Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

Golden Gai: Tokyo’s Coolest Bar Neighborhood

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Golden Gai

Tokyo is a sleek city of chrome, neon, and crowds — particularly in Shinjuku. This modern neighborhood is home to tall office buildings, high-end department stores, endless traffic, bright and colorful signs, and some of the busiest railway stations in Tokyo.

But hidden on a narrow grid of side streets in Shinjuku is Golden Gai: perhaps the most unique bar neighborhood in Asia. The tiny streets here feel more like Southeast Asia than Tokyo with roughly 250 “hovel bars” built on top of each other. Graffiti covers several of them; others feel the space crunch so tightly that they leave their bulkier appliances sitting out in the street.

Golden Gai, Tokyo

The majority of these tiny bars, some of them seating only 4-6 people, are private. Many of them are themed and catering to specific types of guests – francophiles at one, poets at another. Some bars serve Ramones fans; others, simply, are “ghetto.”

Ghetto Bar Golden Gai

Before arriving in Tokyo, I was under the impression that only a few Golden Gai bars catered to foreigners – but soon learned that that wasn’t true. There are actually plenty.

A good rule to go by is whether there is any signage in English. If there is, you’ll be welcomed!

Golden Gai Doorway

What I loved most of all about Golden Gai was that it felt like I had stumbled upon a secret. There are plenty of foreigners there, but it’s not a foreigner-driven environment like Kyoto. Golden Gai is first and foremost for the locals.

Miso Soup Golden Gai

You never knew what there was beyond the doors. Some of the bars were dark and dank; others were perfectly styled retro homages to times past, almost looking like museums.

Golden Gai Bartender

And the cocktails? Delicious. I shouldn’t have expected anything less; both the food and drink in Japan are universally excellent!

Being on a budget, Mario and I only checked out a few of the cheaper bars in the area. There are lots more, but many of them tend to be more expensive (1000 yen/$10 covers, 1500 yen/$15 drinks, etc).

Here are four of the foreigner-friendly Golden Gai bars that Mario and I enjoyed:

Kate in Golden Gai

NaNa

I never expected to find a little piece of Andalusia in Tokyo, but that’s what NaNa is. Founded by a Japanese woman who fell in love with Spain, this bar is filled with Andalusian art and music. I had to get my favorite Spanish drink — tinto de verano, red wine with lemon soda — and it tasted as good here as it did in Sevilla.

Cover: No cover!

Seats: About seven at the bar and a few more at tables.

Drinks: Beer, wine and cocktails for 700 yen ($7).

Albatross Golden Gai

Albatross

This place had one of the coolest interiors I saw in Golden Gai, with giant crystal chandeliers and disco balls casting light and shadow across gothic accessories — oh, and a deer head. Our bartender, an aspiring actor, was a lot of fun and chatted with us and a few students from Switzerland. My gin and tonic was delicious and strong.

Albatross is listed in the Lonely Planet, so expect it to be popular.

Cover: 500 yen ($5)

Seats: About eight at the bar and more upstairs.

Drinks: Beer or wine 700 yen ($7), cocktails 700-1000 yen ($7-10)

Araku Golden Gai

Araku

A very welcoming bar for foreigners, the Australian-owned Araku (yes, there’s kangaroo on the menu) is one of the larger establishments in Golden Gai. Rather than a hovel bar, it feels more like a hostel’s common room, with lots of comfy couches. I went for the sake mojito — not a drink I’d ask for any other time, but when in Japan, right?

Araku is also listed in the Lonely Planet and is thus popular with tourists as well.

Cover: No cover!

Seats: Lots. This is a big place.

Drinks: Mojito or sake mojito 1000 yen ($10), cocktails 700 yen ($7)

Easy Rider Golden Gai

Easy Rider

Captain Ken holds down the fort at Easy Rider, a place decked out in Evil Knievel memorabilia and assorted Americana. Chatting with Ken and his affable Japanese customers was one of the highlights of our time here. This is a good place to visit once you’ve started to get hungry — there are deals on drinks if you buy snacks, and the 500 yen ($5) hot dogs were the perfect nosh in between the drinking.

Cover: No cover with password “easy rider”!

Seats: About 10 total.

Drinks: Sake 1000 yen ($10), beer or whiskey 700 yen ($7) — these prices are only if you also buy a small plate of food for 300 yen ($3).

Ever been to Golden Gai? Would you like to grab a drink here?

Comments

32 Responses to “Golden Gai: Tokyo’s Coolest Bar Neighborhood”
  1. Anna says:

    Wow, the streets look like somewhere I’d only venture out to at gunpoint (spoiled Euro-phile here!) and then the bar prices…well, also something about gunpoint (seriously, that’s what you pay for a cocktail at the Ritz in the NYC Financial District). I am totally that over-cautious traveler who is afraid to venture out anywhere that’s not sanitized, at least in the cities (I can hike and camp in the worst conditions in the wilderness with the best of them).

