Shinjuku Drift: Golden Gai

Golden Gai (1 of 1) More than Shibuya, (yuck!) Roppongi, or (double yuck!) Kabukicho, Golden Gai was my favourite neighbourhood in Tokyo to party. When I used to party. At least until a new bartender at my usual place “put something special” in my drink one night and I missed the last train home. But that’s another story…

Golden Gai can be that kinda place, though it doesn’t have to be and for most people probably never is. In fact, GG’s demographic has trended towards the artistic and intellectual rather than the club crowd – it’s hard to imagine anyone dancing in the tiny, bedroom-sized bars that crowd this neighbourhood. Recently, however, that trend has expanded to include international celebrities and hipster tourists. And, just maybe, you…

Maybe it’s the setting. Entering GG is a little like discovering a secret garden or falling down a rabbit hole: a treed path lined with Peter Pan-like statues of cherubs riding dolphins and snails leads off neon-lit Yasukuni-dori and spillover from neighbouring Kabukicho. This isn’t Kansas Shinjuku any more, Dorothy-san.

There’s no neon, no touts. The economic miracle of Japan’s bubble economy, which has transformed the surrounding area of Shinjuku into an international city of wide roads and medium- to high-rise buildings, skipped this warren of 200 ramshackle, double-stacked bars that line Golden Gai’s six narrow lanes. In fact, the locals fought to keep it that way: back in the 80′s, when developers razed the student ghetto and working neighbourhood of nearby west Shinjuku to put up the landmark highrises and international hotels on – literally – the other side of the tracks, locals took turns guarding Golden Gai from developers and yakuza.

Maybe that’s why Golden Gai has a reputation for being closed to outsiders.

Times are a’changing, however; now visiting pop culture luminaries such as Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino have been spotted in the area. Wim Wenders shot a few scenes from his 1985 documentary Tokyo Ga in La Jetee, one of the more famous (anti-)establishments in the Gai.

Whither go our pop stars, so follow we: Golden Gai has earned entries in Lonely Planet, Fodors, and a plethora of websites. Heck, even CNN ran a service piece on “the five best bars in Golden Gai”, including a hospital-fetish place where the drinks are served in beakers. “Down the rabbit hole”, maybe, but not exactly off the beaten path any more. Still, it’s an area worth exploring for a little of the old Showa-era Tokyo fuinke, atmosphere, what’s left of it, and that perhaps not for much longer: a recent story on suggests that redevelopment plans for the area might once again be in the works… in time for the 2020 Olympics?

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