Shinjuku is one of the city wards (districts) of Tokyo. We stayed in Koreatown near Shin Okubo Station which is conveniently located for our random wanderings in the busy city. Home to many of Tokyo’s tallest skyscrapers, large department stores and one of the busiest train stations, Shinjuku is also known for it’s wild red-light district, Kabukicho. Right in the corner of Kabukicho, is a six-alley block known as Golden Gai. These six alley ways house close to 200 bars and izakayas. Yes 200 of them in six small alleys, so you can imagine how tiny of these bars are! The alleys are narrow, only accessible by pedestrians and bicycles and the former brothels look run-down and shabby from the outside.
We were there around 7.30pm and Golden Gai hadn’t fully come alive, but it meant we were able to find a spot in two of the izakayas that we were brave enough to enter. Most of the bars only serve regulars and if not accompanied by one, may be turned away. But visitors should not be offended, some of the bars only have up to six seats at the bar and regulars have priority.
The first izakaya we entered was probably one of the least intimidating. Spacious in comparison to some others, there were about six tables and a small bar section. The owner welcomed visitors and were friendly and accommodating. We ordered delicious warm sakes with a range of mouthwatering bar food (just like tapas, but mostly on sticks).
After devouring stick after stick of fried chicken, veggies and seafood and downing a few bottles of sake, we were ready (and bolder, thanks to the sake) to check out another spot.
It’s tricky as we walked down alley after alley. The bars which are visitor-friendly were identified by the menus by the entrance. All the bars have closed doors and look as if they’re closed (most of them were actually full inside!). So we had to open some of the doors and poked our heads in to check each place out. As there were four of us, most places couldn’t really accommodate us. Finally, we found a place called Matsukanei-tei. It was a hilarious sight watching the guys squeeze through the doorway, up the narrow stairway and crouching in the actual bar area so as not to knock their heads on the low ceiling.
The tiny, tiny bar seated six – there were two regulars in there who were friendly and we shared the evening having conversations in basic Japanese and English. The bar owner, Ken prepared all the food that we ate. We just said bring on the food and he just kept on feeding us until we said stop. It was one of the best experiences we had, mingling with the locals, sharing their precious, tiny space and enjoying scrumptious morsels of Japanese tapas.
The evening at Golden Gai was eye-opening, a cultural integration exercise full of laughter, good conversations (or attempts at those), amazing food and delicious sakes. So what if some people thought it’s a seedy strip to visit (some say it’s run by the yakuza!), we had fun and it was indeed an unforgettable experience.