- Bar / bar-hopping / Drinking / Golden Gai / Izakaya / Kabukicho / nightlife / Pub / Shinjuku
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If you haven't experienced them already, checking out some of the local pubs and 居酒屋 izakaya (Japanese-style gastropubs) can be a very entertaining way to spend an evening during your trip to Japan.
If you just stroll into one on a whim, however, you may get disappointed and wish you had an alternative to try. Fortunately, there are neighborhoods where such establishments are easy to find.
One famous place for drinking in Tokyo is 新宿ゴールデン街 Shinjuku gōruden-gai. Although it literally means "Shinjuku Golden Avenue," it's actually a network of six narrow alleys in the heart of Shinjuku in the Kabukicho area with tiny bars, clubs and eateries. As such, it's an increasingly rare remnant of the way Tokyo looked in the days before Japan's "economic miracle." Some of the establishments trace their roots back to the 1960s.
Its unique appearance and mood, especially at night when business is thriving, has made it very popular with tourists.
Over 300 drinking establishments!
With so many establishments tightly crammed into one area, the Golden Gai area is full of attractions appealing to the so-called 吞兵衛 nonbee, those who enjoy their tipple.
Even though it's a tourist attraction, some people may feel a bit hesitant at first since it can feel a bit daunting to venture inside Golden Gai's narrow alleys at night.
But no need to worry. A writer at our sister site Grape who recently became hooked on Golden Gai's charms and can't stop singing its praises has some great advice for the Golden Gai beginner!
How to get there
Golden Gai is located at about a 10-minute walk from the East Exit of JR Shinjuku Station.
When our writer first started going there, he used the 四季の道 (shiki no michi | "Promenade Park") as a visual guide.
Follow this pathway for about a minute and you will enter the Golden Gai area!
From here, choose an establishment that interests you, go inside, and begin your "Golden Gai" experience!
Enjoying Golden Gai
The most difficult part is finding the courage to enter a place, so he recommends scoping out the Golden Gai area before making your choice.
Although some establishments have a policy of refusing newcomers who aren't accompanied by a regular, the vast majority of them gladly accept first-time customers.
Just walk in without thinking too much
The fee system differs from store to store, but our writer has the impression that most of them charge a basic cover charge which is added to anything you order on the menu. Foreign tourists are sometimes exempt from paying for it.
If you tell the staff that you're a first-time visitor, he or she will give you a thorough explanation of the pricing and menu. Since they're used to foreign tourists, many establishments will also have English on the menu and some staff may speak some basic English.
Although it depends on the place, if you order two or three drinks, you can expect to spend about 2,500 to 4,000 yen, including the cover charge.
For illustrative purposes only
Once your order is placed, savor your drink and chat with the staff and other patrons. At Golden Gai, people are there to have a good time and forget their worries, so most people, especially after a drink or two, will be happy to strike up a conversation.
In many cases, the restaurant has only counter seating, so expect to be close to people. If you show that you're interested in talking with your attitude, staff and other patrons will often take the cue.
Our writer recommends buying the staff a drink as a way to kickstart the conversation. After going several times, he began to get to know some of the patrons, and before he knew it, he had several "drinking buddies"! Of course, your time may be limited but if you're staying for two weeks or longer, you might see some regulars several times!
One of the charms of Golden Gai is that the more people you know, the more fun you'll have.
Our writer makes it a point to stay sober enough to keep his common sense to avoid saying anything rude. Those who don't follow this rule are usually those who have had too much to drink. Even if you get to know someone well at Golden Gai, it's a good practice to not go "over the line" and say something you'll later regret.
Bar hopping in Golden Gai
If you've "graduated" from Golden Gai novice, our writer recommends はしご酒 (hashigo-zake | lit. "ladder alcohol"), which is the Japanese word for bar hopping.
Of course, you can continue going to the same pub, but visiting multiple establishments in one night is a fun way to enjoy Golden Gai.
The more places you go to, the more new encounters you'll have and the more fun you'll have.
Now that we've covered the basics, it's time to introduce our writer's favorite Golden Gai hang-outs:
"Shadow" and "Chindon"
When it comes to Golden Gai recommendations, our writer is partial to シャドウ Shadow and 珍呑 Chindon. Both establishments are under the same management, with "Shadow" on the first floor and Chindon on the second floor. The location is easy to find as shown in the image below, between Ichibancho and Sanbancho.
These well-known establishments are some of the oldest in Golden Gai and have many charms.
To begin with, both the first and second floors are open 24 hours a day, and they employ more than 10 staff members who work in shifts, morning, noon, and night.
If you go for a drink on a different day of the week and at a different time of day, not only are the staff on duty different, but the clientele changes as well, so no matter how many times you go, you will always have a "fresh and fun" experience!
There's also a well-stocked food menu, which changes daily, including homemade dishes such as rice and noodle dishes.
If you can read Japanese, you can check the shifts of the staff at the two restaurants on their Twitter account.
You can find your favorite staff member or visit at a time slot you've never tried before.
Our writer always has so much fun that he often loses track of when to leave. Sometimes it takes a strong will to say, "I'll be home on the last train!"
The more you know about Golden Gai, the more you'll appreciate how much fun it can be.
If you're thinking of making your Golden Gai "debut," we hope some of the tips and advice in this article will come in handy!