Sake, Stories And Nostalgia in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai

The Golden Gai started with a somewhat tragic account. Activities in the black market, such as prostitution, were prevalent in 1950. The market has been a thriving drinking place during the 1960s. At that point, Japan went through an economic “boom,” widely referred to by the term “the Japanese economic miracle,” in which modernization had swept over Tokyo. Everything except for Golden Gai.

It is located in the district of Kabukicho, and Golden Gai is one of the areas that haven’t changed much from the economic growth of the 60s. It is a little corner containing many buildings close to each other and frequented by many visitors. In the beginning, the area had a bad reputation and was known for the illicit market and prostitutes up to the year 1958.

The neighborhood consists of 6 alleys of small housing, with the lower floor consisting of a tiny bar and the top floor an apartment usually belonging to the business owner. Sometimes, even the upper floors have tiny bars. The bars, therefore, are very small with a space of less than 20 sq m and offer only a small number of seating: 10 max, usually four arranged around the owner’s counter.

The old neon signs, packed alleyways, and tons of people are reminiscent of the cyberpunk theme. The old-fashioned signs with their illuminated letters as well as the faded walls amid the smoke and casual atmosphere, a well-off and often well-known clientele gathers at the antique counters to sip and talk among themselves, sharing the preferences of bosses who’ve created their bars reflect their passions for art: music, cinema, rock and other. These bars are frequented by Tokyo musicians, artists, musicians, directors, writers,… as well as numerous others.

Since the bars are very small and the competition is large, you might wonder how they keep the business running. The secret is that some such bars have regulars that spend a lot of money, so if you have the loyalty of even 4 or 5 of these wealthy regulars, you can live off this business. So some bars don’t let strangers in and are reserved for loyal clientele only. The only way to access such bars is if a regular customer introduces you. However, don’t be discouraged; certain establishments welcome foreigners and proudly display this publicly.

While walking through the tiny streets in Golden Gai, you’ll notice the mash-up of English and Japanese advertising. If you notice English information on the outside of the bar, it’s a sign that the bar is, in fact, friendly to tourists.

Also, remember the fact that most bars will charge an entrance charge (which is frequent in Japan) and ranges between 500 yen (around 3.5 USD) for the most affordable price, up or 4000 yen(around 30 USD) for the highest-priced, with an average of 1,000 yen (about 7 USD). You can expect to pay more than that for a drink and a few snacks.

If you’re looking to go out on Saturdays and weekdays, local establishments are typically operating from 5:30 pm to 5 am. If you decide to go on a Sunday evening, the normal timeframe is 8 pm to 12 midnight.

Do not be swayed by warnings like “No Foreigner,” “No Tourists,” or “Regulars Only” at the entrance of certain establishments. Since there is a limited area, many would rather reserve their tables for regular patrons rather than people who are bar-hopping and may enjoy a single drink, then linger for a while, and then walk out.

Suppose you decide not to stay in one single bar. In that case, walking around these streets with a few friends can be worth the trip, immersed in a distinctive and traditional environment and away from the contemporary skyscrapers in Shibuya and Ginza.

Also read about 5 Sites To Visit During Your Trip To Kyushu

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