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Just about every visitor to Japan searches for that stereotypical traditional atmosphere where they can sit and breath in the “real” Japan. The truth is that this “real” Japan is fading fast, and has been relegated to the shadows and corners of mainstream Japan. One place that still pulses with the traditional back alley street culture can be founded tucked into a corner of Shinjuku Tokyo’s red light district, Kabuki-cho.

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Drinking in Golden Gai

Golden Gai in Shijuku TokyoGolden Gai is a small city block east of Shinjuku station made up of over 200 shacks, formerly brothels. The area consists of just 6 narrow alleys with even smaller passageways connecting everything. This atmospheric drinking area is renowned for the artists, actors and directors that frequent each nomiya (bar). Each small bar is big enough to fit a counter, stools and between six and fifteen patrons. The seedy image of Kabukicho, with its strip clubs, massage parlors, and breast bars (yes, you can suck on the breasts of waitresses and try not to think about the last guy doing the same) keeps all but the most knowledgeable/adventurous visitor from discovering this oasis of small town Japan in the heart of one of the world’s largest metropolises. Each bar typically has a theme and caters to a slightly different crowd with the dimly lit streets and shanty-like building preserving one of the last areas of Tokyo not to be redeveloped.

In fact, despite a career of living in and passing through many of the seedier places on earth, I had yet to fully explore Golden Gai, assuming it was dangerous and controlled by the Yakuza. It turns out it’s anything but dangerous, but still has a grit to it that ensures you’ll walk away with a memorable night.

Finding the Right Fit in Golden Gai

Finding the right bar can be challenging in the labyrinth like streets but is also part of the fun as you try to find the right atmosphere for you. My friends and I found our way to a typical bar with a Portuguese theme. Each time a patron made a move towards the restroom everyone had to stand and press against the bar counter. Portuguese Port (where else could it be from) was the house specialty, along with three cute bartenders who just managed to fit behind the bar together, ready to keep the conversations going and the single customers engaged and feeling welcome.

Small bar in Shinjuku's Golden GaiThe bartender closest to me started working in the area a few months ago, moonlighting after her regular job as a theater actress for historical dramas ended. She figured she got around 3 hours of sleep a night and saw her French boyfriend even less. Next to me sat an architect who taught at a famous University nearby, next to him a women half his age hung on his elbow. Down the bar one man was too drunk to engage in conversation and the next was a political correspondent for Japan’s national news service NHK.

As three young Australian’s entered the bartender leaned close and said more and more tourists were stopping by as the area became fashionable in guidebooks and as the area cleaned up its seedy image. I guess I wasn’t a tourist as we were speaking Japanese ;)

Golden Gai Etiquette

Most bars are welcoming to visitors and happy for you to share their night. However, remember that many of these bars are filled every night with regular customers and taking their seats can cause a bit of an issue. Bartenders are generally good about letting you know if you are welcome or not. Just ask if it’s OK to sit down when you first enter. If they say no, don’t take offense or think it’s because your a foreigner. Most likely the seats left are for regulars. Say thank you and move on down the street, with 200 holes in the wall you’ll find someplace to call home for the evening.

The Curse of a Popular Traditional Area

It’s difficult to know exactly what Golden Gai is any longer. It is a remnant of a bygone era, the playground of the rich and famous, a bohemian wonderland in a stifling city, or a tourist cliche recommended by every guidebook and their grandmother. Yes, I realize the irony of posting this article!

The truth is bound to be different for everyone, on a different night in the Gai, and upon stumbling into different bars. Golden Gai sums up the Japanese experience better than just about anywhere else. It is a place with enough personalities to be different for each visitor, allowing you to interact superficially or to find a home amongst those of similar hearts. If you want to get pissed and walk away with a story, that’s fine too, the bars are happy to take your seating charge (usually between 800-1,000 yen).

Whatever Golden Gai is or isn’t, it is definitely unique. It’s a place that you should walk into with an open mind and not in search of the exact atmosphere, story, or experience related in a guidebook or travel blog. It’s one of those amazing places where the story writes itself and all you need to do is keep flipping the pages (buy more drinks).

Map How to Get To Golden Gai:

The entire Golden Gai is situated on one block just 5 minutes walk from Shinjuku East Exit-  1-1-8 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku


View Shinjuku’s Golden Gai Drinking Area in a larger map

Do you have a favorite place to drink in Tokyo? Share it with us in the comments below.

