. This is only the beginning of a memorable experience in one tiny bar amongst another 200 more packed in this fascinating slice of old Japan.
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Official Japan National Tourism Organisation website.
HOW TO GET THERE
Golden Gai is a few minutes walk from the East Exit of Shinjuku Station. The address is 1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo.
- Forget the guidebook. OK, only if you must. But this is the best place for aimless wandering to stumble across some place surprisingly special.
- Be mindful that some bars only welcome regulars. Entering a bar with a warm smile and reading the bartender’s reaction worked for me.
- Skip the crowds and visit on a weeknight. Golden Gai comes to life after 9-10pm each night, but there’s less chance of rubbing shoulders with people on work evenings!