Shinjuku’s Golden Gai: Down the Rabbit Hole in Tokyo’s Best Nightlife District

April 13, 2017: Kabukicho Touts Now in Golden Gai: There goes the neighbourhood! I still like Golden Gai and hope this is just a one-off, bad experience. Time will tell. Still, “forwarned is forarmed,” as they say

Tokyo has more than its share of popular nightlife areas. Shibuya draws the club kids. Roppongi caters to the international crowd. Kabukicho is the largest blue-light district in Asia, a disconcerting mix of hostess clubs, brothels, and straight-up bars and restaurants. Still, in the twelve-plus years I’ve lived in Tokyo, it’s to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai I go to meet interesting locals and, increasingly often, tuned-in travellers.

Since the 60s and 70s, writers and filmmakers such as Yukio Mishima and Yasujiro Ozu have haunted these narrow alleys. In the 1980's, Wim Wenders shot scenes for Tokyo Ga in La Jetee, a bar devoted to movies, and still a favourite of cinephiles.

In fact, most of Golden Gai’s bars have a theme. There’s karaoke, of course, most visible at Champions, a popular first — and last — stop for many visitors. They start to spill onto the flagstone path by nine, and some stay until the first trains pull out of the nearby stations around dawn. At other places jazz remains popular, while Hair of the Dog has an extensive collection of punk and ska from the 80s. Still others cater to patrons with a passion for photography, exploitation films, or plastic models. At Tachibana shinryoushitsu, “Tachibana’s diagnosis room,” a cosplay nurse serves drinks with names such as “enema” and “speculum” from beakers amidst a cabinet of curiosities of medical charts and anatomical models. Another, the two-storey Albatross, has kept the red plush walls and chandeliers of its former incarnation as a brothel.

Maybe the setting explains Golden Gai’s unique fuinke, “atmosphere.” To enter the Gai is a little like discovering a secret garden or falling down a rabbit hole. A treed path lined with Peter Pan-like statues of cherubs riding dolphins and snails leads off neon-lit Yasukuni-dori and the red lights of Kabukicho. This isn’t Kansas Shinjuku any more, Dorothy-san.

No neon or — at least until recently — touts accost the visitor. Japan’s bubble economy, which transformed the surrounding area into an international-style city of wide roads and highrises, skipped this warren of six narrow lanes. In fact, the locals fought to keep it that way. Back in the 80′s, when developers razed the student ghetto and working neighbourhood of nearby west Shinjuku, locals took turns guarding Golden Gai from developers.

Maybe that’s why Golden Gai has a reputation for being closed to outsiders.

Times are a’changin’, however. Now visiting pop culture luminaries such as Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino have been spotted in the area. Whither go our pop stars, so follow we: Golden Gai has earned entries in recent editions of Fodors, Lonely Planet, and a plethora of websites. Heck, even CNN ran a service piece on “the five best bars in Golden Gai.”

“Down the rabbit hole,” maybe, but not exactly off the beaten path any more…

Truth is, the scene in Golden Gai has changed a lot in the last couple of years. More visitors have discovered the place and some, at least, of the establishments in the area are courting new clientele. Tokyobling, a popular blogger, recently called it “One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo”, which sounds about right. This hasn’t “ruined” the place in my opinion, though twenty-year regulars may disagree.

What this means is that you should feel totally comfortable and confident visiting Golden Gai. While there are still many establishments that still cater to regulars, others are happy to host the international crowd.

Golden Gai may now be on the itinerary of every hipster visiting Tokyo, but it still offers a unique Japan experience. Perhaps not for much longer, though: a recent story on japantoday.com suggests that redevelopment plans for the area might once again be in the works… maybe in time for the 2020 Olympics.

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“Writing about where you stay often becomes your favourite pastime if you are an expatriate” a wise blogger once wrote. Couldn’t agree more. But then, I’ve always enjoyed writing about places real and imagined, almost as if they were characters in stories. You can check out my photos and writing about Tokyo, Japan, and the rest of the world here.