Your Ultimate Guide to Tokyo’s Golden Gai
The Golden Gai in Shinjuku is one of Tokyo's premier drinking spots. The Showa alleys and tiny bars are perfect for a night out. Let us be your guide.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Tokyo, eager to recover, launched a redevelopment scheme on an unprecedented scale. However, while the rest of the city was sprouting concrete highrises and brand new shopping centres, a small pocket of Shinjuku was left untouched: the Golden Gai.
Today, the Golden Gai remains as it did then; a slice of Showa-era Tokyo. Surrounded on all sides by the trappings of the modern city, it is cut adrift, its tiny warrens and alleys portals into a city few can remember.
But why head to the Golden Gai? To drink of course! Mention the Golden Gai to anyone familiar with Tokyo and they’ll instantly begin to list off some of the best bars in the area and recount some hazy memories from their time there. The small district is bursting with all kinds of bars, from glitzy cocktail joints to rough and tumble drinking holes. They all have one thing in common, however: their size. Golden Gai bars can rarely accommodate more than 10 people at a time, making them intimate and totally personal places to sink a few drinks.
The Golden Gai is a magnet for people of all types. Filmstars and musicians are often photographed stumbling out of a bar in the wee hours of the morning, but perhaps more common, though, are tourists. It’d be a wasted trip if you didn’t head to the Golden Gai at least once, after all. Consequently, many of the bars are very foreigner friendly.
We’ve put together a guide to some of the Golden Gai’s very best bars, as well as some handy tips and tricks, below:
Golden Gai Map
Golden Gai Etiquette
Given the long-running nature of most of the bars in the Golden Gai, most are pretty set in their ways. Some do not accept new customers at all and especially not if they’re gaijin (foreigner) and don’t speak a word of Japanese. These locals-only bars are pretty easy to spot: the door will be closed and the exterior will be pretty unwelcoming. Needless to say, don’t bother.
However, these bars are probably in the minority, most being happy to welcome visitors for a drink or two. If you spot an English menu, you can be certain this is the case. Otherwise, have a peek in and if you get a smile you’re onto a winner.
The small size of the bars means you’re going to be in close proximity to your neighbours. Accordingly, avoid swinging your elbows around too wildly and try to be respectful. The upside, and particularly handy if you’re travelling alone, is that you’re bound to make a friend or two on a night out in the Golden Gai, whether you speak a mutual language or not.
Best Golden Gai Bars
Run by Abe-chan, this music den has walls stacked with CDs that never fail to provide the perfect soundtrack to a great night. The atmosphere is always buzzing with life, though don’t be surprised if everyone seems to know each other – the place attracts regulars aplenty. Need more reasons to visit? Well, the Japanese whisky selection is near-unbeatable, prices are more than reasonable and unlike a lot of place, there’s no cover charge!
20:00 – 05:00
2. Albatross G
Entering this quaint little bar, you won’t fail to notice the chandeliers, candles and stuffed deer ornamenting the walls. The bartender will warmly greet you with a smile and offer you a drink from the impressive menu. With two floors and a roof terrace, this is one of the Golden Gai’s larger bars, though still not huge by any standard. With a unique interior, great vibe and interesting drinks, Albatross G has it all.
17:00 – 02:00
3. Champion Bar
Fancy a bit of a karaoke with your drinks? Bar Champion has you covered. One of the Golden Gai’s more notorious bars, this place is always packed with tourists and locals alike, drawn by the good time vibes, one coin (500 yen) drinks and all-night karaoke. Best of all, it’s easy to find, though you’ll probably hear it before you see it.
18:00 – 05:00
4. La Jetee
Named in honour of Chris Marker’s film La Jetee and frequented by all manner of film industry glitterati, this is another of the Golden Gai’s most famous spots. A great spot to embrace your inner film critic over a drink and who knows, you may even pick up a few autographs while you’re there.
Mon-Sat 19:00 – 01:00
5. Kenzo’s Bar
Owned by Kenzo, the self-titled ‘Golden Guy of Golden Gai’, you’re definitely in for a good time here. The leopard print walls and endless playlist of rock’n’roll hits sets up the vibe nicely, with the reasonably priced and extensive selection of sake helping it along a little more. Beer fans are also well catered to with varieties from the world over.
