Golden Gai is packed with over 200 bars, many of which can only take in five people at a time. These bars appear so dilapidated that a gentle shake could crumble the whole area like a house of cards.
The colours so melancholic, so intense, it’s difficult to tell whether they are real or I’ve just walked into Bernardo Bertolucci’s mise-en-scène.
Bars crammed against bars like crooked teeth awaiting to be straightened; air filled with the smell of sake and grilled squid, only slightly diluted by the winter chill.
Laughter seeping out of passageways so narrow that only one person can pass at a time; cables roaming wildly over the open headspace like vines crawling a pergola.
So this is Golden Gai, I thought. It is half past nine and the cozy warren is just about to open its eyes – another ordinary night for Tokyo’s historic bar quarter.
It is quite possible to get a glimpse of 1960s Shinjuku by walking the alleys of Golden Gai. Immediately after World War II, this area was known for prostitution and a vibrant black market. In the 60s, it morphed into a drinking district attracting the preeminent creatives of the time. Since then, its appearance has pretty much stayed the same.
Golden Gai has been able to dodge the wrecking ball because of its diffused ownership and their determined resistance against development proposals. The collapse of Japanese asset bubble in 1991 also eased pressure to redevelop.
Each bar is different to the next. Some feature intriguing decors, like hospital- or Flamenco-themed room. Others showcase owners’ collections, like French New Wave cinema or Nintendo games.
While its facade remains run-down, its list of affluent customers is anything but. To many, it is a sanctuary amidst the sterile formation of postmodern Tokyo. To others, it is a place to be avoided.
This notoriety lies in the fact that Golden Gai does not market itself as a tourist spot and has no interest in doing so. In an effort to deter the culturally insensitive, many even go a step further and serve only regulars and those referred by customers.
And that is a good, for it is what keeps this place true to itself after so many decades. Many will attest, this place can be just as welcoming for those, tourist or not, who come with an open mind and respect.
Each bar is considerably different to the next. Some feature themed decors, like hospital or Flamenco bar room. Others showcase owners’ collections, like French New Wave cinema or Nintendo video games. All carry their own signature otōshi (a mysterious, compulsory appetizer served along with beer). They are truly the extension of their owners’ personality.
Walking into one of those nomiya requires a certain amount of courage. It is like gatecrashing a stranger’s living room party. It is that small, that intimate. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am with an insider, so the transition is smooth and pleasant.
Still, upon entrance, the spotlight is on us as we exchange pleasantries with those already in the bar. We greeted the bartender. The person next to us is a unagi merchant and has been doing business in Michigan for some time. He treats us with a glass of shōchū as we share our thoughts on cultural differences. And the Detroit Tigers.
I shift my attention to the decor. The shelves carry a collection of R&B records and on the wall hangs the poster of a boxing match. At the corner lies a set of bongos. The owner is an avid R&B listener, but is not here at the bar today, explains the merchant, who is also a regular.
As the conversation comes to a lull, we say our goodbyes and bar-hop to another nomiya nearby. Upon entry, the bartender asks whether we could speak Japanese, implying that without it, there would be no room for us. Thanks to my insider friend, we are able to join the party undeterred. It is time to have some fun.
Thinking back as I write this, the night takes on a surreal quality. It is the feeling of vulnerability – of me at the mercy of a ritual I have no control over.
A few more rounds and the neon begins to diffuse. Laughter fills the room as language barriers dissolve. Not that I’d understand more of what she is saying. She talks in her language, a mix of Japanese and Johnnie Walkerian, while I laugh in mine. Accompanied by troll dolls, umaibō, and Ennio Morricone’s works, it is indeed a strange context to get drunk at.
As I indulge in this eccentric occasion, the bartender turns over to the microwave behind, reaches in, and takes out a few plastic-wrapped duck toys. I was confused.
Thinking back as I write this, the night takes on a surreal quality. It is the feeling of vulnerability – of me at the mercy of a ritual I have no control over. It is the bonding between strangers whose lives, lacking a common language and culture, just so happen to cross path on that particular night. It is the uncertainty of the plot, the timelessness of the place, and the ephemerality of the night. And of course, the drinking part.
So this is the allure of Golden Gai – a place where boundaries dissolve as one stranger bonds with another in a city of 37 million people. As for advice regarding a visit to Golden Gai, the only five words that matter: when in doubt, go in.