Learn How to Drink at the Golden-gai

By Shinjuku Golden Gai

Golden Street is home to a row of wooden tenements built after the war, which still
houses nearly 300 bars. Since some stores have their own “membership system,”
the street was thought to have a high barrier to entry. However, in recent
years, it has become a bustling tourist destination with an increase in
overseas visitors. To make the most out of this historical bar district, we
suggest you to learn the “ins and outs of Golden Street bar-hopping” from
various “nonbei” (refers to experienced drinkers).

Inside KurakuraShinjuku Golden Gai

Beer in one handShinjuku Golden Gai

Lack of service allows you to drink at your own pace

According to the 2018 Survey of Foreign Travelers' Behavior Characteristics, conducted for foreign tourists regarding the level of satisfaction in each criteria, “hospitality” ranked top in level of satisfaction, ahead of “restaurants,” “tourist facilities,” etc. The culture of “hospitality,” which focuses attention on maximizing the joy and satisfaction of the customer through action, can be said to be a basic spirit in Japanese restaurants, but the way it's expressed may be a bit different here in Golden Street.

Bottles lined upShinjuku Golden Gai

Keep bottles of customersShinjuku Golden Gai

“The Golden Street may not be suitable for those who come with the attitude of ‘I should be treated as a “customer” because I paid money,’” says Bunmei Tobayama, the store owner of “Bar Kurakura.”

“At our bar, we say that ‘customer service is to avoid giving service.’ What we provide is a bottle, ice and water so that visitors can pour their sake and drink at their own pace. In many bars at the Golden Street, it’s a lot cheaper to order a whole bottle, rather than individual drinks.” As Mr. Tobayama says, it’s not rare to see bars at the Golden Street where you can “order a whole bottle and keep it at the bar.” The rows of bottles with customers’ names on them would also reflect the number of regular customers at a particular bar.

There are as many bottle keeps as there are customersShinjuku Golden Gai

A person holding a drinkShinjuku Golden Gai

Reiko Harashima, the owner of “Bar Loberlia,” says that their business is mainly supported by regulars. “When new customers arrive when we’re full, many of our customers who’ve had their share of stay naturally move on to the next place, since our bar is small. We never ask anyone to leave, but it seems like they all have a few other favorite places, which allows them to be flexible in hopping around.” This well-balanced dynamic between the store owner and the customers is not something that can be built overnight. This may be one of the reasons why people can drink comfortably at, and would frequently visit the Golden Street.

Counter of ToppuShinjuku Golden Gai

Inside ToppuShinjuku Golden Gai

Themed bars encourage interesting exchanges of opinions

This district was where intellectuals and publishers gathered since long ago, and heated discussions have been held every night throughout its long history. Even now, this spirit is still alive. Once you sit down at a counter in a narrow bar, conversation naturally flows even with someone you’ve met for the first time. There seems to be a unique style of communication in this district.

Hidekatsu Shibata, the owner of "Toppu", has been active in the front lines as an actor as well as a voice actor while running a bar in the Golden Street. It is said that there are many customers who visit Mr. Shibata at his bar. “What’s interesting about the Golden Street is the large number of themed bars that reflect the strong preferences of the store owner. A lot of anime lovers gather at my place. It becomes lively with interesting topics about voice actors and anime, and our young bartenders also frequently participate in the conversation. There are a lot of other interesting bars, including bars that decline customers who don’t like detective novels, bars that were opened by a weekly magazine reporter, etc.”

Various figures decorate the counter of ToppuShinjuku Golden Gai

Glass cups with their bar name ToppuShinjuku Golden Gai

Inside KurakuraShinjuku Golden Gai

The themes encompass not only hobbies and personal interests, but the district is also known as a place of gathering for those with various political opinions. “In Japan, it’s often said that it’s a taboo to talk about politics and baseball over drinks,’ but Golden Street is filled with people who have their own views, so it’s actually fun to exchange opinions about politics here. Since long ago, such discussions and fights happened on a regular basis. There would often be times when customers who sat next to each other held opposite political views, but they’ve all respected each other’s point of view, and nothing too bad ever happened. There have also been a lot of skirmishes between people with similar ideas,” said Mr. Tobayama.

Bookshelves at HishouShinjuku Golden Gai

Michiko Sasaki, owner of Hishou, is also a photographer.Shinjuku Golden Gai

Michiko Sasaki, owner of Hishou, is also a photographer.Shinjuku Golden Gai

Michiko Sasaki, the owner of “Hisho,” and a photographer who has continuously taken photos of student-led movements, has witnessed the times during her life through the Golden Street. “People would fight, but would eventually get along and become friends. Everyone did that over and over. Even if you’re in an important position of a company, everyone is treated as an equal once you step inside Golden Street. It’s quite common to call each other by nicknames without knowing their real name, only to be told later of their high status by someone else, but in this side of the town, such things do not really matter that much.”

Akarui Hanazono 5th AvenueShinjuku Golden Gai

Akarui Hanazono 1st AvenueShinjuku Golden Gai

A poster by the entrance of the Golden StreetShinjuku Golden Gai

Manners upheld by each participant protects this historical cityscape

The Golden Street has long accepted all kinds of people, including the bustling, heavy drinkers. It’s nonsense to establish rules for drinking, but from the perspective of those who love this district, there are certain things that should be kept in mind.

Ms. Harashima, whose mother ran a bar in the Golden Street, and was born and raised there above their bar until high school, is pleased that the district is gaining more popularity, but is also concerned about something. “I’ve always been told to be careful about fires. There are rows of wooden houses around here. A few years ago, a vacant store caught on fire, and it’s scary to see some people littering their cigarettes. In order to protect this cityscape, everyone has to observe the manners. I believe that by doing so, this interesting bar district will continue to exist.”

Akarui Hanazono 3rd Avenue bright at nightShinjuku Golden Gai

Bunmei Tobayama, owner of Kurakura; Takashi Matuso and Haruka Saito, his regular customersShinjuku Golden Gai

“I learned a lot of things from the Golden Street. The top lesson may be that ‘your dreams and life will wither away the moment you stop drinking!’ (laughs),” says Mr. Tobayama. Over the years, various connections have been fostered among the rows of wooden tenements between store owners and customers, customers themselves and stores themselves. It goes without saying that alcohol was what facilitated these interactions, as well as delicate thoughtfulness and human compassion. You would surely be able to enjoy much more drinking in Golden Street if you keep this somewhere in the back of your mind.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Bar Loberia
Golden gai
Shinjuku Sanko Street Promotion Association

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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