A Night in Tokyo: Golden Gai

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Golden Gai is not a well-kept secret, I am divulging nothing new in this post.  Any google search of "what to do in Tokyo" will lead you to this 6 x 6 block "neighborhood".  Filled with row upon row (literally, upon) of tiny bars and izakayas, this bustling area seats thousands of people in a night, ranging from tired salarymen and wide eyed tourists to movie stars and puppets.  While my offering to you today may not be a novel idea, each bar, each experience, will be enough for you to write home about.

The Golden Gai is not a new neighborhood.  At first, it was known as a red light district for prostitution.  When visiting a lady of the night was outlawed in 1958, the area rebuilt itself; replacing little "houses" with teeny, 6-10 seater bars.  Open everyday, this area became a once again popular spot for salarymen (office workers) to congregate- eating and drinking off the long hours in the cubicle.  In the 1980's, there was a push by the Yakuza to gentrify the area, but locals stood their ground and preserved the area. Word quickly spread about the quirky town within a city, and now the area hosts a plethora of patrons.

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Each of my trips to Tokyo have brought me to the Golden Gai more than once, and I still don't know what to expect from the place.  I suspect, this is exactly the draw for the Tokyo-dwelling public.  In this tiny area, with its seemingly never ending selection of establishments, I have encountered street food from a master, an eccentric puppeteer hiding in a bar attic, a live sloth, an avante garde tofu ceremony, a closed acoustic concert from a movie star, a bar takeover from a lonely man on his birthday obsessed with rabbit pelts, and many other bizarre, unexpected occurrences.  There is something for everyone in Golden Gai, the trick is finding it... each entrance is a roll of the dice.  But you have more than 200 options, so get cracking!

Prices for these bars vary slightly, with well drinks costing 500-800¥ and cover charge 0-800¥ (cash!).  Many places offer a surprising array of more selected whiskys and whiskeys as well.

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Tips for Golden Gai:

  • Don't waste your time on the ground floor establishments.  They're all well and good, but the best things in life are hard to find, and I would say this particularly applies to bars/food in Tokyo.  The best drink deals and weirdest experiences are found on level 2F and up.
  • Don't be afraid of the cover charge.  Many places in Golden Gai will tout "no cover for international guests", but how many Japanese do you think want to go to a place like that?  I wonder what that does to the quality?  Try to find bars without a cover charge at all, or suck it up.
  • Hop around.  If something interesting doesn't arise within the first drink, move on.
  • Talk to people.  These teeny 6-10 seater bars are perfect for talking with strangers, and you will never meet a more friendly person than a salaryman 4 drinks in.