Welcome to the “tiny bar district” in Tokyo! Golden Gai, or “Golden District,” is a six-alley network of over 200 bars in Shinjuku – a neighborhood in Tokyo. Each shanty establishment seats anywhere from five to thirty people, and they all come with their very own personalized theme —death metal, karaoke, and the like. (Who doesn’t love a kitschy little theme?) Interconnecting alleyways are sometimes so narrow that only a single person can fit through, and upper-level bars are reached by steep stairways.
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Golden Gai offers a glimpse into the past while embodying the dynamic spirit of modern Tokyo. Its narrow alleyways, diverse range of bars, and friendly atmosphere make it an ideal destination for those seeking an authentic and unforgettable (despite what the title says) night out drinking in Japan’s bustling capital.
Golden Gai For Newbies
The history of Golden Gai dates back to the post-World War II era when it emerged as a haven for artists, writers, and intellectuals seeking solace and inspiration. Rumor has it that the Yakuza made a regular practice of burning buildings down in the ’80s to then sell land to developers, but patrons stood guard at night to preserve it.
Despite challenges like this, it remains standing it stands as a testament to Tokyo’s ability to blend the old with the new.
Some of the bars only welcome regular customers, and you’ll periodically catch a “no foreigners” sign posted, but most are now “gaijin”-friendly (foreigner-friendly). Just walk away if you catch some shifty side-eye. No harm, no foul. I personally found the Japanese to be ridiculously polite.
Another quirk? (As if you needed more here!) No photos without express permission from the establishment(s). If you only ever follow one of my travel tips, make it this one – ask for permission to take photos in Golden Gai. Keep reading for more etiquette tips.
Of course, all of these random details make Golden Gai a must-add to the “Where In The World…” list, as well as any Japan travel itinerary.
How to Get to the Golden Gai
You’ll find this quirky little network amidst the skyscrapers of the Shinjuku district. The largest nearby crossroads are Yasukuni-dori and Kuyakusho-dori, and Golden Gai sits just behind them. You can make the turn towards the alleys at either Mister Donut or Zirco Tokyo.
Since it is not far from Shinjuku Station, using the Japan Rail (and your Japan Rail Pass) is a convenient option to get there. Once you arrive at Shinjuku Station, follow the signs and make your way to the East Exit. Golden Gai is located about 10-15 minutes away from this exit.
Golden Gai Etiquette
When visiting Golden Gai, it’s important to be mindful of the local customs. Here are some general guidelines to follow:
- Respect the specific rules and guidelines of each establishment. Some bars may have specific entry requirements or cater to regular customers. They can also include guidelines on behavior, photography, smoking, or noise levels. Take a moment to observe the atmosphere and behavior of others inside the bar and follow their lead.
- When entering a bar in Golden Gai, it’s polite to greet the staff and patrons with a friendly “Irasshaimase” (welcome) or “Konnichiwa” (hello). Showing basic courtesy and respect to those around you helps create a positive and welcoming environment.
- In busy bars, it’s common to place your order as soon as you find a seat. Be attentive to the bartender or staff and order promptly. When it’s time to pay, ask for the bill and settle it without delay.
- Golden Gai offers a unique opportunity to interact with bar owners, staff, and fellow patrons. Engage in conversations and be open to meeting new people. However, always be respectful and avoid intrusive or overly personal inquiries.
- Some bars in Golden Gai may allow smoking, while others may have designated smoking areas or be entirely smoke-free. Respect the smoking policies of each establishment and be considerate of others’ preferences.
By observing these etiquette guidelines, you can contribute to a pleasant and respectful atmosphere in Golden Gai and ensure a positive experience for yourself and those around you.
When does Golden Gai open? The Golden Gai bars all open at different times, but they’re generally all open around 5:30 pm. Then they stay open until 5 o’clock in the morning!
Is Golden Gai safe? Golden Gai is generally considered a safe area for visitors. However, as with any popular tourist destination, practice basic precautions, be mindful of your surroundings and belongings, and drink responsibly.
Is Golden Gai worth visiting? Yes. It offers a captivating blend of history, culture, and nightlife. Its unique atmosphere, diverse bar scene, and opportunity for cultural immersion make it a worthwhile destination for travelers looking to experience the authentic charm of Tokyo.
Does Golden Gai have food? Yes. While the area is primarily known for its bars and nightlife, you can find a variety of eateries like small, cozy izakayas (Japanese pubs), ramen shops, sushi bars, or curry houses. Many bars will offer light snacks and small dishes, which can include traditional Japanese bar snacks like yakitori (grilled skewered chicken), edamame (boiled soybeans), or sashimi to accompany your drinks. Some bars may even have a more extensive menu.
What does Golden Gai mean? The term “Golden Gai” translates to “Golden District” or “Golden Town” in English. The exact origin of the name is not entirely clear, and there are a few theories about its meaning. One theory suggests that the name comes from the term “golden street” or “gold street,” which refers to the valuable land in the district. Another theory is that the name is a nod to the area’s bustling and lively atmosphere, akin to the golden era of entertainment and nightlife.
Ideas? More On Japan?
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Want more on Japan? Visit my feature where the #AdventurePartnerForLife and I tackle Tokyo and Kyoto, our first Asia experience! (And, yes, we want more. Much more.)
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