Nestled down a narrow alleyway in the middle of the glitz of Shinjuku, you can encounter a strange nature walkway that stretches off for a block or so. This nature-lined parkway turns out to be a simple buffer between old and new lines of buildings.
From this point, you can look right/continuing straight from the side street you entered on and you see the entrance to another little set of alleyways. Congratulations – you just entered Golden Gai.
Past the giant Jim Beam building, you’ll find the network of tiny bars and alleyways called Golden Gai. This map should give you an idea of what Golden Gai is about…
As you can see on the overhead map on the left, it’s a collection of very tiny buildings penned in by modern skyscrapers. The map on the right gives you an idea of how compact it is. In an area only the size of a small city block, almost 300 bars are squeezed in side by side. If you thought that Piss Alley had tiny little restaurants – this is even more impressive with 5 full alleyways of tiny drinking establishments.
History of Golden Gai
As before, knowing the history behind this place makes it even more impressive. Golden Gai is only a few blocks from Piss Alley, so it’s no surprise they share much of the same history. The area now known as Golden Gai (only a few short blocks away) was also left in ruins after the bombing raids of WWII. While Piss Alley was known for its food and necessity shops, this particular area was known for rampant prostitution until it became illegal in 1958. It then turned into a bar and drinking area – and some of the bars can still trace their origins back to the 1960’s. In the 1980’s, many of these ramshackle areas around Golden Gai were burned down by the Yakuza so they could be bought up by developers during the development boom of the 80’s. This area survived because supporters would take turns each night standing guard.
Like Piss Alley, this place is architecturally important because it gives you a window into the relatively recent past of Tokyo. Large sections of Tokyo used to apparently resembled the present-day version of this district. Namely, extremely narrow lanes and tiny two-story buildings all scrunched together. Today, most of these buildings still have a bar downstairs with very narrow and tiny stairs up to a second floor. Some bars have this second floor open to patrons, some are private drinking rooms, others preserve them as flats.
Many of these bars are so small that they can only hold 5 or so patrons. Some establishments only welcome regular customers or after introduced by an existing patron. Others are more open and welcome new customers and foreigners. It’s important to be very respectful of this fact and only come into places that seem to be welcoming. The best way is to very politely smile, poke your head in, and maybe hold up a finger or two for how many people in your party while the rest of your party wait quietly outside. You will be politely declined if you should not come in; or you may be warmly welcomed. You never know – so be very polite, learn how to say a few words of Japanese, don’t be an ugly tourist, and take a chance. In many ways, some of these places are like a friend’s house-bar-lounge – so treat it as such.
While the area looks somewhat ramshackle, it’s apparently a sighting spot for famous people. The area caters to musicians, designers, and artists. While it may look run down, it’s actually a somewhat upscale price point – so you don’t see low-brow drunks here.
Overall, the area is laid out roughly like a grid. Each of the tiny alleyways is flanked by buildings that look roughly like this end-cap on the left/middle pictures. The left building appears to have been recently built, but is very architecturally much like the rest of the area. The rows are about 2-3 stories tall and only a few dozen feet wide. Even more impressive is to keep in mind that there are shops on the left AND right (front and back) of each of these buildings. In America, this entire building depth would barely be big enough for 1 apartment. Here a building this size is two-sided with full bars/living spaces back-to-back facing away from each other.
If you thought the front-to-back size of buildings is tiny, wait till you see the side-to-side spacing.
This is a really good example of how tightly things are packed side-by-side all up and down the alleyways. Each of these entrances is another bar. That’s right, they’re packed in this tight to each other.
Many of the bars are themed – such as this Texas chainsaw massacre, Hajime no Ippo, an 80’s style Miami Vice-style bar, and many others. I wished I’d had been able to get photos of them all – but one could easily have spent days here.
Sadly, these were the only two pictures I snapped. There was NO way you were going to pull a big DSLR out of a bag and shoot in such an intimate environment and likely get you thrown out. The website has better pictures of this absolutely funky interior.
This was one bar that I really wanted to spend a night at – Albatross. I had heard and read about this bar, so had to check it out. I had dropped in the night before and done some drinking, but came back on Friday as they had given out cards indicating they were having their 8th anniversary celebration. I dropped in at the beginning of their night (around 10pm) and brought some of my Florsheim animal donuts. This quickly made me a lot of friends with my donuts and managed to score a special anniversary t-shirt they were giving out.
The bar is extremely tiny with access to both floors. There is only room for about 5-7 people on each floor. The first night I drank on the second floor due to the first floor being full. Each floor of the bar was probably 15 feet deep and about 6-8 feet wide. There were gigantic, awesome chandeliers hanging over the bar, and a stuffed deer head as well. It was kind of a funky take on an English manor house or something similar. The patrons were all very sociable and I struck up broken conversations both nights. Even if you cannot speak the language, a phone full of photos does wonders to breaking down barriers. Be sure to load up your phone with pictures of home as a great icebreaker. 🙂
While I was there enjoying my drinks the second night, I happen to met two expats who were hanging out there. Just as we got to talking, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake starts rocking the building. It was a fairly good rolling earthquake that rocked the building for a good 30 seconds. The bartender simply reaches up and holds the chandelier while continuing to poor drinks, the locals barely even look up. While not interesting, it was on the larger side than usual according to the locals.
I end up drinking and talking with the ex-pats for many hours. They were American friends working as English teachers in small towns surrounding Tokyo. They had come into the city to enjoy a night of drinking and catching up. They shared all kinds of interesting social tidbits about Japanese culture. The most interesting parts were certainly when we talked about Japanese dating. We get to just about midnight when we realize we gotta get going if we’re going to hit the last trains. One of the ex-pats also was craving Burger King – so off we ran so we could get a bite and catch the last train. The other ex-pat had a local girlfriend and was staying with her.
Drinking in Japan
As we got our final bites to eat and headed to the train station, that’s when I learned all about drinking in Japan. As we made our way to the train station, huge HUGE crowds of people were flocking there as well. Some of them near sprinting. Many were drunk – but in a funny, happy drunk way. I didn’t see any ‘ugly’ drunks. Most of these people were dressed as they likely were all day: suits/suitcases/ties/business skirts/etc. More likely than not, they had left work and had been drinking the whole time. Most people were only a little tipsy, but some were falling down drunk.
Most people traveled in groups of friends laughing and helping their more inebriated friends. As I waited for my train, there was a guy two over from me that was so drunk he was barely remaining upright. Every so often he’d nod off and completely fall on someone near him in line waiting of the train. People would just shoulder him back up with nary a second look. Nobody got angry or beyond just a mildly annoyed look if he really plowed into someone. As the train came, it was obvious that it was going to be a tight fit. No, it simply was going to be madness.
More random pictures of Golden Gai