By Peter Sidell
Golden Gai in Shinjuku is an incredibly popular destination steeped in history and symbolic as a destination for drinking and entertainment. Tourists from all over the world stroll the area, soaking in its old and quaint vibe—virtually unchanged since the area started as a black market in the 1950s.
Most people hit the area at night, but my top Golden Gai tip is to drop by during the day. The atmosphere is completely different; it’s quiet and the narrow, cluttered alleys have their own special charm when the sun creeps in through the cracks. It’s a photographer’s paradise with rustic architecture, as well as the odd cat popping up out of nowhere.
For those who prefer a drink with their post-war Japan architectural experience, most bars open their doors from 5pm onwards. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Cover up, baby: Many of the bars ask for a cover fee on top of the drinks you buy. They may have a sign outside letting you know in advance, but not necessarily. Keep that in mind if your bill seems pricier than expected.
- The fewer, the better: If you’re traveling in a large group and want to hit the bars, then split into smaller groups of two or three. Most of the bars are small and can’t fit more than 10 people—and there may be customers already inside.
- Tourists, be aware: Though popular with tourists, it’s not a place made for tourists. Some places can accommodate international visitors, while some can’t. If you’re not confident in your Japanese skills, it’s a safe bet to stick to the places with signs in English outside.
- Take it easy: Golden Gai is known for being a chill place to talk, drink and enjoy the atmosphere. If you go in, why not stay for a while and try to strike up a conversation with locals or a fellow traveler?
- Late night fun: A lot of the bars open early, but don’t get lively until late – try staying at a hotel nearby if you don’t want to do an all-nighter until the first trains start running again. We recommend the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku.
- Food for all?: Most bars will have a couple of snack options to have with your drink, but not many will have full kitchens with hot food. Some nearby recommendations include the very popular ramen shop Nagi, and Dongara-Gassyan, where the specialty is Osaka-style kushi-katsu (deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables). If you have special dietary needs, you may want to eat before hitting the bars.
- Filming: If you want to film anything in the area, you’ll need a special permit, which comes at a fee. You can find how to apply for it on the official Golden Gai website (Japanese only).
If you're aware of some of the above quirks the area has, your experience is more likely to be the awesome one you imagined before visiting. Golden Gai is truly a unique and fascinating destination that’s well worth the visit—day or night.
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Originally from Sweden, born to American and Swedish parents, Lisa grew up traversing the globe as she immersed herself in various cultures, driven by a deep-seated need to understand the world around her. Japan ultimately became her home with its lure of scrumptious cuisine and surprisingly dynamic underground music scene. When not working as a writer and translator, she spends her time visiting shrines, doing awaodori dance and making friends with every Shiba dog she comes across.