The short version:
I’ve posted about Golden Gai many times on forums and even written an introductory guide to “Tokyo’s worst-kept secret,” a cluster of dive bars near Shinjuku’s notorious nightlife district where hipster travellers and in-the-know locals mix and mingle and together enjoy a unique Tokyo experience.
In 15 years of exploring Golden Gai’s narrow streets and cluttered bars, I’ve never really felt threatened, even when out all night, alone and killing time ‘til first train…
Until last night, Thursday Tokyo time. For the first time that I’ve seen, some of the touts from the dodgy nightclubs in the surrounding Kabukicho red light district are now in Golden Gai itself. One guy, in particular, chatted up patrons at the landmark Champions bar near Golden Gai’s unofficial entrance. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t take NO as an answer from me, and actually followed me right into Champions bar and wouldn’t leave until he thought I was calling the cops. When he did leave, it was with a threat that “he’d be waiting for me” outside Golden Gai.
Lousy way to end the night.
A one-off, rogue tout, or the beginning of a new and unwelcome phase in Golden Gai’s growing popularity? We shall see…
Shinjuku is a micro-cosm of the city as a whole. A circumnavigation of Shinjuku Station reveals to the visitor Tokyo high city and low, from Asia’s largest blue-light district to the international architecture of the Skyscraper District, the unique six-block warren of hipster dive bars that is Golden Gai, Shinto shrines and shopping areas, and more. This photo gallery, made up of images taken over 13+ years of my time in Shinjuku, complements the visitor’s guide I recently posted, Tokyo High City and Low.
Shinjuku Station and Area “A perfect storm of busy-ness”
From time to time, the question arises on travel discussion forums: which is the best neighbourhood in Tokyo? Never mind the vagueness of the question. If I had, say, 36 hours in Tokyo, I’d head to Shinjuku, a city-within-a-city. There’s no better place to get a feeling of 36 million people living together Blade Runner-style than in this west-end microcosm of The Big Sushi.
It’s where I first landed in Japan 18 years ago. Then, I spun a jet-lagged fugue through Shinjuku’s neon canyonlands, elevated footpaths, tatami sidestreets and alleys, and in the labyrinthian train station. You know: the setting for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray? That was me, minus the hair — and Scarlett Johansson.
Now, Shinjuku still pulls me into its orbit whenever I want some “bright lights, big city” excitement in my suburban commuter life. Familiar landmarks – the massive, six-storey Kinokuniya bookstore on the Southern Terrace, Shinjuku Gyoen park and garden, the warren of dive bars in Golden Gai – calm my nerves, and help re-center my wanderlost spirit.
After almost two decades of exploring this multi-nodal city, Shinjuku is still the single neighbourhood which best embodies Tokyo high city and low.
For the same reason, Shinjuku ranks first in places I recommend for first-time visits to The Big Sushi.
Shinjuku Station & Vicinity
If Tokyo is a collection villages tied together by a web of rail lines, then train stations are the village commons, the places around which daily life revolves. And of all the stations in the city, Shinjuku’s is the one by which all others compare. The Guinness Book of World Records awards Shinjuku Station the title of “world’s busiest station.” See the morning rush firsthand, and it’s easy to believe: Over three million passengers a day pass through: Dark-suited office workers, shoppers with oversized brand bags, schoolboys in Prussian jackets, schoolgirls in plaid skirts, GothLolis in frilly dresses and hats, retirees decked out in leather mountain boots and daypacks, English teachers with trademark bookbags slung over their shoulders (why do they all have close-cropped, thinning hair? why do I?), and tourists mesmerized by the spider scrawl of coloured lines on the transit map. Uniformed staff, “the human cogs in the Shinjuku machine,” do their best to keep passengers from tumbling off the over-crowded platforms. Sights that might otherwise catch your eye – a sheaf of archers with unstrung, spear-long bows wrapped in velvet; a super-sized sumo wrestler in kimono speaking into a Hello Kitty cellphone – blend into the constant, ever-changing parade of humanity around you.
Channel5’s recent documentary “World’s Busiest Station” gets it right: “a perfect storm of busy-ness.” There are 36 platforms serving twelve or so train and subway lines. At the station’s busiest time, apparently, a train moves through every three seconds. Including underground passageways, there are some two hundred exits. No less than ten malls and department stores are a part of the main building; many more are linked by those aforementioned passages.
And all that’s only counting the main station; there are many more of all of the above if you include satellite stations.
The Station is the gravitational heart of Shinjuku: shops and restaurants can’t seem to resist its pull. UniQlos and fast food joints cluster around the tracks and buildings and exits.
