Tokyo is often portrayed as a monument to futurism. The neon-lit towers, cutting-edge technology and subcultures that teem throughout the metropolis have inspired countless science fiction books, films and movies. But there is another side to the city. Hidden away behind the bright lights of Shinjuku, you’ll find a cluster of narrow laneways housing 200 shanty bars dating back to the 1950s. Known as Golden Gai, this unique slice of retro cool will quench your thirst and your sense of adventure.
Golden Gai doesn’t appear on regular tourist maps, but finding it is relatively straightforward. Exit Shinjuku Station East, make your way towards the Hanazono Shrine, walk past its arches and you’ll suddenly find modern-day Japan melting away to reveal a cluster of tiny laneways humming to their own unique rhythm.
Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Tokyo
Retro Cool in Downtown Tokyo
The first time you fix your eyes on Golden Gai it’s easy to imagine you’ve stepped into a film set. The six narrow laneways that make up the area are surrounded by crumbling two-storey buildings and are alive with a chaotic mix of lights and music. As you make your way deeper into the labyrinth-like complex, you’ll find an almost endless mix of hole-in-the wall bars competing for your business and attention.
While Japan is known for its efficient use of space, Golden Gai takes things up several notches! Most of the bars are nothing more than a narrow doorway, a bar with a few seats (literally, a few) and a bartender to serve the drinks. Even the larger venues struggle to hold more than a handful of people. But what these bars lack in space, they more than make up for with character.
A Theme for Every Occasion
The pulsating mix of music, colour and ambiance that spills out of Golden Gai is driven by the 200-strong venues and their friendly rivalries. Every single bar within has its own unique theme to help set it apart from its neighbours and while the punk, jazz and reggae venues are authentically tatty, things get more interesting the deeper you delve.
By the time you’ve wondered towards the back of Golden Gai, you’ll find yourself looking at Halloween-themed bars with an orange floor-to-ceiling glow, retro robot bars, old burlesque houses and impossibly small venues with just enough room for three people, a bartender and a huge chandelier.
Golden Gai may be hidden away from public view, but you’ll find a steady mix of locals and tourists weaving through the narrow laneways on any given night. Most of the bars operate on a first-come-first-served basis and the more popular venues fill up quickly and tend to stay that way. That being said, there’s more than enough variety and seating to accommodate the crowds and most places stay open well into the night.
Whiskey Highballs and Japanese Beers
Drink options will vary from venue to venue, but Japan’s love affair with whiskey continues unabated in Golden Gai and an authentic Whiskey Highball is both a timeless classic and refreshing drink after your walk from Shinjuku station. Served in a tall frosted glass with a liberal amount of ice, a twist of fresh lemon and soda water, it’s a straightforward drink that Japan has elevated to a fine art.
While your bartender’s command of English may be limited, the small size of the venues means you can always point to whatever combination of beer or spirits you feel like consuming. Otherwise, just leave it up to your bartender. Many of them have held the same outpost for decades and take genuine pride in their work.
If you’re in town for an extended stay, or drinking with a larger group, most venues allow you to purchase a bottle of alcohol outright and will store it for you behind the counter with your name neatly inscribed on the label and a marker to show how much is left.
Down the Rabbit Hole
While Tokyo has no shortage of entertainment districts, bars and clubs, none of them offer the casual intimacy of Golden Gai. It’s a modern-day rabbit hole that transports visitors into a strange new reality, inhabited by an equally strange cast of bartenders and revellers.
Even in a city as densely packed and technology driven as Tokyo, these six narrow laneways hold a special, nostalgic appeal. Developers discovered this firsthand during the 1980s economic boom when attempts to raze and develop the land were staved off by armed locals who patrolled the area and kept the bulldozers out.
That sort of militant devotion has been replaced by an influx of new patrons and visiting tourists in recent years and Golden Gai isn’t quite as edgy or secret as it used to be. But if you’re looking for a unique Tokyo story, a great drink and some worthwhile photo opportunities, this unique warren of laneways and hidden bars in Tokyo offer a once in a lifetime experience.
Best Time to Visit
Where to Stay
Feature Image: Shinjuku ward at night / Credits:Getty Images