The history of Golden Gai dates back to the end of WWII. It started out as a black market, and then in the 50’s, it turned into an area famous for prostitution. In the 60’s when the authorities made an effort to ban prostitution, all the shops became small bars where customers could come and have a chat with the bartenders, who were also often the owners.
Little by little, artists, writers, journalists, mangakas, etc. started gathering in the bars and alleys to share their ideas. Writers like Haruki Murakami and Kenji Nakagami portrayed their characters walking around Golden Gai streets, and that is how it stopped being a secret to the world and became one of the most visited areas by tourists.
Each owner puts great effort into providing a unique experience for their customers, so each bar has its own character, atmosphere, theme or spirit. With approximately 250 bars in an area smaller than a football field, Golden Gai has become a kaleidoscope of people and ideas. Nowadays, most of the owners are between their 20’s and 40’s, and bring a lot of life to the area.
There are places in the world that just drag you in, and this is certainly one of them. The first time I visited Golden Gai four years ago, I just couldn’t contain my excitement while looking forward to exploring all the bars in the area. Unfortunately, at that time most of the places only allowed Japanese or Japanese-speaking customers to go in, and my group of friends were only foreigners who had just arrived in the city. So we only walked around talking about how we needed to improve our Japanese skills so we could step foot into one of those amazing establishments one day.
One year after my first visit, I ended up becoming a regular. One of my close friends took me on a bar-hopping night there and I had the chance to sit down in some of the bars and talk with a bunch of people. Tokyo is an amazing city, but sometimes everyone is so busy doing their own thing that you don’t even notice the people who commute with you every day. Golden Gai is different; the bars are so tiny that you cannot avoid talking with the people around you.
The first time I went with my friend, I remember we were having a serious conversation about our jobs at our first stop, and one guy next to us just jumped into our conversation and ended up giving us good advice. Then at another bar, we were greeted by everyone the moment we went in. In others, it was just us and the bartender/owner with whom we had a lively chat about how the neighborhood had changed in the past few years, from a Japanese-only space into a really multicultural environment.
You will find just regulars in some bars. But in others, you can find a mix of foreigners, regulars, and even staff members on their days off. Every single one of them will be happy to meet you and share a laugh or chat. It was amazing to have someone guide me into the Golden Gai world for the first time.
Now I can navigate its alleys leisurely and with confidence from knowing people in the area. Two and a half years later, I’m now living here with the chance to walk its streets, explore its bars, and learn more about this amazing place. As a food tour guide, I feel proud and happy to bring others here to have this same amazing experience.
So if you want to go around Golden Gai and explore, here are some of my favorite bars:
- Dead Match in Hell: a heavy metal bar that plays B class movies all the time, decorated with posters of the same movies, album covers, Star Wars characters, and all around keeping up with the underworld theme. All the drinks are 666 yen.
- Not Suspicious: owned by a former Buddhist monk, the mechanics for entering this small bar go as so: whenever a new customer comes in, everyone else who is already in must shift one seat to their side. If you get to the end of the row, you will have to go through the bar space to get back to the first seat, or you can just leave by then. All the walls and ceilings are decorated with notes that people leave, and you will always find paper, markers, and colored pencils on the counter.
- Champion: right in front of the entrance to Golden Gai, this bar has been running for more than 12 years with all drinks costing 500 yen, plus you can sing Karaoke for just 100 yen per song. Here, there are always customers from all around the world, making it a persistent multicultural experience. You can sing until your lungs are out of air while the amazing staff keeps on bringing the karaoke machines to everyone.