A step down Golden Gai
A step into the mosaic of narrow alleys, pubs, and eateries of Golden Gai Shinjuku is to warp to a living relic of Japan’s postwar past. But make no mistake—far from frozen in time, this tumbledown Tokyo bar district is jammed full of energy, originality, good times, and top spots on the list of where to eat in Shinjuku. You won’t want to miss it.
A five or ten-minute stroll out the East Exit of Shinjuku Station, deeper into Kabuki-cho—the largest red light and entertainment district in Japan, if not in all of Asia—past the robot restaurant, samurai museum, and iconic Godzilla, lands you in a world within a world; one penned in by capsule hotels and neon-caked high-rises like predators hunched over, salivating at the thought of redevelopment.
One of few remaining pockets of old Tokyo, the low-rise Golden Gai district took its current form in the 1950s after the black market moved out and has hardly changed since. Much of Tokyo was once like Golden Gai, but the tight architectural confines have lent easily to destruction by fire; whether caused by earthquakes, air raids, or arson. The neighbourhood has been a rare and fierce pocket of resistance to developers, even managing to stave off the Yakuza practice in the 1980s of setting fires to provoke land sales. Like the scars and stories of veteran travellers, Golden Gai’s history is worn on its myriad faces and retained in its character.
It seems impossible that over 200 intimate pubs, bars, karaoke clubs, and eateries can be crammed into a mere half-dozen narrow and dimly lit pedestrian alleys, which are themselves cross-connected by a handful of passages just wide enough to slink down single-file. Even then, watch out for stashed bicycles, protruding air conditioners, power lines, eye-level
signage, and concealed entrances.
Undoubtedly, the area is best explored after dark. While some restaurants open at noon, most Golden Gai bars don’t open until eight in the evening or later, and often stay open until the trains start up again in the morning. That said, a stroll through the vacant alleys during the daytime can be an interesting alternative to those unsure about squeezing into a small bar
area. No single landmark stands out as particularly iconic, with the possible exception of the tiny comedy theatre in one corner. It is the area as a whole that engulfs you with the kind of old Tokyo magic and genuine character both visitors and residents of Tokyo begin to yearn for once the novelty of neon wanes. Indeed, Golden Gai feels a long way from anywhere. Gritty,
shabby, dark, and grimy: one ramshackle two-story structures against the next, never more than a rat’s width apart; most just an arm’s width wide, averaging thirteen square meters (142 sq ft) and few with seating for more than half a dozen shoulder-to-shoulder guests at a time—it has an undeniable appeal that may defy reason. Perhaps it’s because it defies definition and refuses to fall into one of the neat little boxes so often preferred by Japanese society. Regardless, the charm appeals to a clientele that bridges stature or generation (but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap). It’s where locals have a chance to rub elbows with movie and TVstars, musicians, and artists, as evident by the frequent displays of signed plaques and photos. It’s also where an increasing amount of English signage is making the area more accessible totourists.
There are no chain stores here: Each shopfront entices like a rabbit hole in an old mangy oak, with mystery and attraction added by artistic flair to reflect the theme and clientele. Tucked into every nook and cranny, inside and out, is some sort of curio to draw your interest or spark conversation.
On a walk down any one of the alleys, you’ll pass beneath jumbles of power lines, dangling bare-bulb lamps, and laundry hanging from tiny balconies. You’ll pass red paper lanterns, vending machines built into the walls, sagging window and doorframes, washing machines, graffiti, and walls plastered with old movie posters. And that’s to say nothing of the sounds of
laughter and music, or the scents of grilled meat. The lit signs are far from the eyesores that line larger streets. These are almost works of art, each unique and varied, and announcing shops names like Harley Davidson Cafe, Kangaroo Court Decision, Papa’s Dream, Rocket, Bon’s Old Fashioned American Style Pub, Psychobolic Shadow, and Deathmatch in Hell.
While there is plenty to feast your eyes on, it is an area to be experienced, not merely seen. What better way than with a bite to eat?
It can be a bit intimidating to step through one of these stooped little doorways as a foreigner with little or no Japanese language ability. But don’t fret. For the uninitiated or timid, here are some tips and recommendations:
Recommended Places to Eat in Golden Gai
Don’t be alarmed to find a small charge on your bill for something you didn’t order. A 500-to-1000 yen table or cover charge is customary and may or may not come with a small appetizer called an otoshi. More and more, shops in Golden Gai are posting their cover charge or lack thereof in English on signs outside the door. Also, expect to have to pay in cash.
What English speakers call “sake” is the generic term for all manner of alcohol. The clear, ubiquitously Japanese liquor is usually called nihonshu in Japan. Whatever you like to drink, you’ll probably find it in Golden Gai. Expect to pay about 700 yen per drink, though a few spots are cheaper.
For fresh local seafood, check out the warm and friendly Toto Bar Shinjuku (address: 3-ban Gai-dori), situated up one of the harrowingly narrow flights of stairs typical of the area. They have an English menu with a rotation of about ten items like sashimi and grilled salted mackerel (saba no shioyaki), which goes especially well with nihonshu. With just ten seats, it’s plenty
cozy and typifies the Golden Gai experience.
