Golden Gai: a treasure trove of old-school Tokyo alleys and funky little bars hidden away in Shinjuku

Golden Gai

Golden Gai (ゴールデン街, Golden Street) is a series of narrow, ramshackle alleyways tucked away in East Shinjuku, a tiny little pocket of Tokyo full of tiny little bars, untouched by the development of the postwar economic miracle that saw most such streets in Japan‘s capital replaced by office towers and shopping developments.

An alleyway in Golden Gai

In this respect, Golden Gai is something of a companion piece to the nearby Omoide Yokocho (Memory Alley), sharing a similar history and ambience, and together they’re two of the most photogenic nooks and crannies in the whole city.

Even if you’re not a photographer or a drinker, Golden Gai is good for a stroll as it gives you a sense of how most of Tokyo looked between the destruction of World War II and the boom of the late 20th century, and the contrast with the bright lights of Kabukicho (Shinjuku’s red light area) a stone’s throw away invites comparisons to Ghost In The Shell and Blade Runner.

Golden Gai

And if you are a drinker, Golden Gai should be right up your alley! There are hundreds of bars packed in to the area, usually one upstairs and one downstairs in each rickety structure, and they’re mostly 1-room affairs measuring a couple of metres across, having a simple bar counter with enough seating for just a handful of customers around it, and some absolute character presiding from behind it.

Every bar is unique in its decor and theme, some simple, some elaborate, a rock bar here, a vinyl bar there; many look rather inaccessible, presenting only a closed door to the street (and may indeed be for regulars only), while others have their doors wide open and signs calling you in in English. Some are adorned with Sex Pistols posters or framed photos of Robert Johnson, others with chandeliers or legion manga figurines; just walk around and find one you like the look of, and give it a go!

Bars and alleys in Golden Gai

If you do happen to try a regulars-only type place, the worst that’ll happen is an awkward “sorry, no, sorry”; don’t be disheartened, just try another place. One joint nips even this in the bud, thus:

'Japanese speakers only' sign in Golden Gai

…not exactly racist, but not exactly welcoming – I wouldn’t bother going in there even if they judged my Japanese to be acceptable. Frankly I reckon it’s kinda weak to be that freaked out by language barriers, and anyway there are plenty of other joints to check out.

Also be aware that many (not all) have a cover charge, or add tax on at the end; this is usually clearly marked on the menu or a sign, but you may want to check before you order anything. Some make a point of having NO fuckin’ Cover Charge & NO fuckin’ Tax! (btw this first entrance pictured is for a death metal & horror bar called Death Match From Hell. Absolutely brilliant place):

Heavy metal bar in Golden Gai

A bar in Golden Gai

Most places here don’t do food or just offer snacks, but there are a couple of options between the watering holes. My preference though is to grab a bite at Omoide Yokocho first, then head over to Golden Gai for a drink; if it’s your first time in Tokyo, I’d suggest first hitting the 45th floor observation deck at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Shinjuku West skyscraper district), then heading to Omoide Yokocho to eat. From there take a wander through Kabukicho for a look at Tokyo’s seedy underbelly, and then finally make your way to Golden Gai for a drink. See this post for description (with maps) of my suggested route, plus a bit more info on Kabukicho.

How to find Golden Gai

Golden Gai is tucked away within a city block nestled between the Shinjuku Ward Office, Hanazono Shrine, and Yasukuni-dori. To get there it’s best to come out of the east exit of JR Shinjuku Station, walk a short distance north to Yasukuni-dori, then turn right and walk east on Yasukuni-dori until you see Mister Donut on the north side of the street. There’s a paved, tree-lined pedestrian path leading mysteriously back behind Mister Donut that looks like it might go to Narnia or something; follow that for 30 seconds and you’ll come to Golden Gai. A real hidden treasure!

The Mister Donuts shop near Golden Gai

The path to Golden Gai

The entrance to Golden Gai

Alternatively, come out of exit E2 from Shinjuku Sanchome Station (Marunouchi, Fukutoshin, and Toei Shinjuku subway lines) and walk through the Hanazono Shrine; Golden Gai is just outside the shrine’s rear entrance.

Have you been to Golden Gai? How was it? Any questions? Leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

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