Out the East Gate exit, giant screens loop ads for cellphones and animated PSAs on earthquake safety. Karaoke bars blast J-pop into the streets. A pair of electronics superstores battle for customers with chirpy welcome songs and sidewalk displays of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. Trucks blare more J-pop, and tow larger-than-life bikini-clad robots. Pachinko parlours are already hard at it, cascades of small metal balls triggering flashing lights and bleeping, blipping, blooping alarms. The crossing signal twerps for a green light. From somewhere in the core a siren wails. And all this noise is channeled, amplified by the 10-storey urban wall that presses in all around. And everyone, all the time, talks on cell phones, as if they’re not really here, but somewhere more exciting, with more interesting people.
Compared to the East Gate, The Southern Terrace is relatively calm – except during Christmas illumination season. There’s also not a whole lot of reason for the visitor to drop by unless a guest at the Odakyu Hotel Century Southern Tower or craving a Krispy Kreme donut. The seven-story Tokyu Hands in the Takashimaya Department Store does, however, have an eclectic selection of character goods, stationery, and other omiyage, souvenirs. The Takashimaya Book Store also has one of the larger selections of English and other foreign-language books in Japan.
Continuing in the west side of Shinjuku Station’s gravitational field, electronics superstores Yodobashi and Bic Camera both have large outlets – Yodobashi’s is more of a village, really – where you can play with the newest cameras and lenses and check out the latest in Japanese consumer electronics.
Near the track underpass at the north end of the station, the ramshackle bars and eateries of Omoide Yokocho’s so-called “Piss Alley” are a throwback to the post-war Showa era.
Staying on the west side of the tracks, but straying a little further afield is the Nishi (“West”) Shinjuku Skyscraper District. Here, starting in the 1970s and growing along with the infamous Bubble Economy of the 1980s, a former working class neighbourhood and student ghetto were razed to make way for a new generation of skyscrapers and international hotels. Not everyone likes what’s happened to the old neighbourhood. Keizo Hino describes the area in his story, “Jacob’s Tokyo Ladder:”
Some particularly grand skyscrapers… were built in the latter half of the sixties and into the seventies, during the flood tide of rapid growth, and are nothing less than massive parallelpipeds, constructed with absolutely straight lines and planes, utterly without embellishment or a light touch. The steel shells of these buildings are massive and the walls thick as fortress walls, and even the relatively small rectangular windows, fitted with tempered glass from top to bottom, are set in perfect alignment vertically and horizontally.
The Bubble Economy has burst long since, but today architect Kenzo Tange’s computer-chip-inspired Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building still towers over the area, and offers a great — and free — panorama of western Tokyo from 202 meters up.
On the other side of the tracks from the Skyscraper District, a 10-story urban wall of shops, restaurants, karaoke bars, and the landmark Don Quixote discount store along Yasukuni-dori, featured in countless movies and music videos.
A couple of dim, narrow archways lead to a warren of side streets and narrow alleys. Welcome to fabled Kabukicho, Tokyo’s “Sin City” and Shinjuku’s blue-light entertainment district — the largest in Asia. Photographer Watanabe Katsumi documented life in Kabukicho circa the 1960s and 1970s in the collection Gangs of Kabukicho. In 2009, Mizoguchi Atsushi published a long essay on the history of the area titled Yabasa no Shincho, “Kabukicho — The Truth of Its Dangerousness”, which explores the historic events and social conditions that transformed Kabukicho into an akosha, bad area.
Kabukicho has been the setting of several novels and movies by Western and Japanese writers and directors, including In the Miso Soup by Murakami Ryu,Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, and the inspiration for the setting of the cult classic cyberpunk dystopia Blade Runner. 2009was a banner year for Kabukicho in culture: Jake Adelstein wrote his memoir Tokyo Vice about his time as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper; Jackie Chan released Shinjuku Incident, and Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic melodrama Enter the Void premiered at Cannes.
“There’s an anything goes feeling to the place,” reports Murakami’s narrator, Kenji, a thoughtful young sex tour guide. According to Kenji, in Kabukicho there’s “no ‘normal’ standard of behavior to live up to and illusions of glory or shame.”
Not that Kabukicho limits itself to sex and crime. Couples young and old also frequent the bars and restaurants in the area, and sometimes pop into one of the love hotels in the area. More recently, tour groups from China have started to navigate the narrow streets, Nikon and Canon DSLRs and cell phones snapping.
Beside a Mister Donut on the corner of Yasukuni Dori, a flagstone path leads to a six-lane warren of some 200 tiny bars double-stacked in ramshackle buildings. Long the haunt of intellectuals and artists — Wim Wenders filmed part of his 1985 Tokyo-Ga in the legendary La Jetee bar for film aficionados — the Gai is currently undergoing a transformation which includes open doors and welcomes to visitors in places once reserved only for regulars. I have published a guide to Golden Gai on Medium.com: ‘Down the Rabbit Hole in Tokyo’s Best Nightlife District.’
