Tokyo is known for its hustle and bustle. The flashing lights and crazy street crossings in the Shibuya and Shinjuku neighbourhoods are enough to make even the most seasoned traveller’s head spin.
However, just a short walk from Shinjuku’s busy centre is a small warren of streets that can transport you to a different dimension. Called Golden Gai (Golden Town), this scruffy low-rise block of six narrow laneways is a world away from the glitz of Tokyo. The historic neighbourhood, roughly the size of a football pitch, is home to about 200 tiny bars, most seating fewer than 10 patrons. Each nomiya (drinking place) is vastly different to the next, themed to punk rock, French Nouvelle Vague cinema or old Nintendo video games.
Shunning the wide roads and large neon billboards that populate the rest of Tokyo’s nightlife districts, Golden Gai’s streets are narrow and crowded, dimly lit and littered with old bikes and oddly decorated signs. It is a cacophony of bohemian paraphernalia that competes for visitors’ attention.
In the first half of the 20th Century, Golden Gai was home to a black market and a haven for prostitutes. Then in the 1960s, its many watering holes helped the neighbourhood form a new identity, attracting artists, musicians, poets and filmmakers. Golden Gai has remained the same ever since, with 80 tenants in the area forming a society to protect the area from development. Because of this resistance to change, many of the two-storey buildings are originals from the 1960s.
Equally original are Golden Gai’s modern-day establishments, with bizarre names like Psychobolic Shadow, Kangaroo Court Decision and Death Match! In Hell. Either some meaning has been lost in translation or the owners are trying to out-baffle English-speaking tourists.
Many of the nomiya are decorated in niche themes. Nana Bar embodies Japan’s fixation with flamenco music, the small space squeezing in guest musicians on a weekly basis. Hair of the Dogs is Golden Gai’s punk bar, which also spins new wave, ska and hardcore tunes.
La Jetee, named after the 1962 Chris Marker sci-fi film, is a gathering place for disciples of French cinema and the Nouvelle Vague movement, while at Bar Plastic Model, punters can wear Mario hats and play old Nintendo 64 video games.
Choosing an unmarked ground-floor doorway and tottering up a flight of frighteningly steep wooden stairs, I took a seat at the bar, rubbing shoulders with the lone patron (with so many tiny doorways, it was hard to tell which nomiya I’d ended up in). Sitting within toasting distance of the bartender, our party of four filling the bar to capacity, we polished off a few carafes of steaming sake while making small talk. Laughing and yelling kanpai! (cheers) was enough to break down the language barrier.
Many travellers come to Tokyo to sample a forward-thinking city resplendent with myriad technical wonders. But in a city that moves as fast as this, it is a comfort to know there is a slice of the old town left.
Because of the limited space, many nomiya charge a seating or entry fee, typically between 300 and 1,000 yen. They will also often refuse service to big or rowdy groups. To find Golden Gai, alight at the Shinjuku train station’s eastern exit and zigzag your way northeast for about 10 minutes until you reach the Hanazono Shrine.