20:00 – 05:00
6. Bitter Orange
Like a moth to a flame you’ll be lured toward the warm glow inside Bitter Orange. Once inside, you’ll be greeted by the equally bright smiles of the bar staff. A carefully curated cocktail, beer and wine list is yours to pick from, though suggestions will be forthcoming if necessary. A popular haunt for Tokyo’s young and hip, this is a must-visit on a Golden Gai bar hop.
21:00 – 05:00
7. Black Sun
Tokyo has a record of incubating some excellent jazz talent in venues littered throughout the city. Black Sun in the heart of the Golden Gai is one such spot. Hear local acts in an intimate setting for prices you won’t find in some of the bigger venues. Uje-san, the owner, is always up for a chat as well. A must for any jazz fiend.
21:00 – 05:00
8. Rincon Flamenco NaNa
NaNa, a flamenco-themed bar, is another top Golden Gai choice. Whilst a taste of Spain might not have been your top priority for visiting Japan, we guarantee you won’t regret ducking in for a sangria or two.
19:00 – 05:00
This Australian owned bar offers an extensive list of imported beverages and pub grub. The Bouncy Burger (yes, made from kangaroo), is a particularly big hit. The bilingual staff and easygoing atmosphere mean it’s a breeze to sit back and enjoy your night at Araku.
19:00 – 04:00
10. Crawdaddy Club
For those interested in British rock, Crawdaddy Club is the Golden Gai spot for you. Expect to hear the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who and the Rolling Stones blasting through the speakers. If you want to explore the Japanese music scene, the regular live shows from local bands here will also give you a helping hand.
19:00 – 02:00
11. Punk Bar Hair of the Dogs
Another one for the music nerds, Punk Bar Hair of the Dog, no surprises, is the first word in Golden Gai punk. Expect the sounds of the Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols or request whatever you like to the always affable bar staff. A small place, you’ll soon be chatting away about your favourite records in no time.
Mon-Thu 19:00 – 02:00
Fri&Sat 19:00 – 04:00 (Closed on Sunday)
A flat rate of 800 yen for all drinks, no cover charge, English speaking staff and a great atmosphere – Ace’s has it all. The clientele is typically an even mix of locals and foreigners all eager for a good time. This is also a good place to wrap your ears around some new and interesting tunes.
Mon-Sat 20:00 – 05:00 (Closed on Sunday)
13. Bar Darling (ダーリン)
Known as a very female friendly bar, Bar Darling offers a relaxed and friendly environment always. Owned by a well-known Japanese actor, the bar is a hangout for many media types and celebrities, something that only adds to the vibes. Over 100 drink types are available to try out.
21:00 – 05:00
14. Bistro Pavo
If you find yourself in need of a bite to eat to soak up all that alcohol, Bistro Pavo is the place to head. Each dish costs just 500 yen, with its pasta and risotto proving particularly popular. The drinks, at 600 yen a pop, are just as reasonable. Seasonal dishes and daily specials are a good choice if you’re after something a little different.
Mon-Sat 17:00 – 03:00 (Closed on Sunday)
15. Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu
Ever had the idea of opening a medical themed bar? You’ve been beaten to it! Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu brims with medical paraphernalia, gruesome oddities and all kinds of curious objects. The drinks, served in beakers, come in all kinds, though the inventive cocktails are a must. Warning: fall asleep and you’ll wake up to a 5,000 yen fine!
Mon-Sat 21:00 – 03:00
Sun 16:00 – 24:00
16. Bar Plastic Model
If you like things made from plastic, Bar Plastic Model is the Golden Gai haunt for you. Dedicating itself to everything from plastic toys and dolls to records, there’s a lot going on here. The white walls and original interior make this place one of the more contemporary feeling bars in the Golden Gai.
Mon-Sat 20:00 – 05:00
Sun 20:00 – 24:00
Golden Gai Ramen
Sugoi Niboshi Ramen Nagi Shinjuku Golden Gai
Follow your nose and you’ll soon find this renowned Golden Gai ramen shop. Sugoi Niboshi Ramen Nagi began life in the Golden Gai, shut up shop, opened dozens of stores in other Tokyo locations and is now back. The niboshi ramen, made using boiled sardines, is the specialty, though whatever you order you won’t leave disappointed. Perhaps the perfect way to cap off a night in the Golden Gai.
24/7, open 24 hours every day
Golden Gai Access
Access: Shinjuku Station East Exit
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