Made up of six tightly packed alleys, wedged between the highrises of Shinjuku, Golden Gai is home to more than 200 bars to explore. It's definitely a must-do when visiting Tokyo.
Golden Gai is only a short walk from Shinjuku Station. But while the rest of the neighbourhood is a Blade Runner backdrop of neon and shining steel, Golden Gai has somehow stayed true to Old Tokyo—it's dimly lit, grungey, ramshackle. Most of the bars don't seat more than six punters. Some look like they're about to collapse. The whole thing sprouted as a black market after WWII.
Some Golden Gai bars offer up decent entertainment (I mean, decent depends on your expectations), like karaoke or local band performances. But most of them are simple ‘watering holes’ that serve some of the best and cheapest drinks in Tokyo. Sign me up.
How To Find A Bar
First step, keep an eye out for the mysterious logos and signs—cats, acoustic guitars, painted lips, nude girls—when you find one, push the door open. Places open at 9pm, so don’t roll in too early (there are a couple that grab that early-bird market, but the best action happens later at night).
Spaces are tight. Like, real tight. Like, can fit four people at a time tight. But that close proximity lends itself to making new friends. And most of the bar owners and staff are pretty nice. English is really just a bonus. You don't need to speak the language to have a good time here.
A Few Things To Remember
Some bars have signs saying things like ‘no foreigners’, ‘no tourists’ or ‘regulars only’, which they’re allowed to do, so I suggest choosing another place. Also worth noting is that a lot of places have a cover charge, like an entry fee, so don’t be put off by that. It is worth taking a bit of cash.
Choosing a place to have a beverage is pretty simple. If, like me, you can’t speak or read Japanese then it’s a roll of the dice—have a crack, they’re all pretty cool.
The Best Bars
If you do need some recommendations/are capable of finding these after a few sakes, you can check out the below.
- Asyl: A hidden gem among the hidden gems. Asyl has developed a bit of a cult following. Head up the stairs for plum liquor, spiced rum and some crackerjack whiskies.
- Kenzo’s Bar: You'll know you've found Kenzo's when you find the leopard print. It's everywhere in here. Kenzo is a legend too, just don't get him talking on 80s pop music...
- Bitter Orange: This one's right on the corner of Golden Gai. Very popular with the hip, young Tokyo crowd, they do some of the best cocktails in Shinjuku.
- Bistro Pavo: One of the few bars in Golden Gai that does a decent feed (despite the teeny, tiny size). Just ask for today's specials (the menu's in Japanese anyway).
- Zucca: Fans of Halloween will dig Zucca. There's a broad 'spooky' theme running through this bar (it means 'pumpkin in Italian). Very popular with the gals.
- Bar Darling: Another bar with a female-friendly atmosphere. There are 100+ drinks to try, and the fairy lights are a cute touch. Settle in for a long sesh.
To be honest though, going into Golden Gai with a plan is a bit like trying to plan an adventure. You're kind of missing the point.
Wait till 9pm, grab a mate and go exploring. That's the beauty of Golden Gai.
Need more Tokyo tips? Check out our guide to the best cafes in town.
Image credit: Ben Blennerhassett