Shinjuku is among the most popular places to visit in Tokyo. It is well-known as one of the best fashion hubs in the metro. However, Shinjuku can also offer visitors a great nightlife. One of the places in Shinjuku that should be visited by people who like to drink and have fun is Golden Gai. Aside from its offer of a great nightlife, Golden Gai is also known as a great place to appreciate architecture.
An Overview of Golden Gai and Shomben Yokocho (“Piss Alley”) Located at Shinjuku
Also known as “Piss Alley,” Golden Gai is a tiny area that consists of six alleyways that form a network. These alleyways are also connected to passageways that are so narrow that only a single person can pass through them. While most areas like these are known for the plethora of bars, pubs, and eateries, Golden Gai is also known as a place of architectural interest.
Golden Gai houses more than 200 shops composed of bars, clubs, and eateries. The six alleyways of Golden Gai are so narrow that a regular car would not even be able to pass through. These alleys are also equipped with poor lighting. However, visitors should not fear, as the area is safe even though it is dimly lit.
With an interest in architecture, a lot of people take photos of the area every single day. However, photo- and video-shooting is not allowed if these would be used for commercial purposes. Should they wish to do so, they would need to get the permission of the business promotion association of Golden Gai.
Every building in the area has a width of only a few feet. The spaces between each building are close to none. The bars in Golden Gai have eclectic advertisements featuring enigmatic logos and some sort of artwork. Each bar has its own vibe and feel to it that would make visitors want to enter and explore what is inside.
Every bar in Golden Gai also caters to a certain type of crowd. Many of these bars also only serve regular customers. In order to be able to wine and dine in these bars as a first-timer, one would have to be introduced by an existing regular of the bar. These bars are also commonly cramped, being able to fit only 5 or 6 clients at a given time. This is definitely not the place for people who like their personal space.
On the other hand, this is also what makes Golden Gai appealing to the public. The place is known as among the friendliest places in the metro. Golden Gai is a great place for people to socialize and meet new people. To know if a bar in Golden Gai also serves visitors, simply look out for display menus outside. Some of these bars also have English signs to attract foreigners.
Aside from regular people, a lot of Japanese celebrities also frequent Golden Gai. Even though Golden Gai is not really an attractive place to look at, even well-known people still like to hang out there. A small theater can also be found at a corner of the area. This theater primarily puts on shows under the comedy genre. Posted on the side wall outside of the auditorium are pictures that depict previous performances.
Visitors can check out any time of the day. However, it is best visited in the evening when the place gets packed with people and comes alive with noise and chatter. Most of the bars located in Golden Gai begin operation at 9 PM or 10 PM. If one would like to get some snacks at an earlier time prior to going to Golden Gai, one can opt to drop by Shomben Yokocho first. This yokocho is located near the west entrance of Shinjuku Station. Shomben Yokocho can literally be translated to “Piss Alley” in English.
Shomben Yokocho is somewhat similar to Golden Gai in terms of atmosphere. However, this yokocho also brims with eateries that sell traditional Japanese food. The food specialty in the area is barbecued chicken called yakitori in Japanese. This dish is best paired with a bottle or glass of beer.
Rules and Map of Golden Gai from Shinjuku Station
There are general rules or etiquette that apply in Golden Gai. These rules are especially strictly applied in the smaller bars. For one, it is important to be courteous to fellow customers. Should there be any disruptions caused by a customer, shop owners would not think twice of kicking him or her out. Any customer should not make another feel uncomfortable.
Each bar in Golden Gai also has its own set of rules that customer must abide by. Some of these bars incorporate seating charges, which is common in Golden Gai. Some even incorporate sleeping charges. Fret not as the staff usually warns customers about these charges beforehand. Hence, clients would not be caught off guard with these charges later on.
It is important to be discreet when in Golden Gai and try one’s best to follow the rules. Taking photographs is also prohibited in Golden Gai. Photos of people’s faces cannot be used without their permission, as mandated by law in Japan. Hence, think twice before posting any photos like these on social media accounts even if said accounts are strictly in private mode.
Look out for bars that post menus in English as well as price lists. These bars would be among those that welcome visitors. On the other hand, those that look discreet and private most likely only welcome regulars. Avoid entering these bars if not accompanied by a regular to prevent an awkward scene. It is important to smile in a polite manner when entering bars in Golden Gai as a form of greeting.
While most bars in Golden Gai ask for a cover charge, there are still a few others that allow visitors to enter for free. Physical proximity is to be expected in Golden Gai due to the cramped spaces and tight buildings. Nonetheless, patrons do not seem to mind this lack of personal space. In the end, most of them end up making new friends, especially after a glass or three of shochu.
