The compact maze that is Golden Gai feels like a world of its own, a remnant of old Tokyo hiding under the shadow of Shinjuku’s modern, glitzy skyscrapers. It is cinematic, atmospheric, and a classic Tokyo nightlife experience.
A former red light district, the tight alleyways are now home to roughly 280 distinct little establishments, each just big enough to seat a handful of people at a time – in fact, many of them count among the tiniest bars in the city (and perhaps in the world as well). What they lack in space, they more than make up for with their personality, each with its own niche catering to a particular set of clientele, especially folks from the local creative industries.
Many of the city’s budding actors and musicians moonlight as bartenders at Golden Gai, and are always happy to welcome patrons from all walks of life. However, some bars cater only to regulars or members. For travellers, it’s hard to know where and how to start your bar-hopping night here – but not if you follow our guide to the best drinking dens in Tokyo’s golden district.
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Behind a discreet wooden door that blends inconspicuously into the facade of alley 5 is undoubtedly one of the most charming nooks in all of Tokyo. While most closed doors in Golden Gai indicate a members-only venue, The Open Book is a happy exception. This charming standing bar is run by the grandson of award-winning Japanese novelist Komimasa Tanaka and is usually busy with lovers of literature.
One side of the bar is dedicated to its signature lemon sours, with jars of homemade lemon syrup and special double-chamber filters stationed behind the rustic wooden counter. On the other side are the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves referred to in its name, stacked with prized novels that guests can freely browse. Besides serving the best lemon sour in the city, the bar also cooks up a delightfully moreish curry toast for anyone craving a hot snack to go with their booze.
With its wonderfully kitschy, over-the-top interior adorned with chandeliers, mirrors and nautical odds and ends, Albatross is a true gem comprising three storeys, making it accommodating to larger groups. The menu offers an interesting selection of cocktails made of house-infused spirits, as well as hot sake and wine.
Experiment with your taste buds and go for drinks like the chilli pepper-infused spicy gin buck or the cactus sour (yes, made with the hardy, prickly plant). The bar has an immediate speakeasy feel to it, but there’s also something enchanting about the ruby red walls and rickety staircase that makes you feel as though you’re in a different time and place. There’s a ¥500 cover charge, but it’s well worth it for the experience.
It’s fair to say this bar attracts a very particular crowd, but that doesn’t mean that you have to know your way around death metal to join the party. The barman is also an avid fan of old-school horror flicks and there are two movies screening behind the bar at any given time. That said, you may have a hard time focusing on the gory classics with everything else the bar has going for it.
From a ghoulish Yoda chained to the wall to a disco ball and dozens of other peculiar-looking figurines, there are plenty of conversation points in this hardcore tavern. If you’re somewhat put off by the horror fest, you may be won over by the cost of drinks here: most of them are priced fittingly at ¥666, cheaper than most of the surrounding bars – and there’s no cover charge.
You won’t find this place on a map, so instead look for a glass door tacked with bits of paper assuring passers-by that there is nothing suspicious about what lies behind. Poke your head inside and you’ll discover that the interior is covered from floor to ceiling with notepad paper filled with doodles, initials and life advice scribbled by drunken backpackers and salarymen alike. Due to the highly flammable interior, this is a non-smoking bar.
The maximum capacity here has always been a point of speculation, as even when the place is packed and all stools are taken, new arrivals are ushered into the narrow space behind the bar with firm camaraderie. Always order the Suspicious Shot before you hop to the next bar; it comes with a dubious-looking purple sphere rolling at the bottom of the glass – don’t worry, it’s just a grape-flavoured ice lolly that makes a perfect chaser for even the strongest liquor.
Golden Gai is best known for its quirky watering holes, but the narrow alleys are also home to a handful of food joints that are highly regarded by Golden Gai regulars as well as bartenders from neighbouring bars who come for a quick bite at the end of their shift. Nikuto specialises in beef and chicken dishes cooked over charcoal and the mouthwatering smell of sizzling meat is difficult for anyone to resist after a couple of pints.
Some of the popular dishes sell out fast, so you won’t want to get here too late if you’re keen on sampling the full menu. Crowd favourites include the skewered chicken liver, which is served medium-rare and sprinkled with spring onions, sesame oil and salt, as well as the kimchi beef, which comes on a hot skillet topped with melted cheese. There’s no cover charge, but you are asked to order a drink and a food item each due to the limited seats.
Beyond the rowdier pubs is the navy blue haven of Sasuke. Anyone in need of free wi-fi, a stiff drink or simply a break from the chaos of Kabukicho will appreciate the understated beauty of this hideout. With roughly 250 different kinds of spirits, sake and shochu, this intimate establishment offers what is perhaps the most extensive drinks list you will find in Golden Gai.
The bar also features a sleek tatami loft available to anyone at no extra charge. The loft is low enough for the barman to pass your drinks up to you from behind the bar, but anyone above average height might have a hard time crouching to avoid bumping their head on the ceiling.
Not exactly a bar, Ramen Nagi makes a good end (or start) to a night of drinking at Golden Gai. Located on the second floor of an old wooden house, this ramen specialist comes steeped in the atmosphere of the neighbourhood, with a smell that hits you as soon as you walk in the door. And no wonder – the speciality here is pungent niboshi ramen, made by boiling vast amounts of dried sardines for 12 hours to create a distinctive, boldly flavoured soup.
We recommend the tokusei niboshi ramen, which comes generously laden with slices of chashu pork, menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), scallions, nori seaweed and a soft-boiled egg, and with a mix of curly and wide, flat noodles. If you fancy something a little different, the tsukemen and shio (salt) ramen offer alternative ways of enjoying that potent niboshi taste. As an added bonus, Nagi is open for business 24 hours a day, meaning you can start and end a heavy night out with a bowl of their noodles.
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