Tokyo's Shinjuku district is known for its skyscrapers, salarymen and a time-warped tumble of drinking dens known as the Golden Gai bars. This perennial haunt of Tokyo’s suited businessmen has been growing in popularity with international visitors – and for good reason.
While the city offers an endless range of flashy, neon-drenched clubs, bars and lounges, only in Golden Gai can you see vestiges of the Japanese capital’s postwar nightlife. The vibe here is down to earth, locally minded and still wonderfully bizarre.
If this is your first time or you're not keen on going by yourself, consider joining a small group tour to Shinjuku, including the red-light district and of course the famous Golden Gai bars.
The Golden Gai district is a rare find in Tokyo. A place that, through some combination of luck and stubbornness, hasn’t been bulldozed and redeveloped. A couple of blocks square, it's packed with tiny, slightly ramshackle but buzzing bars.
The number of punters who can squeeze into each establishment ranges from about five to thirty. Each bar has its own hook, whether outlandish decor (from troll toys to hospital-themed uniforms), a signature drink or the promise of free karaoke at all hours.
Most of the bars accept visitors now, but some still only welcome regular customers. Check to see if there’s a price list or anything in English posted out front and you'll be good. Alternatively, just walk in, smile politely and see what reaction you get; chances are that if it’s a regulars-only bar you’ll be told there’s no room (empty seats or not).
Most of the bars have a cover charge, though a small number are free to enter. Sheer physical proximity means you may end up making friends with your neighbour – it’s amazing how quickly the language barrier disappears after a glass or three of shōchū.
Talking of the language barrier, if you’re up to it then a bit of basic vocab will definitely be well-received. “O-susume” is “recommendation” – a surefire way to make a new friend. The simple but polite way to order is “[drink] o kudasai”. Finally, most vitally of all, be sure to make judicious use of “oishii” or “umai” (“delicious”) and, of course, “kanpai!” (“cheers!”).
If you’re nervous about accidentally wandering into a regulars-only bar, start at one of the better-known gaijin (foreigner) friendly establishments.
Arriving via Yasukuni-dōri, the first bar you’ll reach is Champion. It’s large and has no cover charge, but the karaoke might put you off your drinks. Another popular choice is the plush Albatross, which has a rooftop terrace with impressive views of Tokyo.
To really get a feel for Golden Gai, though, you need to head away from these larger bars and start peeking up staircases and through doorways to see what takes your fancy.
Zucca is a small, friendly bar with Halloween-themed decor (the name means pumpkin in Italian). The bar staff here not only greet most customers by name, but also know their usual drink, the state of their health, and myriad other personal details, presumably divulged after a few glasses.
Another standout is Blue Square, on the edges of Golden Gai up a staircase marked by a small blue sign in the shape of a circle. It’s tiny – four can sit at the bar – but it attracts some interesting characters. The bar owners had originally planned an S&M joint, hence the spiked and studded bras hanging on the wall, but couldn’t afford such specialised staff. They ended up with a regular bartender from Osaka! In classic outspoken Osakan style though, she says "Don't go asking me for a spanking, I'm definitely not paid enough for that!"
For a true Lost in Translation experience book a room at the ultra-luxurious Park Hyatt in Shinjuku.
Budget travellers would do well to book in at Kadoya, a clean and efficient business hotel with a fun bar in the basement.
Located in the heart of Tokyo, Golden Gai is within striking distance of world-class cuisine. The city currently has a record 12 three-Michelin-starred restaurants as well as only-in-Japan dining experiences like the Robot Restaurant.
A more affordable and very fun option, though, is to wander in nearby 'Piss Alley' – a colourful but entirely inaccurate translation of the Japanese name, Omoide Yokochō (more literally “memory lane”). The name may not be appealing but trust us. You’ll definitely spot something among the dozens of tiny restaurants to take your fancy, and the atmosphere is always buzzing.
A hangover-friendly distance from Golden Gai is a lovely shrine, Hanazono-jinja. Similarly close is the skyscraper district around Shinjuku station, which includes Kenzō Tange’s iconic Metropolitan Government Building.
A short train journey away is the stylish triumvirate of Omotesandō, Harajuku and Shibuya. A little beyond that is the centre of youth culture in Tokyo today, Shimokitazawa (once voted the coolest neighbourhood in the world).
For something a little more sedate take a short hop to the Imperial Palace gardens for visits to museums and galleries, strolls through leafy grounds and ample opportunities to rest in the shade of a tree when your headache reasserts itself.
You should be recovered by evening, though, in time to head back and try more of the tiny, bizarre bars in Golden Gai in a futile effort to pick your favourite and become, even if only for a week or two, one of the esteemed regulars.