Looking back at my week in Tokyo, Golden Gai had to be one of my favorite areas of the city. A tucked-away spot in Shinjuku, it’s a group of tiny bars in alleyways that harken back to traditional Japanese architecture. After spending two nights in Golden Gai, it secured a spot in my heart as a must-see in Tokyo!
I stayed in Shinjuku, so Golden Gai was just a short walk from my Airbnb. It’s in an area that is unassuming and seemed fairly residential, but the sudden abundance of neon lights and the sound of the muted bass give it away. Just six cramped alleys make up the “Golden District”, but they are filled with more bars than you would think! I arrived around 7 PM on a Monday for my first visit, and even at this off time there was plenty to do and see.
As I expected from online research, a few bars had signs out front asking for “Japanese speakers only”, or simply did not include English on their signage, which was a giveaway that they weren’t seeking business from foreigners. Others, meanwhile, had signs welcoming tourists and offering drink specials. Going with a group of five people did make it a bit more difficult to get around. With many of the bars only having five seats total, we were out of luck if there was even one patron. I’d recommend going in a group of just two or three, or even solo, to get the most out of the environment.
One thing that I quickly learned was to not just focus on the ground level. Behind every door, there was likely one or two more bars, above or below the street. The cramped staircases and dim lighting could be intimidating, but they led to some of the best bars that we found. Overall, I would say to go in with an open mind and a flexible plan. You can read about the top bars with quirky themes, but I had the most fun just walking in spots with open seating and chatting with the local bartenders or visitors.
The crowd is quite the mixed bunch! Earlier in the evening there are plenty of Japanese businessmen enjoying post-work drinks, but there are a fair amount of tourists sprinkled in too. Later in the night, I spotted a Jigsaw in drag (yes, from Saw), a few groups of expats, and a lot of musically-inclined locals. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and interested in chatting, and the close atmosphere really nurtures these conversations. As I mentioned in a previous post, one bartender even remembered us on our second visit! That type of interaction simply won’t happen at the larger bars or clubs. It felt like we were forming real global friendships and connections.
And lastly, the drinks were amazing! For the most part you could get a drink for somewhere between 500-700 yen, which is pretty reasonable and comparable to prices in the United States. I had fun asking the bartenders for recommendations since I am not familiar with Asian alcohol, and ended up having a wonderful homemade plum liqueur, an interesting yogurt soju, and of course some sake. While we did find one spot with food, don’t plan on filling up on a large meal here; it’s definitely a place made for drinking!
So if you journey to Tokyo, definitely dedicate a night or two to the lovely and bizarre Golden Gai. Make some fast friends, enjoy delicious drinks, and just take in this unusual arrangement in the heart of Tokyo.