Golden Gai can be easily accessed by the public. Simply ride the train going to Shinjuku Station. Upon reaching Shinjuku Station, take the east exit and walk towards Golden Gai, which is located just between the Hanazono Shrine and the Shinjuku City Office.
History of Golden Gai
At present, Shinjuku is known to have a pretty great skyline. However, back in the day, the majority of the buildings in the area were actually destroyed as a result of the war. Development boomed in the area following the Second World War, which resulted in the now-modern buildings in the area. However, the Golden Gai district did not adhere to this redevelopment and maintained its old-school vibes.
From the year 1945 to the year 1958, the Golden Gai was known as a red light district. It emerged as a black market area during the first reconstruction period after the Second World War ended. This area was known for prostitution at the time. Fortunately, this notion about Golden Gai stopped after the implementation of anti-prostitution laws in the country in the year 1958.
Slowly but surely, the establishments in Golden Gai changed and became bars and pubs. It was during this time that the area officially became known as the Golden Gai. During this development, there were three main types of bars in Golden Gai. One of these bars was called the bundan bar, which can be translated to “the bar of the literary world.”
These bundan bars would often get packed by visitors who are journalists and writers. While at the bundan bars, these customers would often have heated discussions on certain topics. Several famous novelists in Japan were also known to be regulars in these bundan bars. As a result, Golden Gai was also called “bunkajin no matchi” at the time, which could be translated to “the district of cultivated people.” Even artists and actors would frequently visit these bars.
The two other main types of bars in Golden Gai were the pottakuri bars and the joso bars. The pottakuri bars were basically the bars in Golden Gai that would charge over-the-top prices for covers and drinks. Hence, the pottakuri bars can also be called the rip-off bars. On the other hand, the joso bars were basically those that make their male bartenders dress up as women.
The value of lands in Shinjuku increased through the years. By the 1980s, more and more people started getting interested in the Golden Gai district and planned for its redevelopment. However, business owners in Golden Gai wanted to resist this idea, as they wanted to preserve the atmosphere and look of the district as it was. They wanted Golden Gai to remain a representative of the history in Shinjuku.
Many events occurred during this time that included arson and legal issues. Business owners of Golden Gai were also intimidated by outside forces that wish to redevelop the district. Fortunately, the business owners and locals of Golden Gai remained steadfast, brave, and resilient. As a result, they were able to preserve the quaintness and history of this beautiful district.
A Guide to the Best Bars and Food in Golden Gai
There are so many bars in the district to choose from. If one is a newbie in Golden Gai, try checking out Kenzo’s Bar. As the name suggests, this bar is own by a man named Kenzo. The man is a fan of leopard prints, as can be seen in the interior and exterior decorations of the bar. The themes incorporated in this bar include rock music, politics, and stage play.
Most of the customers in Kenzo’s Bar are foreigners. Kenzo is known for his friendliness and his customers are always interested in Kenzo’s “small talk.” He is open to first-time visitors and makes sure that the bar feels welcoming to these people. Try the beer and sake in Kenzo’s bar while listening to his stories.
For a female customer, head on over to Bar Darling. Owned by an actor of movies, theater plays, and shows, this bar is often visited by a number of personalities from the media. The establishment is friendly to female customers. It offers over 100 kinds of alcohols so one can try as many as one wants. Liqueur and single malt drinks can also be prepared for anyone who requests it.
For artists looking to find a bar with fancy interiors, check out Albatross. This bar has stunning crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, making the establishment look extravagant. Coupled with disco balls, lights and shadows are cast across the room. Another elaborate décor in the pub is the deer head hanging on the wall. People who like ornate decorations would definitely love this place.
Staying true to its artistic vibe, the second floor of Albatross features various art exhibits of pictures, illustrations, paintings, and many more. Art lovers would most certainly want to visit this place. Albatross is that establishment in Golden Gai where visitors can sip their drinks while enjoying the artistic views.
Another great establishment in Golden Gai is the Bitter Orange bar. As the name suggests, this bar is designed with an orange theme. This establishment is known to have very attractive servers who aspire to become actors one day. The place itself offers several kinds of alcoholic beverages ranging from sake and fruit wine to cocktails and beer. This selection was specially handpicked by the owner of the bar. The Bitter Orange bar is a great place for people to drink and relax in.
Of course, there are several other bars in Golden Gai that one can check out. Each bar has its own vibe that draws people in. It comes as no wonder why Golden Gai gets packed every single night. With a certain type of quaintness, Golden Gai is perfect for people who wish to unwind, have a few drinks, and chill.