Let's Start With A Short History Of The Unique Tokyo District
Golden Gai (ゴールデン街), which translates to "golden block" is an area of Shinjuku that has approximately 200 bars, pubs and eateries concentrated on six small back alleys called yokocho (横町) alleys. To fully appreciate the area, we believe it's essential to be aware of some of its history.
It may be hard to imagine looking at the current skyline of Shinjuku, but 90 percent of the buildings surrounding the Shinjuku Station were destroyed during the war. The Golden Gai district is famous for having resisted the post World War II development boom - a period widely referred to as "the Japanese economic miracle".
Red Light District (1945-1958)
The area first emerged from the initial chaotic reconstruction period immediately following WW2 as black market area, well-known for prostitution until Japan's anti-prostitution laws of 1958.
From the 1960s, the shady establishments of the district were gradually converted into bars, and only then did it become known as the Golden Gai. Broadly speaking, three types of bars became the fabric of the area. One of them was called the bundan bar (文壇バー) which means "bar of the literary world". Writers and Journalist would gather at the bundan bars and have heated discussions and scuffles. Many famous Japanese novelists were known to be frequent visitors. Golden Gai became known as "bunkajin no matchi" (文化人の街), which means the district of cultivated people. Many actors and people from the art world also visited these bundan bars.
The two other types of bars were the joso (女装) bars, a type of bar in which the male bartender wears female clothing, and the pottakuri (ポッタクリ) bars, which translates to ripoff bars for their excessive cover charges and drink prices.
Place Of Resistance And Turmoil (1980s)
The economic miracle reached its pinnacle during the 1980s. By this time, the land value of Shinjuku had become astronomical and many land sharks were eyeing the district for redevelopment. This created intense friction between business owners of Shinjuku Golden Gai who wanted to preserve the quaintness of the historic district and land developers who wanted to virtually destroy everything to rebuild an area similar to its modern surroundings.
A movement of resistance really catalyzed when a suspicious fire burned down parts of the area in 1986. Yakuzas were thought to have been involved in the shady incident. Because of an impending sense of crisis, an association was created to protect the area and resist the acts of intimidation. The association took legal actions to validate the legal rights of the business owners of Golden Gai. Other acts of arson occurred thereafter, and locals whose businesses had been burned partially or entirely showed extreme resilience by continuing to serve drinks on the burnt remains of their store, keeping their alcohol in a refrigerator and placing chairs around it for customers. Golden Gai was preserved thanks to the devotion of such brave people.
Present Day Golden Gai
Golden Gai went through some dark days but now the area has a nearly full occupancy rate. Some bars can be traced back to the 1960s but many others are run by owners that were not part of the resistance mentioned above. Still, the area has kept its distinct character and quaintness. Most bars are the size of 3 or 4.5 tatami mats, enough for five or six people to enjoy a drink at the counter. Present-day Golden Gai has become an extremely popular tourist spot. For good reasons, people want to experience the atmosphere of this unique district.
Experience That "Showa Retro" Feeling
What you will experience in Golden Gai is something that is becoming rare in Japan. Let's describe it as the "Showa retro" vibe. Strictly speaking, the Showa Era refers to the period from 1926 to 1989 during which Japan was under the reign of the Showa Emperor Hirohito. But to the Japanese, "Showa retro" (昭和レトロ) has a special connotation. It's a term that evokes a sense of nostalgia and yearning for an intriguing past. Seen today through the eyes of the younger generations, this past is a mix of traditional and western aesthetics mixed with a certain amount of charming bad taste.
Walking through the streets of Golden Gai, you should feel that Showa retro vibe. The area is like a time warp. You will see an abundance of power lines crisscrossing the sky of the yokocho, but unlike other places where they deteriorate the scenery, they actually enhance it because they fit perfectly with the overall ramshackle spirit of the area.
You should be also charmed by the small streets. The main streets of Shinjuku were rebuilt much wider after WW2 to allow motor vehicle traffic, but the streets of Golden Gai were kept their original size. What's more, the passages linking the alleys are even tinier. Only one person can go through at a time.
Most buildings are only two-stories high with a different bar or eatery on the first and second floor. The tiny establishments are barely two meters wide so customers have to squeeze in at the counter. The close proximity people have makes it easy to start up a conversation with the other customers.
Where To Go
One thing about Golden Gai you have to be aware of is that some bars only accept regular customers (you can go there only if someone introduces it to you). This is a fairly common practice in Japan. We've mentioned previously that the bars of Golden Gai became famous gathering places for intellectuals and the arts community. To a certain degree, this is still true today so some bars are very selective about who they allow as customers.
If some are very exclusive, others are very welcoming to foreign visitors, allowing them to enter without even paying a cover charge - charging a ¥500 cover charge or more is pretty standard in Golden Gai. Drinks are about $1000. Although the area looks a bit rundown compared to the chic bars of other parts of Shinjuku, Golden Gai is by no means a cheap place to drink.
The best way to enjoy Golden Gai is to go inside whatever bar tickles your fancy. Establishments that are foreigner-friendly tend to have some English on their signs. If you're not sure if it's a members-only bar, peak in and ask politely. You should know instantly by the reaction of the bartender whether you can understand Japanese or not.
Once you've found a place, if you're looking for a special drink that fits with the spirit of the place, then it might be a good idea to go for something traditional such as shochu (Japanese spirit), sake, or Japanese whiskey. Don't hesitate to ask for recommendations by saying "osusume kudasai".
Aside from the alcoholics drinks, you can usually order tsumami (snacks to eat with drinks) and sometimes main dishes. The friendly owners often take pride in their homemade tsunami menu. Don't be surprised if a bartender pulls out a stew from behind the counter and offers some of it to you.
Some places serve hearty meals such as ramen or curry too!
Ramen Nagi (Bonus Info)
Lastly, Golden Gai is not just about bars, there are some very good food joints, too. The most iconic one is perhaps Nagi Ramen. It has one of the best fish broth soup in the country according to many ramen junkies. Their secret is that they use 20 kinds of dried fish to make it! So if you've worked up an appetite, Nagi Ramen is definitely worth the go.
Golden Gai is a short distance walk from JR Shinjuku Station's East Exit. The area is next to the Hanazono Shrine. It is also easily accessible from Tokyo Metro's Shinjuku Sanchome Station. Look for the emblematic gate shown above.
Address: 1-Chome, Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
On weekdays and Saturday, the area's businesses are usually open from 5:30 PM to 5 AM. On Sunday only, the usual hours are 8 PM to 12 midnight.
For other guides about the back alleys of Tokyo, please check out the links below.