Tokyo and the Shanty Bar Scene: Shinjuku’s Golden Gai
October 14, 2012

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As with most great places in Tokyo—it’s small, tucked away, and easily missed. Made up of six narrow passageways, Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is cramped with an almost illogical 200 bars and eateries. It comes with an interesting past as it was the post-war hub for the sex industry, black markets, and the yakuza. As one of the most fascinating areas to go drinking in Tokyo, it is filled with equally interesting clientele. In these intimate, venerable bars, the clientele is generally ultra-hip and artistic, with the occasional celebrity.

Some bars are members-only; you have to be introduced by an existing regular to be admitted. Others warmly take in everyone. Although the buildings appear to be ramshackle, don’t be surprised that prices are high. Most have a seating charge, varying from 300 to 1500 yen, which includes a small snack. A few bars provide English menus that cater to tourists but many do not.

I decided to try my luck at the Golden Gai. From the Shinjuku Station East Exit, it is relatively easy to find in Kabukicho. With its sealed doors and intimate spaces, it’s somewhat intimidating. But once you step inside one of the bars, it’s an experience you’ll be hard-pressed to find else where in Tokyo.

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A bar that stands out at Golden Gai is Bar Plastic Model. It’s stark white, but full of character. There are Rubik’s cubes and action figurines to play with. An impressive collection of vinyl was behind the counter. While sipping on red wine and eating the popcorn snack provided, the owner, Kei Sekine, asked if I had any song requests. I told him to pick his favorite and a perky 80s song began playing. There were five seats in the bar and the only other clientele was a well-known Japanese ramen reviewer. As the drinks continued to flow, we all relaxed and the music changed to old-school American and underground Japanese hip-hop. I challenged the owner to solve the well-worn Rubik’s cube and he did so within three minutes. At the end of the evening, the bill was presented and the ¥700 cover charge was left off.

It was an excellent ending to a memorable night.