Shinjuku North Side: Kabukicho; Golden Gai; Hanazono Shrine; Skyscraper District
Almost two decades ago, I landed in Japan on what was to be a three-year overseas adventure from my home in Canada. I’m still here, but that’s another story…. Those first days in-country, while my then-partner — I’ll call her Achan — attended orientation training at the Keio Park Plaza hotel before being posted to rural Hokkaido to help “internationalize” the countryside (but that’s still another story…) I spun out a jet-lagged fugue through the neon canyonlands and narrow sidestreets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood. You know: the setting for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray? That was me. Minus the hair. And Scarlett Johansson.
After three years Achan returned to her family in suburban Calgary. After another year, in central Hokkaido this time, I relocated to Tokyo for some big-city adventure.
Now, thirteen years later, I live in a comfortable if un-cinematic neighbourhood in west Tokyo. Every day, on the commute, I pass through labyrinthian Shinjuku Station.
“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” to paraphrase The Naked City. And more than three million of them pass through Shinjuku each day. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Shinjuku Station as the“world’s busiest station”. Channel5’s recent documentary “World’s Busiest: Station” gets it right: “a perfect storm of busy-ness.”
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.
Another Friday, another trip to Golden Gai. Not that I’m complaining. It’s actually great to have such an interesting part of Tokyo on my commute line. No doubt the area is changing, and not wholly for the good: last night, for the first time, a tout hit me up within Golden Gai itself – albeit near one of the entrances:
“Good evening sir! We have a new international bar. ‘Happy Endings.'”
Truth is, the scene in Golden Gai has changed a lot in the last couple of years as more visitors have discovered the place and as some, at least, of the 200-odd bars in the area look for new clientele. One popular blogger recently called it “One of the most poorly kept secrets of Tokyo”, which sounds about right.
These days, there are a lot of visitors meandering the alleys between the bars, looking for places to drop in for a drink. This hasn’t “ruined” the place in my opinion, though twenty-year regulars may disagree.
What this means for you is that you should feel totally comfortable and confident visiting Golden Gai and, while there are still many establishments that will only welcome people who can hold a conversation in Japanese, some others are happy to host the international crowd.
So go to Golden Gai. Start perhaps at the large karaoke bar near the entrance called Champions where you will likely see a large crowd of young visitors. Then spend some time and walk, and pop your head into any place that catches your eye; the narrow stairs to second-floor places can be intimidating, but there’s some real gems upstairs! You’ll know soon enough if you’re welcome. If you don’t find anywhere that speaks to you, then Albatross can be your “safety”: I’ve been there many times, and while the bartender doesn’t speak much (any?) English, it’s a friendly place and you’ll likely meet others from the international set. Albatross has two floors, so don’t be turned off if the first floor is packed.
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… Continue reading “Shinjuku Drift: Golden Gai”→