Where Tokyo's film industry may, or may not, drink

Where Tokyo's film industry may, or may not, drink

These hundreds of small bars in Shinjuku are where the elite like to tipple at night -- although they aren't saying exactly where
Golden Gai
Golden Gai looks like this overexposed photo in our imagination, but is generally dark and ragged. (Photo by Flickr user yuri_koval)

Depending on your perspective, the Golden Gai bar district of Shinjuku is either a rare remnant of Tokyo's post-war grittiness, an authentic bohemian sanctuary in an increasingly uniform and sterile metropolis, or just a tourist cliché recommended by too many foreign guide books.

Whatever the case, almost everyone has an opinion on this unique warren of little alleyways and watering holes. Golden Gai is packed with over 200 small bars, although the exact count is rather vague since the bars and their owners are ever-changing.

Compared with the nearby Memory Lane, however, the bars do have an authentic bohemian feel. Many of the little drinking rooms remain favorites with local writers, musicians and especially film business people. They are also a favorite stop on the itineraries for international stars and luminaries visiting the city.

Golden Gai and the Japanese cinema

The dozens of movie posters that adorn both the walls and doors of Golden Gai are a first sign of the connection between this area and Japan's film industry. Inside those poster-decked bars, you will find actors, script-writers, producers, directors or hardcore film enthusiasts all sitting back with a drink.

The film world connections go back to the 1960s when Golden Gai had just metamorphosed into a drinkers enclave from its previous incarnation as a red-light district.    

"A lot of people from the Japanese movie business still congregate in a few bars in Golden Gai, from industry veterans to young directors,” explains Fumi Teranishi, an anime producer at Shochiku who worked on the award-winning animated version of "Franz Kafka’s a Country Doctor" and the "Sengoku Basara" series.

"I think it's the strong culture of deep human relationships that has developed and continues to exist in the bars in the area, that is appealing to people in the film business," suggests Teranishi.

La Jetee: Ozu, Coppola and Tarantino-approved

Famously hard-drinking legendary director Yasujiro Ozu of "Tokyo Monogatari" fame was a regular visitor to Golden Gai in his twilight years. When cult director Wim Wenders came to Tokyo exploring Ozu's legacy, he not only drank in Golden Gai but shot a scene or two at the La Jetee bar (Kabukicho 1-1-8, Shinjuku-ku, tel. 03 3208 9645, www.lajetee.net) for his "Tokyo Ga" documentary.

The bar itself is named after "La Jetee," the short film by French director Chris Marker -- a man who has been known to drink there, as have Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino.

Golden Gai ettiquette 101

While Jetee is known for being relatively welcoming to outsiders (thanks in part to a French and English-speaking staff), most bars are renowned for being completely closed off to the uninvited. One person spoken to for this article claimed temporary amnesia when asked the names of bars favored by entertainment business types. Another made it clear they didn't want their regular watering-hole named.   

Before barging into one of a Golden Gai bar with enough friends to fill it to capacity, remember that regulars have often sat on those regular stools every night for many years -- and that’s just the way the bar-owners like it. Don't take their seats.

Bar hosts will usually make it very clear whether you are welcome or not. With a bit of discretion, it's not difficult to get a sense of whether or not your patronage is wanted. Also know that most bars have seat charges, so unlike Memory Lane, drinking in Golden Gai is not a cheap night out.