Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is where 200 bars and eateries stand cheek by jowl in six narrow, dimly-lit alleyways in the commercial centre of Tokyo. Each building is only a couple of feet wide, just enough to accommodate a table and some chairs. Those located upstairs are accessed by steep, narrow staircases. Decorated with provocative artwork, they beckon passersby to enter their tiny spaces to check what’s in store.
Squeezed between the Shinjuku ward office and Hanazono shrine and just a short walk from the eastside exit of Shinjuku train station, this collection of rundown establishments by its very nature attracts a clientele of musicians, film makers, artists and Japanese celebrities along with curious drinkers. Most establishments are only for regular customers and those that will accept new customers are identified by the menus and price lists displayed outside. In most bars, new customers have to be introduced by existing customers. The best time to visit is apparently during the Nouryou Kansha – Sai festival in August when bar owners are said to welcome almost anybody and drop the cover charges.
Each bar seems to cater to a different set of people and this is highlighted by the quirky décor that is a feature of all establishments. The only common thing about the bars is that they are all tiny and only a couple of patrons can fit in at a time. Those that choose to drink here must be prepared to literally rub shoulders with the other patrons. Among the bars is Square, decorated with signed photos of female pro-wrestlers and in house music that favours Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. Asyl, on the other hand, favours Algerian hip hop, Bhangra, and K pop among others in a similar vein. Autographs of celebrities and pretend celebrities adorn the walls. Albatross G is tiny but is on three floors. Its décor comprises an engraved dark wood counter, chandeliers and crucifixes, stuffed animal heads and framed mirrors on the walls. Plastic Model displays plastic toys and has an extensive collection of vinyl records that line the bar. A DJ set up pumps out new wave, hard core, punk and anime themed-tunes. Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu is another tiny bar on the second floor of a building decorated with biology diagrams, model skulls and skeletons and a pickled baby rat. A barmaid in nurse’s uniform dispenses drinks in vials and food in metal kidney trays. Whatever the outward appearance, Golden Gai is considered a ‘must visit’ place in Tokyo and is seen as one of the best places to meet friendly people. One corner of the area sports a tiny theater that puts on comedy shows. Photos of past shows are displayed outside the building. Although the area can be visited during the day, it is definitely a much more interesting place at night when all bars are open.
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