The Bar-Hopping Culture of Shinjuku Golden Street

A Taste of Tokyo's Historic Golden Gai District

Entrance of the Golden StreetShinjuku Golden Gai

The Golden Street is located in Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo. The wooden tenements that were built soon after the war are still present today, and around 280 restaurants operate in this area of approximately 6500 square meters. “This isn’t just a ‘regular bar area.’ It has the charm of a ‘bar-hopping district,’” says Bunmei Tobayama, who has operated a bar at the Shinjuku Golden Street for more than 50 years. What makes this place so special? We sought for answers by reflecting on the district’s history.

The backstreets of the Golden StreetShinjuku Golden Gai

Enjoy the “Bar-Hopping District” by hopping from one unique bar to another

The place is one block away from the neon-lit premier entertainment district of Japan, past the promenade with weeping willows. Wooden tenements stand in a row on both sides of a narrow alley like a grid board, and both the first floors and second floors are filled with bars one after another.

Bar Loberia of the Golden street in the early 1970sShinjuku Golden Gai

The average size of a bar is about 4 tsubo (around 13 square meters). After opening a narrow door which can only accommodate one person at a time, you’ll see a counter where 5 to 6 visitors would sit side by side, where you can experience a unique ambiance that’s characterized with the bar owner’s tastes and preferences.

Each customer has their own favorite spots, and hops around 5 to 6 bars a night. This is the standard routine that’s practiced at the Golden Street. The mood of a somewhat mysterious and fascinating cityscape attracts people, and in recent years, it has become more vibrant as a foreign tourist destination. If you trace the origin of these rows of wooden tenements before it became a “special bar hopping district,” it will go all the way back to the postwar reconstruction period of Japan.

People living in the Golden Street in the early 1970sShinjuku Golden Gai

Working mama in the Golden street in the early 1970sShinjuku Golden Gai

Golden street in the early 1970sShinjuku Golden Gai

Post-War black market turned into a red-light district: the changing operation of the tenements

The story dates back to 1947, directly after the war, when the black market that existed on the east side of Shinjuku Station, and the street vendors that surrounded the “red line” of Shinjuku’s 2-chome, were forced to move to the now Golden Street and Sanko-cho by the stationed forces. The government had the local residents form a commercial cooperative, and distributed empty lots to each union member, which led to the development of rows of tenements that are 3 to 5 tsubo (around 10-16 square meters) in size, which still exist today.

Family living in the Golden Street in the early 1970s.Shinjuku Golden Gai

The first floors comprised of restaurants, beauty salons, clinics, fruit stands, sushi restaurants, etc., which created a de facto quarter called Hanazonogai. People ate and slept on the second and third floors. Such area that supported the livelihood of the local residents soon gradually strengthened its presence as an entertainment district. It prospered as an illegal prostitution zone called "blue line," which continued until the anti-prostitution law was fully enforced in 1958.

Life in the Golden street in the early 1970sShinjuku Golden Gai

Exterior of ToppuShinjuku Golden Gai

Interior of ToppuShinjuku Golden Gai

Hidekatsu Shibata, the owner of ToppuShinjuku Golden Gai

Hidekatsu Shibata, the owner of the Bar “Toppu,” was the first to open a store in this district that concluded its red-light era. He is still an active owner at the same location. “I launched my store in the same year that the Anti-Prostitution Act came into effect. At the age of 22 after graduating from college, I wanted to become an actor, but I couldn’t find a job. As a Shinjuku-lover, the first place I headed to was the then “Hanazonogai.” And through various connections, I was able to start my own business. Eventually, my theater friends started working for me, and I let some of my juniors live on the third floor. Sixty years have passed since then and I still stand at the counter as an 82 years old. Although, it’s not something to brag about.”

The Golden StreetShinjuku Golden Gai

Bunmei Tobayama, owner of KurakuraShinjuku Golden Gai

Bunmei Tobayama, owner of KurakuraShinjuku Golden Gai

Mr. Bunmei Tobayama, the owner of the Bar “Kurakura,” has also been running the show at the Golden Street for 50+ years. “I came to Tokyo in 1967. They were entering a new era in terms of both theater and film. I’ve witnessed various things over the years, such as Juro Kara building a red tent at the adjacent Hanazono Shrine to run a play, as well as a student movement incident called the Shinjuku mayhem the following year. There was this pretense that “something interesting is always happening in Shinjuku.” Actors, authors, journalists, and youngsters hoping to meet them also gathered at the bars along the Golden Street.”