  2. Amele says:

    I am going to Tokyo this week end and I am definitely going there! Another place to recommend is the small restaurant close to Shibuya station, about the same feeling, very small, very japanese and very unique!

  3. Laura says:

    This neighborhood looks so cool! I’m hoping to make a trip to Japan next fall, and this area is definitely on my list of things to see now.

  4. I believe that Anthony Bourdain visited this neighborhood on an episode of “No Reservations”. I’m not much of a drinker, but when in Tokyo, why not – right?!

  5. Lucy says:

    I love your site and have been perusing it all morning! Congrats on this amazing adventure you’re on:) Also, thanks for the tips you incorporate for newbie travel writers like myself!

    Lucy

  6. Ashley V says:

    So my comment is not at all related to this post (I’m at work, slacking, and feel like I shouldn’t spend too much time browsing the internet…), but I just found your blog a few days ago and have read approximately 27 posts since then, trying to catch up! Anyway, I’m trying to find ways to travel more, possibly relocate somewhere new and amazing (focusing on going abroad). I say all that to say that I read what you did at your job (ticking off the half hours), and it has now gotten me through 2 1/2 days of work. My prayer is that I won’t have too many months of doing it, but for now, I live for those little tally marks. My main problem as I look for new ventures is decisiveness. Do I want to move to Australia? Teach English in Germany? Go to New Zealand? How can I decide? 🙂

  7. Nicole says:

    I would venture there, for sure. I love tiny bars. I love restaurants with themes. tiny bars with themes = I’m in. =D

  8. designlit says:

    ah, Tokyo–the world of the liveliest parties. Thanks for sharing. These are great notes for a planning-to-go-to-Tokyo traveler.

  9. Heading to Tokyo in January!! Will check this area out!

  10. OMG, I love the look of these tiny bars. So cute! Will definitely check them out in December.

  11. Megan says:

    Holy adorable, it’s like an entire neighborhood of little dive bars…that are also trendy-looking, and expensive, but “dive bar” is still my first impression 🙂 I’m sure I’ll make it to Japan someday, when my wallet can handle it!

  12. Been there, done a few of these bars. I liked in Tokyo more the Akihabara and Shibuya area, although this mentioned area in your post is widely famous in Tokyo although I found there more biy people around.

    If only the earth would not shake there I would visited this country more often or even live there. How many it shaked till now while you are there?

  13. Oh I forgot to mention: did you check out the place where all the boys are waiting in the streets that a rich woman comes along the way to buy them? Maybe youll see these clubs around in Shin..

    These guys make huge amounts of money out of the richer ladies.

  14. Jennifer says:

    I just found your blog…It’s great! I’m quitting my job in December and traveling for 7 months. It’s so encouraging to read other women’s stories! Thanks!

  15. Izy Berry says:

    I haven’t been to Japan but I would certainly love to go there! 🙂

  16. Clare says:

    Kate, your posts are getting me more and more intrigued about Japan. I’ve never really given it more than a passing thought when it comes to considering destinations for my future travels, but this really is the beauty of travel blogs in general. Something you read ignites a wee spark and stuff that was never in your plan suddenly is. It might take me a while to get to Japan, but I am more convinced than ever that it’s a trip I need to take.

  17. I was just in Tokyo and had the best time ducking into the quaint bars of Golden Gai. We didn’t have much of a problem finding plenty that welcomed foreigners , but ended up spending most of the night drinking at our favorite one!

  18. Stefania says:

    It must be an excellent experience to look for bars in this neighbourhood. The Andalusia one looks particularly inviting, I loved that region of Spain too: so much history and nice food, plus friendly people!

  19. An Andalusian bar in the heart of Tokyo? Sold.

  20. Very cool! I wish I had had a chance to check these out when I was in Tokyo. Now I know what to look for.

  21. Ed Graham says:

    Nice pics Kate. This is one of my favorite places in the world to visit and have a drink.

  22. Oh dear lord, these bars all look like EXACTLY the kind of places I’d go to before hitting up a club. I had no idea that anything like this existed in Tokyo. Hopefully I’ll be going there next year (fingers crossed) and if I do, I’ll be checking the scene out. Especially Easy Rider.

  23. Going to Japan in January. Will do my best t visit the place.

  24. Ivan Taptrip says:

    Great post, Kate! I’ve been in Shinjuku a lot of times, but never stopped at Golden Gai! Maybe this weekend! Cheers 😀

  25. Erin says:

    We loved Golden Gai! The drinks were pricey, but it was worth it to experience the tiny, eccentric bars. We didn’t check out Albatross, but I would love to see that interior in person.

  26. Experience great clubbing, world-class DJs, and a cool crowd at Key Club Shinjuku. We have the friendliest staff. Check us out at Shinjuku, Tokyo.

  27. Great blog Kate. We loved the Golden Gai too and Albatross was also our favourite bar. Can’t wait to go back there one day! Golden Gai also has the best/tiniest Ramen noodle place called Nagi! Definitely worth a try too while in the area!

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