Updated: Sep 25, 2021
Drink in tiny bars that retain their 1950s Tokyo atmosphere.
Golden Gai, in the Shinjuku district, is known for its history and nightlife, with more than 200 small bars, clubs and eateries squeezed into six narrow alleys that have remained largely untouched for the past 70 years.
The small, yet historic, drinking hub covers a tiny piece of land next to the bustling entertainment area of Kabukicho. While the surrounding buildings are mostly high-rise and modern, Golden Gai is made up of older two-storey structures built extremely close to each other.
The alleys are dimly lit and filled with old-style red Japanese lanterns hanging outside the businesses. Between the alleys are even narrower passageways, perhaps wide enough to allow one person to pass. The resulting atmosphere is of a Tokyo of yesteryear.
Golden Gai operated as a red-light district before prostitution became illegal in 1958. It was then developed into a drinking area; some of the bars operating today are able to trace their origins back to those early days.
In the 1980s, as the surrounding districts saw rapid modernisation, the area came under pressure from developers desperate to buy the land. Arson attacks were carried out in an attempt to force bar owners into selling. But the introduction of nightly guards to protect the bars and the support of loyal customers allowed Golden Gai to continue in its present form.
Today, the area has developed into a place for musicians, artists, directors, writers, academics and actors, including many celebrities. Many bars have a particular theme such as jazz, punk rock, horse racing or films, which is reflected in their décor, customer base and music. There is even a tiny theatre that puts on comedy shows.
Where and when to go
Golden Gai is a popular tourist attraction as it’s a place to experience Tokyo’s intimate drinking culture. It can get busy as most establishments have room for only up to 10 guests, sometimes fewer, so weekdays can be a quieter time than weekends.
Many bars welcome overseas guests and offer menus in English. However, there are a few bars that are only for regulars who have been introduced by an existing patron.
The area comes alive around 9–10 pm when most of the bars open. It’s a good idea to keep a look out for bars on the second floor of the buildings as you can find some hidden treasures there. Please be careful on the steep stairs when exiting one of these second-floor bars and be mindful that many bars have a cover charge.
How to get there
Golden Gai is just a few minutes’ walk from the east exit of Shinjuku Station. A large neon banner hangs over the alley that leads to it.