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The 5 best bars in Shinjuku's Golden Gai
We go on a pub-crawl round the best boozers in Tokyo's hoariest hotspot
With a staggering 200 bars and eateries crammed into a maze of six narrow streets, Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district is one of the more rewarding drinking destinations in central Tokyo -- if you’re feeling adventurous, that is.
Sandwiched between Shinjuku Ward Office and Hanazono Shrine, a short walk from the East Exit of Shinjuku Station, this collection of ramshackle buildings has resisted development since World War II, leaving it a mysterious and compelling hangout for musicians, filmmakers, artists and booze-hounds alike.
Be warned, however -- Golden Gai is not cheap. Prices are almost universally high and most bars will sting you with a seating charge.
Some will even turn you away outright, preferring to save their limited seating for regular customers. But, there are plenty of bars in the area that will give you a warm welcome, especially those with younger owners.
Also, look out for the Nouryou Kansha-sai festival that’s held every August, when the more progressive watering holes throw open their doors to newcomers and drop their cover charges. Well, that's the theory anyway.
In the meantime, while there’s no definitive best-of list laying bare Golden Gai’s many unique and charming establishments, here’s a selection that we particularly love.
“This isn't a titty bar!” howls the barmaid at Square, anxious that we might mistake the mammary-minded conversation of the young lads at the counter for shop policy. And indeed it’s not -- though there’s plenty of cheeky fun to be had nonetheless.
The fetish-wear that lines the walls and the signed posters of female pro wrestlers go some way to suggest a well-meaning spirit of deviance imbuing this otherwise perfectly normal little boozer, where pop monsters such as Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson play (not too loudly) over the stereo.
It’s not a gay bar, either, but it does seem to attract LBG and trans-whatever clientele alongside the “straighties.” To put it another way -- at Square, you’ll feel welcome whoever you are.
3rd Street 2/F, 1-1-8 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 3203 8450. Open Monday-Saturday 8 p.m.-5 a.m. Cover charge ¥500 including a side dish, drinks from ¥500. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit).
Run by “Abe-chan,” a world music nut in his mid-40s who also writes about Korean pop for a Japanese magazine, Asyl is a haven for lovers of Desi beats, Algerian hip-hop, bhangra, K-pop and some even broader musical ephemera.
Although it’s cluttered with bottles and stacks of CDs (that give the place natural character) and is only about the size of a small walk-in closet, Asyl still manages to squeeze in seats for half a dozen customers.
Autographs adorn the walls (including those of a Korean rapper and “Noel and Liam Gallagher,” though Abe says the latter were actually scribbled by a couple of visiting Mancunian pranksters), and the boss’s warm sense of humor quickly spreads to the friendly clientele. As with many Golden Gai bars, you’ll make new drinking pals easily at Asyl.
3rd Street 2/F, 1-1-8 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (90) 3910 0605. Open daily 8 p.m.-5 a.m. Cover charge ¥300 (including a snack), drinks from ¥600. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.
3. Albatross G
With seating on three floors, Albatross G is a sprawling pub -- by Golden Gai standards, at least.
It’s barely a couple of meters wide, yet somehow fits two tables, as well as an engraved dark-wood counter on its ground floor, with another bar on the second floor and a sort of balcony on the third, to which the bartender underneath passes up drinks with outstretched arms.
Set in a deep red hue, the place certainly gives the impression of thrift-shop splendor. The ceilings are crowded with fake chandeliers, the walls mingling crucifixes with stuffed animal heads and mirrors in ornate frames.
And indeed, this is an ideal den for the indie-rock crowd, with a cooler-than-thou soundtrack and occasional art exhibitions on the thrid floor to boot. The staff can be a bit on the surly side, and your cover charge gets you the tiniest bowl of popcorn you’ll ever see in your life, but hey -- that’s all part of its charm.
5th Avenue, 1-1-7 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 3203 3699. Open Sunday-Thursday 8 p.m.-5 a.m., Friday-Saturday 8 p.m.-7 a.m. Cover charge ¥300 (including a snack), drinks from ¥500. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.
4. Bar Plastic Model
Bar Plastic Model is a shrine to the plasticized culture of the 1980s, from the toys that adorn its counter (a couple of Rubik’s Cubes, which owner Kei Sekine can solve in front of your eyes, and a bunch of Gundam and Urusei Yatsura figures) to the mass-market cartoon heroes of the period (such as Doraemon, whose visage graces the spirits tumblers).
And then there’s the extensive selection of lovingly preserved records that line the bar itself, taking in new-wave, punk, hardcore and old-school anime themes and spun on a full DJ setup complete with oversized amp.
Bar Plastic Model counts among its regulars renegade videogame director Suda51, who even featured the bar in his game “No More Heroes.”
With its white concrete walls and counter, the real Bar Plastic Model is one of the brighter joints in Golden Gai -- and neither as synthetic, nor as disposable as its name suggests.
G2 Street 1/F, 1-1-10 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 5273 8441. Open Monday-Saturday 8 p.m.-5 a.m., Sunday 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Cover charge ¥700 (including a snack), drinks from ¥600. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.
5. Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu
A good bar-crawl often ends in hospitalization -- so why not combine the two with a visit to Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu (“Tachibana examination room”)? One of Golden Gai’s stranger haunts, this tiny second-floor establishment is in thrall to all things medical.
Its walls are festooned with biology diagrams, its counter littered with model skulls and skeletons, a real pickled baby rodent in a vial, and a gigantic silicon statue of a penis that sways cheerfully when nudged.
A barmaid in a nurse’s uniform fixes drinks in glass beakers while the food is served in metal kidney dishes.
Original cocktails include the appealingly named Chounai Senjou (“colonic irrigation”), a shochu-base drink with a stick of sour dried apricot designed to look like a turd, and Kanchou (“enema”), a sticky-sweet blend of gin, cherry-blossom liqueur and an energy drink.
The bar has just one table, which you’ll share with the other customers -- much like an operating theater, when you think about it. Oh, and there’s a ¥5,000 penalty if you fall asleep, though quite frankly, we’d be more worried that a snooze would result in having our organs harvested. Drink safe.
3rd Street 2/F, 1-1-8 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 3208 4148. Open Monday-Saturday 8 p.m.-4 a.m., Sun 4 p.m.-midnight. Cover charge ¥1,500 (including a side dish), drinks from ¥500. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.