Whether it be dancing the night away at a club or drinking and meeting new people in a tiny dive bar, Shinjuku Ni-chome offers some of the best nights out in Tokyo. No matter if you’re straight, gay or non-binary, the capital’s LGBT hub will deliver. If you want to experience one of the best parts of Japanese bar culture – talking with and being entertained by the staff – but don’t quite know where to head for English-friendly banter, these five bars will fit the bill.
Café Lavandería is the kind of place where one minute you’re drinking and the next you’re suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to smash the patriarchy and plan a revolution. Tucked away in a back street opposite the famous Goldfinger bar, this easy-going communist-come-anarchist café offers very reasonably priced but high-quality drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), a wide selection of books to browse, and regular events such as world music gigs and political talks (Noam Chomsky stopped by when he visited Tokyo).
The staff at Café Lavandería speak not only English but also Spanish (‘viva la revolución!’), as the owner believes that speaking only English does not make you ‘international’. Keep an eye on the bar clock; it is intentionally set ten minutes fast to remind comrades they need time to get to Shinjuku Station for the last train home.
Located right on the main strip, this garish bar is owned and run by the pioneering drag queen Bourbonne. It’s staffed by both men and men in dresses (of varying degrees of flamboyance), who are always entertaining. While Campy! isn’t technically an ‘English-speaking’ bar, the staff give it their sportsman’s best to make all their customers happy. There’s no cover charge (unless you reserve a couch at the weekends for ¥1,000) and drinks are paid on delivery.
Decorated in a ‘western’ style – think bricks, concrete and wood – this bar opened in November 2016 and is a decidedly manly hangout for expats and locals alike. The staff, predominantly bears, are friendly and speak a wide range of languages from Spanish to Chinese, while the décor, music and clientele give Eagle Tokyo the atmosphere of a Brooklyn lounge. On the weekends, drinkers lured by the loud pop and bright lights spill out onto the street in front; there’s plenty of standing space plus a few seats in the back to take a quick nap.
Now entering its fifth decade, New Sazae is a Ni-chome institution. Run by veteran ‘mama’ Shion, who’s been managing the bar for almost 40 years, New Sazae is almost untouched since the 1970s; its décor, music and vibe all scream old-school discothèque. Customers range from straight cross-dressers to office girls, and Shion oversees his domain from the bar, serving drinks and changing CDs.
The cover charge (including one drink) is ¥1,000 and after that drinks and food cost ¥700. New Sazae is open 365 days a year, until 5am on weekdays and 7am on weekends. Come pick the brain of the man who was there for the formation of Ni-chome and shake what your mother gave you to some ’80s disco.
After undergoing some substantial renovations, this underground bar has become a great place to escape the trap of karaoke boxes. Quite like a western karaoke bar, with everyone taking turns to entertain the crowd – or perhaps embarrass themselves – it has a nice and intimate feel. A large space with a big bar and many booths for larger parties, it’s the perfect place to show off some of the songs in your repertoire.