Western television reports about Tokyo tend to focus on the ultra-modern. There will, almost without exception, be shots of Shibuya’s Hachiko crossing (above), kids dressed in epileptic-fit inducing outfits and random commuter trains zipping past a neon background. A few finishing touches are applied (the occasional fancy edit and pumping electronic backing track – preferably by Orbital) and Bob’s your uncle, Toe-key-oh!
Of course, there’s more to Tokyo than techno-wallabies, Akihabara uber-nerds, passive-aggressive identikit salarymen and whale-smoking, dolphin-slapping karaoke hostess bars. Before the Americans bombed the living daylights out of it Tokyo was an intriguing mix of ramshackle streets and wooden buildings; buildings that even then struggled to hold out against the changes that modernisation brought to the country. After the war, a few Soweto-like areas that weren’t burned to cinders became hotspots for black market trading and lady-related sauciness. Shinjuku’s ‘Golden Gai’ was one of them.
Despite the whippet-like pace of change in other entertainment districts the Golden Gai has managed to retain a sense of its old-world charm. The area is home to some 150 bars stacked on and around each other in higgledy-piggledy fashion, linked together by a grid of tiny footpaths and claustrophobic alleyways. In the 1970s it became a popular hangout for artists, writers, musicians and let’s-have-a-revolution-oh-feck-it-I’ll-kill-myself intellectual Yukio Mishima. These days you’ll find it populated by an eclectic mix of old regulars, twenty- and thirty-something white-collar workers and random tourists who read about it in a Lonely Planet travel guide.
Finding a decent bar in the Golden Gai is like a game of Russian roulette, only without the spattering of brains on the wall (Tip: do it on the beach and let the crabs clean up). A lot of places are filled with regulars who like to keep things… well…regular. For this reason you’ll find that most bars charge a fee – typically around JPY1000 – just for the exalted privilege of entering. It’s the kind of twattish bag-of-wank practice that makes bar-hopping a bit of a non-starter, but if you’re feeling flush and fancy something different then forget about the price and get stuck in. After all, you only live once… apart from my mate Cecil: he’s on his fourth life. The government know about it, but it’s all kept very hush-hush.
If you really do need to reign in the expenses then it’s Imperative (yep, with a capital “I”) that you apply the Golden Gai Coefficient:
- Stick your head through a promising-looking door.
- Ask the barman/barmaid how much it’ll cost you to drink there.
- Scan the bar and weigh up the clientele. Do they look like the kind of people you want to drink with? (Remember: these bars are the size of a garden shed, and conversation is INEVITABLE.) Is there the possibility of something interesting happening? Kabuki theatre performed by a cete of impeccably-groomed badgers, for example?
- Apply the Golden Gai Coefficient:
Cost ≤ Entertainment Value = Enter the bar (c≤ev=e)
Cost > Entertainment Value = Leg it (c>ev=l)
- If you’re with your mates you’ll have to pool your calculations and put it to a vote. (Adopt first-past-the-post voting methods: don’t try to seek consensus on the issue, otherwise you’ll end up walking around for hours on end.)
Finding the Golden Gai is as easy as slipping on a wet bathroom floor and smashing your head open. Come out of Shinjuku station’s Kabukicho Exit and walk straight down (and I mean down as in the street that slopes slightly downwards) until you get to Yasukuni Dori. You’ll know you’re on Yasukuni Dori when you see this:
View Untitled in a larger map
Head up Yasukuni Dori for about five minutes. Both sides of the street are packed with shops and restaurants. After a few minutes you’ll spot a Mr Donuts (a cafe, not an actual man that looks like a doughnut) on the left-hand side. To the right of Mr Donuts is a small footpath shrouded by trees and the homeless. This, laydees and gentlemice, is the gateway to the Golden Gai. Only the penitent man will pass, so don’t forget to kneel when you hear the buzzing of circular saws coming out of the walls. Here it is on a map:
View Golden Gai, Shinjuku in a larger map
The best time to visit the Golden Gai is Friday or Saturday nights, preferably after 10pm, and after you’ve already had a few drinkypoos. If you’re thinking about getting a late-night train back to your home/hotel, forget it: accept the fact that you’ll be out until 5am (when the first trains start running) or paying for a taxi and you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more.