Golden Gai — Tokyo's Ramshackle Collection of Tiny Watering Holes
Located in a “should have been forgotten” low-rise area east of JR Shinjuku station in the Kabukicho neighbourhood, the Golden Gai is a cluster of tiny watering holes intertwined by narrow passageways and alleys.
What was once considered a bit seedy, has now been transformed into a tourism marvel of tiny eclectic creativity. The neighbourhood defies hipster, and firmly epitomizes the term dive bar. “The smell of sizzling yakitori emits from one of the bars, and the smell of cigarette smoke from another. The collective roar of 200 or so individual micro-bars spills out into the street along with the lookie-loos and passersby making their way through the alleyways.
Standing at 5 foot 11, I am by no means giraffe-like, but the doorways and ceilings of the Golden Gai’s shanty structures present a few challenges for me. We’re relatively early, but peering beyond the doorways it becomes obvious that finding a seat could be a challenge. Most of the bars seat less than 8 people, and not all are welcoming of tourists. I suppose running a 5-seat bar might allow one some particularity in customer choice.
My friend, and unintended Tokyo fixer Kazu, has brought me here, and he quickly finds us a couple of seats in a yakitori bar on the fringe of one of the alleys. We’re motioned in and the rules are explained. You can stay two hours maximum, we have to buy food, and they only serve chicken. Okay, sounds great to me!
The drink selection is almost as limited as the food menu, and is more or less limited to sparkling wine and white wine — also fine with me. There’s really no room for anything else.
We move through a tasting menu of different chicken parts. I don’t ask what each of them are, but I can make some assumptions based on my limited knowledge of chicken anatomy. Sumptuous chicken livers grilled over a narrow hibachi fitted to the bar, chicken heart, gizzard, and a selection of raw and nearly raw uncertainties. Kazu tells me that Canadians overcook everything. I realize that it’s kind of true as I push past my cross-cultural dining phobias. Raw chicken is actually delicious, and whatever raw part I’m eating has a delightful texture, although as a North American I’m sure that I need to insert a legal disclaimer here.
We finish our food and drink, thank the barkeep for his hospitality, and head out into the alleyway in search of the next adventure. Kazu feels like Ramen, so we ascend the narrow staircase up to Ramen Nagi after a short wait, and some radio communication between the doorman and the upstairs kitchen team.
Nagi specializes in fish based ramen, and it arrives with a jumbo sized piece of nori seaweed served in fish broth with a boiled egg and broad noodles. It’s an extra delectable seafood treat, but given that this is the third time we’ve eaten dinner tonight, I struggle to eat the entire thing.
We stumble out into the streets. I’m a believer in the mantra that nothing good happens after midnight, but judging by the uptick in crowd size on the street, I am either really smart, or everyone else knows something that I don’t know.
I bid Kazu oyasuminasai, and amble back to my hotel with a belly full of food and wine, and an imagination full of curiosity as to what the other 198 bars in Golden Gai might be like inside.
Things tend to start around 8pm or later in Golden Gai
These aren’t cheap bars. Pricing is as it would be in other bars around Shinjuku
Some bars don’t openly welcome tourists
There’s usually a time limit on seating in each bar