Stairs of HishouShinjuku Golden Gai

Regular visitors encourage other visitors become a regular, which can essentially be summed up as, “birds of a feather flock together.” This social network expands as you hop from one small bar to another. “I’ve met various people over the years through bar hopping. At times, you fight with each other, but on other occasions, I’ve stumbled on gigs to help out a play. You’re not simply paying money to drink. It was a place where culture was being created through the social encounters at the bars,” says Mr. Tobayama.

Ms.Michiko Sasaki as owner of the "Hishou"Shinjuku Golden Gai

It seems that the presence of “mamas,” who generally exhibit a charismatic character, has also largely influenced the establishment of such cultural salons. Ms. Michiko Sasaki, the owner of “Hisho,” is a famous, beloved mama at the Golden Street, who goes by the nickname, “Omichan.” After launching her first venture, “Musasabi,” in 1968, she once moved away from the Golden Street, but has since returned and is currently active there to this day.

“Mamas at the Golden Street are all strong-willed. Everyone respects and honors the store’s mama, so they would follow what she says. Many visitors are stubborn and fight frequently, but they always seem to listen and step out when I tell them to “be quiet and do it outside!” After a few moments, they would always come back with their shoulders crossed, having made up. The presence of such regular visitors who look up to the mamas despite being scolded at times has prevented anything malicious to happen to business owners like us.”

Customers are not treated unilaterally, but instead create the ambiance of the bar together. It seems that this implicit rule is still active at the Golden Street, which has been established back in the day.

Interior of HishouShinjuku Golden Gai

Its current form is being preserved by those who love the Golden Street

Although it has matured into a “bar hopping district,” and has been cherished by many intellectuals, the Golden Street has faced several existential crises. During the economic bubble in the 1980s, the district was disrupted by land speculation activities.

Interior of HishouShinjuku Golden Gai

"By that time, many of the union members who started the Hanazonogai and their business were getting older, and it wasn’t rare to see some of them think that it would be easier to sell their business and retreat somewhere else. There were quite a lot of businesses back in the day, but this number was cut in half. The number of customers also shrunk by half. But since the tenure law was different from now, it was difficult to order eviction, so the stores that remained did their best in preserving the district, but still, it became quite desolate,” says Mr. Shibata.

The Golden StreetShinjuku Golden Gai

Then, in 1992, when the “fixed-term leasing law” was enacted, the hurdle for landlords to lend property to tenants was lowered, which promoted a new flow of people to the district. Due to the easier lending and renting policies, the district became popular among youngsters who were able to become a store owner with little capital, which contributed to the uprising of many new stores. Some depreciated buildings are even fixed and remodeled by the store owners themselves.

Akarui Hanazono 3rd Avenue bright at nightShinjuku Golden Gai

“What I did was connect two adjacent stores, and made the atmosphere more inviting by tearing down the ceiling of the first floor. You can't change the outside because it is an interesting tenement that can no longer be built with the current law, but each owner strives to make the interior as comfortable as possible. The stores on the second floor are said to have high barriers to entry at times, as you have to go through narrow stairs, but I personally think that is a good thing. The fun thing about the Golden Street is that once you muster up your courage to open the door, you’ll instantly become a regular visitor after the initial visit. This cityscape and culture, once broken, cannot be recreated. That’s why we’re working very hard to protect this district,” says Mr. Tobayama.

Akarui Hanazono 3rd AvenueShinjuku Golden Gai

The structures of the tenements naturally arose from the backdrop of the lands that were distributed after the war, as well as from the lifestyle and culture thereafter. It’s a hot whirlpool of culture and ideas that sprung up, with Shinjuku as its center. The store owners lived their life protecting the district. The formation of Golden Street as a special bar-hopping district has a long history that cannot be described in few short sentences. The Golden Street has gradually morphed into a bar-hopping district, and its legacy still lives on to this day.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:

Bar Loberia

Photos: Misa Nakagaki

Text: Rio Hirai

Edit: Saori Hayashida

Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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