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12 Responses to “Drinking in the Back Alleys of Shinjuku Golden Gai”

  1. I love the little back alleys that most big cities have. You can find some real gems down them :)

    Japan Australia

  2. When I travel, I always love to find places like this that aren’t as tourist-y and really show the culture of the locals… Granted, I *am* a tourist myself, but I try not to act like one. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    -Heidi

  3. Hi Todd. Curious about your comment about a seating charge – you mean you have to pay just to sit down in one of these places? And what would 800-1,000 yen equate to in U.S. dollars? Fascinating article.

    • DavidNo Gravatar says:

      I’m not too familiar with the seating charge thing, but know that in most of these types of bars in Japan, customers are regular, they have their seat, their spot, etc. So maybe it’s also because they pay for that spot. I’m sure Todd will explain in more details.

      Concerning the rate it’s about 10-13 USD.

      • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

        Seating charges are actually quite normal and widespread in Japan. They are usually associated with a small appetizer that comes at the beginning when you sit down. This i usually not much, and definitely does not cover the price of the seating charge but is the system here. No one tips so this might be a way to recover some of staff costs. In the bar I went to I got a very very small plate of sun dried tomatoes and cheese and crackers ;)

        Many visitors, and foreign residents get upset by this seating charge, while Japanese hardly even think about it. It is quite like the tipping culture in the US where we just accept it as a part of the system (a bad system by the way) but Europeans are shocked by it.

        • DavidNo Gravatar says:

          “Europeans are shocked by it”

          I concur.

          • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

            Hmmm, just like the French to bash America without even looking into history :) As it turns out the tipping culture in the US was adopted from France. We American’s thought it was cool a hundred years ago and took it on. Unfortunately, we dived into the deep end of the pool, while everyone else back in Europe ended the practice before it got out of hand. Just another failure of our “deregulation” that puts the burden on workers rather than owners of businesses. Life would be a lot easier if the price included everything, service, food, mood lighting :)

  4. why do you think the bars there are themed? are there any traditional Japanese bars to drink at in goden gai?

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hey Mack, well I think themed bars are actually the norm in Japan. They do not necessarily have to be themed in a way that is not about Japan. A lot of the bars in the areas are really just shot bars, but might have some kind of theme that binds the visitors together. In Japan being a part of a bar is being a part of a group, and this is something the Japanese take very seriously. Themes can be as simple as: a different wine special each night, and as elaborate as a star wars bar I once went to :)

  5. C OharaNo Gravatar says:

    Next time I’m in Tokyo I’m checking this place out!!

  6. Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks David. Yeah, I have missed this area a few times on my excursions into Kabuki-cho and it is amazing one you know where it is. I find all the touts in Kabukicho to be a huge nuisance and I really wonder who in their right mind would trust them :)

    As for the “real” Japan, I used quotations because the “real” is often what people fantasize in their minds and build Japan up to be. It is such a diverse country with so many different experiences. But that being said there is something for everyone. And you know me, I LOVE the Japanese country side. The sad irony of my life is that I married a girl from Tokyo :) Nothing left to do but find all the wonderful things in Tokyo as well…I guess.

  7. DavidNo Gravatar says:

    Todd, thanks once again for such a great blog post. Seriously, I feel that you’re one of the few left that still can blog about things to do in Tokyo without falling into all the stupid clichés. Although, dare I correct one of your first sentences? “The truth is that this “real” Japan is fading fast” and add “in Tokyo” at the end of it (cause I find “real” Japan anywhere else in the country real easy to find ;-) ). But you’re right, everyone has their own definition of what “real Japan” is (mine in “Not Tokyo”).

    That being said, I can’t agree more with “you should walk into with an open mind and not in search of the exact atmosphere, story, or experience related in a guidebook or travel blog.”
    My advice to any traveler anywhere in the world? Buy a guidebook before going, but make sure you leave it at home when you finally go.

    Finally (yes, I love long comments) a personal anecdote: “Gosh! When I was in Tokyo last year, I was a block away from this area – now that I see it on the map – and I feel that we walked all around it, except in it – we ended up in shady Kabukicho instead”.

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