Shinjuku, Tokyo, is known for skyscrapers, seedy nightlife, suited businessmen and a time-warped tumble of bars called Golden Gai. This perennial haunt of Tokyo’s salarymen has been getting a lot more international attention lately – and for good reason.

While the city offers an endless range of flashy, neon-drenched clubs, bars and lounges, arguably only in Golden Gai can you see vestiges of the Japanese capital’s postwar nightlife – down to earth, locally-minded and still wonderfully bizarre.

So, what exactly is Golden Gai?

Golden Gai (“Golden District”) is one of those rare places in Tokyo that, through some combination of luck and stubbornness, hasn’t been bulldozed and redeveloped. Instead, it’s just a couple of blocks packed with tiny, slightly ramshackle but buzzing bars.

The number of punters who can squeeze into each establishment ranges from about five to thirty, though most of them are on the smaller side. Each bar has its own hook, whether outlandish decor (from troll toys to hospital-themed uniforms), a signature drink or the promise of free, painfully off-key karaoke at all hours.

21 04 2014 via photopin (license)

What’s the etiquette?

Most of the bars accept visitors now, but some still only welcome regular customers – if there’s a price list or anything in English posted out front, you’re probably not about to cause an awkward scene. 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!”).

Which bars are worth visiting?

If you’re at all nervous about accidentally wandering into a frosty reception at a regulars-only bar, muster up some Dutch courage first at one of the better-known gaijin-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 makeshift rooftop terrace with a pretty impressive view of the lights 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.

21 04 2014 via photopin (license)

Zucca is a small, friendly bar with Halloween-themed decor (the name is Italian for pumpkin). The bar staff here not only know most customers who come in by name, but also their usual drink, the state of their health, and myriad other personal – and occasionally incriminating – 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, if you don’t mind knocking elbows a little – but it attracts some interesting characters. The bar owners had originally wanted it to be an S&M joint, hence the spiked and studded bras hanging on the wall, but couldn’t afford such specialised staff – so 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!”

Anywhere to eat nearby?

Plenty of places! Being bang in the middle of Tokyo, Golden Gai is within striking distance of world-class cuisine (the city currently has a record 12 three-Michelin-starred restaurants) and such only-in-Japan dining experiences as 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 you’ll definitely spot something among the dozens of tiny restaurants to take your fancy, and the atmosphere is always buzzing.

Omoide Yokocho via photopin (license)

Where can I stumble home to?

For a pleasing contrast, wander back from the ramshackle bars to the ultra-luxurious Park Hyatt of Lost in Translation fame.

A slightly more reasonable choice, though, might be an Airbnb; not only are they generally much more affordable than Shinjuku’s eye-wateringly expensive hotels, but you can stagger home in the wee hours without a risking judgemental looks from the concierge…

Pick of the bunch is the welcoming Keisui’s apartment, a stylish, small (it is Tokyo, after all) bolthole within ten minutes’ walk of Golden Gai. If you’re prepared to go slightly further afield you’ll find samurai-themed rooms, modernist Shibuya boltholes, and even a tiny home in Ginza’s famous, architecturally divisive seventies capsule tower, Nakagin.

What can I do nearby in daylight hours?

A hangover-friendly distance from Golden Gai is a lovely shrine, Hanazono-jinja, and similarly close is the skyscraper district around Shinjuku station, which includes Kenzō Tange’s iconic Metropolitan Government Building.

A short train journey away are the stylish triumvirate of Omotesandō, Harajuku and Shibuya, while a little beyond that is the actual centre of youth culture in Tokyo today, Shimokitazawa (apparently 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.

The nearest stations to Golden Gai are Shinjuku and Shinjuku-sanchōme. Walking east along Yasukuni-dōri from Shinjuku station (exit 4 is easiest), take the small, leafy lane just after Mister Donut and before Hanazono-jinja. For more information, visit the JNTO website, which has information on transport, itineraries, offers and more. Explore more of Japan with the Rough Guide to Japan. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.