shinjuku tokyo’s golden gai


Golden Gai is a small, hidden area of Shinjuku in Tokyo only a ten minute walk from Shinjuku station. I had heard a lot about this area as a “must see” and as I assumed the name was pronounced like “golden guy” I took great pleasure in serenading my British travel partner with my rendition of “Golden Gai” sung to the James Bond song “Golden Eye” [made famous by Tina Turner]. High notes and all.

This little area, only about six or so very narrow alleyways, contains over two hundred micro-shanty bars and mini-micro restaurants. It was an amazing sight to see, as many of these bars only had room enough for four or five people. Golden Gai’s historical importance is that it provides a view into Tokyo’s recent and quickly disappearing past when large areas of the city looked just as Golden Gai’s six or so alleys do today.

Fortunately for all of us, Golden Gai survived the 1980s, a time of economic prosperity and massive development when many buildings in Tokyo were deliberately set on fire so the land could be bought up by developers. Golden Gai only survived because those who loved and believed in it took turns guarding the area at night.

One of the myths of Golden Gai perpetuated by guidebooks that copy one another is that this area is full of bars for locals only, and that non-locals will be refused entry to many of the bars. This is false. The truth is that many of the bars are quite happy to welcome patrons from any walk of life, local or visitor. Only bars that are run by older generation Japanese who have no other language skills will have trouble serving non-Japanese speakers, so this must be where the myth began.

Many of the micro-shanty bars in Golden Gai have themes [jazz, R&B, karaoke, punk rock, flamenco, muzak, etc.] and the interiors are adorned with an eclectic array of wall hangings, posters, and other odds and ends all lit by colored light. Despite their size, these bars have a nice selection of alcohol and wine including various sakes and local plum wines.

The bar I stumbled upon, on the corner edge of Golden Gai, was called Liumin. It was a fantastic little place with a bar that could seat only eight, lit in red light. In one sight on the wall there was a dreamcatcher, a Gaudi-esque paint by numbers-type painting, some posters in Japanese, and a shelf with some old glassware on it. A buddha bar sounding version of the “Sound of Music” song “My Favorite Things” sung by a man with a Brazilian accent was playing in the background.

Both the owner and the barmaid were lovely and welcoming people, and were clearly proud of their bar. They were quite curious about how my travel partner and I made our way to Golden Gai, and looked forward to a time when more tourists would come. There were only four patrons in the bar for a total of six of us in this micro-shanty bar.

The six of us packed the place: the owner and barmaid, my travel partner and I, a tall dark and suave man from Madrid with a movie star smile, and an elderly local Japanese man. We all talked and got along famously, and we chose to try a few different plum wines under the red art house lighting. As we left, everyone bid us safe travel and well wishes. Even the local Japanese man, who knew not a word of English, shook my hand to bid me goodbye. The entire scene was so surreal that I would not have been surprised if the Japanese man had slipped me classified stolen microfilm containing the location of a secret Soviet missile installation.

Golden Gai is a unique experience that will transport you to a lost past, if you let it.  Moneypenny, ask Q to bring meet me in Golden Gai. M will have to see me later.