One of the more unique spots is Deathmatch in Hell, a horror flick and death metal-themed joint where drinks are priced 666 yen. The decor is—ahem—to die for, and classic horror films play on duelling screens. No cover charge. Opens at 8 p.m. and closed on Sundays.
Ramen Nagi has large portions, an English menu, and is open from noon. Look for the bloated red paper lantern and faux stone edifice.
Some other themed venues of interest include the punk bar, Hair of the Dogs, which has live DJs. Cremaster and Albatros G double as galleries for local artists. Bar Plastic Model is oldschool Nintendo-themed, if you’d like to play some N64 and wear a Mario hat. Or, hit up La Jetee for a taste of vintage French cinema.
The restaurant Kushiage Dongara-Gassyan (1st floor, Maneki-dori) is one of the best restaurants in Golden Gai. It’s actually a transplant from Osaka, as is evident by the golden statue outside the entrance of Billiken, the “God of Things as They Ought to Be”. Curiously, Billiken, first thought up by an American teacher in around the year 1900, once lent its name to several U.S. mascots and minor-league baseball teams and is affiliated with an exclusive order of the Freemasons. Don’t forget to rub his feet and make a wish! With 23 seats (fifteen of them at tables), this is one of the roomier spots in the area. You’ll find over forty kinds of breaded and deep-fried skewers collectively known as kushiage. Most—like the veggies, chicken, pork, beef, and quail eggs—are delicious; though, the spam one may be an acquired taste. Also recommended is kara-age, the juiciest breaded and deep-fried chunks of chicken you’ll ever try. If you’re worried about all that fried food, have to fear, there’s plenty of cold beer and hiballs on hand to wash it down. A kushiage skewer will run you about 100 to 300 yen, and twenty yen extra if you opt for black sesame breading instead of panko crumbs. The menu has English, as does the slip of paper you use to simply check off what you want to order. Instead of a table charge here, there’s a one-drink minimum. Weekdays, it’s open from noon; weekends and holidays, from 5 p.m.
For a globe-trotting backpacker vibe, you’ll like the Australian-founded Bar Araku (Gai-2-dori; 2nd floor). It feels a lot like a youth hostel, with more seats on sofas than at the counter, and travel tips flowing freely in any number of languages. The Aussie meat pies are a bit on the small side but hit the spot if you’re craving Western food. Only Japanese pay a table charge here (700 yen) and snacks are free, but there’s a one-drink minimum.
Some Words of Advice regarding Golden Gai
Lest you are doubting that the area is safe, don’t worry. Despite appearances, crime is surprisingly low. In case you do have a problem, there’s a police box located in the southeast corner of Golden Gai across from Hanazono Shrine. Realistically, the biggest danger is probably the steep, narrow, rickety stairways that connect upper-floor establishments.
These alleys are privately owned, and photography and video are not allowed without permission. Use discretion: respect people and their privacy, and don’t try and sneak a pic through an open door. Be discrete, and you might get away with a couple of shots of the alleys. Also prohibited in the alleyways outside the shops: no smoking, loitering, shouting, singing, drinking, drugs, or “climbing on buildings and fences”.
Although Tokyo is cosmopolitan, it’s gotten there on its own terms. Outsiders are rarely met with hostility—Golden Gai is a happy and friendly area, especially compared to the formality and stiffness one might experience elsewhere in the city—but you may be refused by certain establishments (especially if visibly drunk or in a rowdy group) unless introduced by a regular. The rule of thumb is that if there’s a menu on display outside, you are welcome.
In April 2020, Japan officially banned smoking in all indoor places of public gathering, but it may take a while for some of the smaller establishments like the ones in Golden Gai to adjust. In Japan, old habits die hard.
How to get to Golden Gai
Golden Gai lies between Hanazono Shrine and the Shinjuku City Office, about a five or ten minute walk northeast from the East Exit of Shinjuku Station. Be aware that Shinjuku Station is by far the busiest railway station in the world (over 3.7 million passengers pass through each day). Like a tentacled monster, it sprawls with shop-lined corridors and department stores, reaching and tangling for several kilometres beneath the streets. It interlaces with five other stations underground, seven above, and is intersected by seventeen train lines of its own. With a dozen department stores or malls under its clutch and about 250 exits, you are advised to plot your way out in advance.
What is nearby Golden Gai?
The west side of Shinjuku station is for work, and the east side is for play. Straddling this line, just outside the West Exit, is another narrow Tokyo alley option, Omoide Yokocho, better known by its nickname, Shomben Yokocho—literally “Piss Alley”, so-called for how rundown it is. It bears resemblance to Golden Gai, but with the focus primarily on yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and beer, and a clientele largely made up of businessmen. It may have a wider variety of food and drinks than Golden Gai, but this “salary man’s paradise” offers nothing to compare with the themed nightlife or energy east of the station.