Never fear: there’s an oasis of calm next to the highrise hostess clubs and karaoke bars and other distractions. Not the most likely location, maybe, but one of Tokyo’s major Shinto shrines lies at the end of either of two nondescript paths. The name Hanazono means “flower garden”, so you can think of this jinja, “shrine”, as a secret garden just outside the Golden Gai and Kabukicho nightlife neighbourhoods of northeast Shinjuku.
The rest of the time, during the day at least, the shrine’s grounds make for a quiet retreat from Shinjuku’s bustle.
Shinjuku has all kinds of shopping options above ground and below, from department stores to boutiques. It’s not really my area of expertise, so I’ll point you in the direction of another blog, Japan Visitor, which has an excellent overview of shopping in Shinjuku.
I’ve been to Nichome a few times: it’s certainly straight-friendly as well as being Tokyo’s most happening LGBT ‘hood. Once again, however, I defer to the expertise of others: it seems to me that JapanVisitor offers a good insider’s perspective…
Shinjuku Gyoen is a gated, entry-fee charging (200 yen as of February, 2016) park a few minutes’ walk from the New south Exit of Shinjuku Station. There are gardens and park-like fields within the boundaries, and it’s a nice place to take a break from the city. Especially popular in spring cherry blossom season and in autumn when the leaves change.
All this is just one part of Tokyo, of the megalopolis that I call The Big Sushi. Perhaps that’s one reason I’ve stayed in Japan so long: to try to get a handle on what Tokyo Time Out magazine recently called“the greatest city in the world.” Different people have different styles of travel, of course, but if you like to step off public transit and go for a walk, a circumnavigation of Shinjuku Station will introduce you to Tokyo, high city and low.
Tokyo has more than its share of popular nightlife areas. Shibuya draws the club kids. Roppongi caters to the international crowd. Kabukicho is the largest blue-light district in Asia, a disconcerting mix of hostess clubs, brothels, and straight-up bars and restaurants.
Still, in the twelve-plus years I’ve lived in Tokyo, it’s to Shinjuku’s Golden Gai I go to meet interesting locals and, increasingly often, tuned-in travellers.
Since the 60’s and 70’s, writers and filmmakers such as Yukio Mishima and Yasujiro Ozu have haunted these narrow alleys. In the 1980’s, Wim Wenders shot scenes for Tokyo Ga in La Jetee, a bar devoted to movies, and still a favourite of cinephiles.
In fact, most of Golden Gai’s bars have a theme. There’s karaoke, of course, most visible at Champions, a popular first — and last — stop for many visitors. They start to spill onto the flagstone path by nine, and some stay until the first trains pull out of the nearby stations around dawn. At other places jazz remains popular, while Hair of the Dog has an extensive collection of punk and ska from the 80s. Still others cater to patrons with a passion for photography, exploitation films, or plastic models. At Tachibana shinryoushitsu, “Tachibana’s diagnosis room,” a cosplay nurse serves drinks with names such as “enema” and “speculum” from beakers amidst a cabinet of curiosities of medical charts and anatomical models. Another, the two-storey Albatross, has kept the red plush walls and chandeliers of its former incarnation as a brothel.
Maybe the setting explains Golden Gai’s unique fuinke, “atmosphere.” To enter the Gai 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 the red lights of Kabukicho. This isn’t Kansas Shinjuku any more, Dorothy-san.
No neon or — at least until recently — touts accost the visitor. Japan’s bubble economy, which transformed the surrounding area into an international-style city of wide roads and highrises, skipped this warren of 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, locals took turns guarding Golden Gai from developers.
Maybe that’s why Golden Gai has a reputation for being closed to outsiders.
Times are a’changin’, however. Now visiting pop culture luminaries such asTim Burton and Quentin Tarantino have been spotted in the area. Whither go our pop stars, so follow we: Golden Gai has earned entries in recent editions of Fodors, Lonely Planet, and a plethora of websites. Heck, even CNN ran a service piece on “the five best bars in Golden Gai.”
“Down the rabbit hole,” maybe, but not exactly off the beaten path any more…
Truth is, the scene in Golden Gai has changed a lot in the last couple of years. More visitors have discovered the place and some, at least, of the establishments in the area are courting new clientele. Tokyobling, a popular blogger, recently called it “One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo”, which sounds about right. This hasn’t “ruined” the place in my opinion, though twenty-year regulars may disagree.
What this means is that you should feel totally comfortable and confident visiting Golden Gai. While there are still many establishments that still cater to regulars, others are happy to host the international crowd.
Golden Gai may now be on the itinerary of every hipster visiting Tokyo, but it still offers a unique Japan experience. Perhaps not for much longer, though: a recent story on japantoday.com suggests that redevelopment plans for the area might once again be in the works… maybe in time for the 2020 Olympics.