Japanese bars prove size really doesn’t matter

WOVEN between the gleaming high-rise buildings in Tokyo is a hidden network of six narrow streets, home to 200 bars and heaps of history.

The area is known as Golden Gai and each bar lining the narrow lanes have a three to nine-person capacity, 10 at a very cozy push.

This tiny pocket of historical Japanese architecture miraculously survived the devastating 1923 earthquake, World War Two raids, and a volatile period in the 1980s when the yakuza burned down Tokyo properties to sell the land to developers.

Golden Gai remains one of the only glimpses of what Tokyo looked like before the city became the global metropolis of glass and steel.

While Golden Gai juxtaposes its neighboring district of Shinjuku, known for 24-hour entertainment including arcades and karaoke venues, you can easily forget you’re in one of the busiest capitals in the world while you’re nestled in one of the bars.

The ramshackle appearance of the tiny two-story bars is matched with an initial sense of seediness. This atmosphere is understandable given that until 1958, Golden Gai was Tokyo’s red-light district.

Yet, this perception is soon replaced with a feeling of intrigue, one that makes you want to peek inside each unique venue.

Golden Gai
Source: Holly Patrick.

You can let your curiosity take hold but only in some bars as many are members only venues, and becoming a member of any bar in Golden Gai is tricky business.

To gain membership you must be living locally and invited along to a bar by an existing member, much like private clubs in London’s Soho.

But you’d have to try really hard to “accidentally” stumble into a private bar as they keep their doors shut even when they’re open. They’re also dimly lit and often have a sign reading “Members Only.”

Regardless of the exclusive venues dotted along Golden Gai’s streets, the area is considered one of the warmest and friendliest places in Tokyo

The venues willing tourists to come in will have their doors wide open, with eclectic playlists blaring through the tiny windows and scenes of chatting patrons.

Golden Gai
Source: Holly Patrick.

Touristy bars often have a price list of drinks attached to the doors. Often, the prices are fixed for beer, with whiskey, sake and other spirits varying in price.

Golden Gai is upfront about who can drink where and how much the privilege will cost, but sometimes bars won’t tell you about a sneaky little thing called a cover charge.

This pesky fee is charged for the privilege of being in the bar and usually applied to each person.

Many bars display their fee outside but some don’t even have one. The best way to ensure you don’t get lumbered with an unexpected JYP2,000 addition to your bill is by asking.

Golden Gai
Source: Holly Patrick.

While it’s well worth paying this charge to experience Golden Gai, it’s advisable to take a stroll through every street before you decide on where to settle as each bar has its own quirks.

Some are dedicated to old films and plaster posters on their limited wall space. Others display the world’s currency with endearing notes from the donor written on every bill, while others cram every available space with different whiskeys and sake.

And of course, there are a few karaoke venues but don’t expect a big audience in a bar big enough for six people.

Golden Gai
Source: Holly Patrick.

There aren’t many rules in Golden Gai and each bar varies in serving style. Some will pack in as many people as possible, pump up the music, and encourage you to boogie.

Others stick to chilled playlists and turn people away when the bar is full.

Don’t be afraid to venture up the super steep and narrow staircases either. If the staircase is visible from the street, you’re welcome in and often they lead to the best bars of all.

Like “Not Suspicious”, a very suspicious looking bar, run by a Japanese monk who insists you draw with pastels as your drink.

You’re then encouraged to tape your creations to the wall, like thousands have done before you. By doing so, a little bit of you will be in Tokyo forever.

Golden Gai
Source: Holly Patrick.

There’s undoubtedly a bar to suit everyone in Golden Gai and with any luck, you’ll run into someone famous in one of them.

Golden Gai is famed for attracting celebrities, artists, musicians and actors. Because the rest of Tokyo is pristinely clean, organized and efficient, a lot its residents, including big names, are attracted to the chaos and unpredictability of Golden Gai.

The area’s reputation is reflected in the drink prices which are much higher than in the rest of Tokyo. A bottle of beer in Golden Gai will cost you anywhere between JPY700 (US$6.20) and JPY1,100 (US$10)

But again, it’s totally worth it for the unusual experience.

If you’re adding Golden Gai to your must-see list as you’re reading this, note down not to head there before 8pm on any night.

While Golden Gai’s rabbit-warren-like architecture is impressive to see by day, none of the bars open until late in the evening and some bars don’t even open until gone midnight.

However, the nearby and equally as eccentric Shomben Yokocho (“Piss Alley” in English) near Golden Gai, opens earlier and is a great place to grab a cheap bite before heading to the bars.

Getting there: Get off at Shinjuku station, take exit four and walk along the small, leafy lane on the right, just after Mister Donut on the corner.