Reaching Peak Happiness in Tokyo's Golden Gai
For a wild night of slow-paced but continuous drinking in truly unique bars, look no further than Golden Gai.
Golden Gai is located in the center of Shinjuku, one of the most easy to reach neighborhoods in Tokyo. The easiest way to reach the neighborhood would be via the train/subway.
The vast majority of lines in Tokyo stop by Shinjuku, including express and local trains. Golden Gai is just a ten minute walk from Shinjuku Station.
Golden Gai is easily overwhelming, as it houses over 200 bars and restaurants in just six small alleys. Two bars definitely worth visiting are Albatross, a massive 3-story bar featuring inventine cocktails, and Sentakusen, a tiny bar that barely fits five people at a time.
Golden Gai is also known to attract local bohemians, so each bar is unique. Hop around until you find a place that feels right, and then settle in for a long night of peaceful drinking. While you're out, be sure to sample the numerous fine Japanese whiskeys.
We had passed the point of exhaustion, hunger, and jet lag as we stumbled into Golden Gai after having landed in Tokyo only two hours earlier. The sensible thing, maybe, would have been to go to the closest restaurant to our Airbnb, grab a meal, and pass out.
A few of the bars in Golden Gai — and this holds for a selection of bars and restaurants across Japan — will cater to only locals and Japanese speakers. In Golden Gai, such bars are clearly sign posted.
Instead, in a traveler's delirium, we found ourselves wandering through the impossibly narrow alleys flanked on either side by innumerable izakayas (think a Japanese tapas bar), the vast majority of which were no larger than a moderately sized dining room.
Depending on the bar you stop in, there may or may not be small plates or even meals; however, most of the bars will offer little beyond tapas like servings. For a drunken meal after, make the five minute stumble over to Omoide Yokochou (Memory Lane), also known as Shouben Yokochou (Piss Alley).
Full of food stalls (and even more bars!), you can find Japanese noms ranging from humongous bowls of ramen (that were some of the best I ever had, including throughout the rest of Japan) to chicken yakitori to, for the daring, pig testicles, salamandar, and snake wine.
Only six alleys large, Golden Gai holds over 200 bars and restaurants. To our already overloaded senses, the area popped with a shanty-charm, as jazz, J-pop, R&B, and drunken revelry spilled out of every restaurant and mingled in the alleys.
Picking the first izakaya that could fit the three of us, we nestled in next to two older Japanese men — a kabuki director/saxophone player and his friend, a businessman. Slowly, at first, but picking up incredible speed as drinks were poured, the men, us, and the bar tender — a middle aged woman who loved jazz and continued to ply us with Hakushu whiskey at special friend prices — struck up a rapport that led to a night dwarfing any other night out.
Unfazed by our lack of Japanese, and their embarrassed (but perfectly workable) English, the night blurred as whiskey, beer, tapas, whiskey, etc came and went. At one point, the saxophonist air-played to the jazz in the background as we tried (and I failed) to knock out the beat on the bar.
Essentially, within four hours of landing in Japan and heading into Golden Gai, we all achieved peak happiness. And it was topped off with the most amazing drunk ramen in Piss Alley (definitely worth a follow on stop after Golden Gai)... I can still taste it in my sleep.