If you’ve ever seen a photo of the Shinjuku area with narrow alleyways with multiple glowing signs – it’s most likely Golden Gai.
This tiny Shinjuku district is composed of only six narrow alleyways connected through each other with tiny passageways. It quite possibly houses the highest concentration of food and bar establishments in Tokyo, as there are more than 200 tiny bars and eateries situated here.
Golden Gai, with its cramped alleys and small antique buildings, is a look into Tokyo’s past and an attraction site not only to tourists but locals as well.
Many of the establishments here are so popular and exclusive that you cannot gain access without being referred to by a previous patron. Some are open to new visitors but don’t cater to tourists. Others serve all (who the bar is open to is usually indicated on the sign outside).
As a foot traffic-heavy location, Shinjuku Golden Gai has a number of rules – both official and unofficial – that are supposed to make the place safer both for the owners and the visitors.
Here are some official rules:
- No drugs;
- No alcohol outside bars;
- No loud noise (like singing or shouting);
- No climbing the walls and fences;
- No photographs without permission.
That last rule may seem a bit bizarre to foreign tourists, but Golden Gai alleys are private alleyways, not public. So each owner can decide individually if they want to have pictures of their bar or not.
And even when allowed to photograph a place, you might not be allowed to photograph people inside of the bar and its best to respect that general idea.
Some unofficial rules:
- Always have cash on hand – most bars are cash only;
- Know about “sleep charge” – some places have a special charge if you fall asleep and keep taking up space at these tiny bars as there is limited seating at each;
- Don’t try to sneak into/force your way into the establishments that aren’t open to new visitors – as mentioned above, some places are open only for locals, or through referrals. Don’t try to ignore this rule as it would be considered extremely rude to force your way into the bar.
Our List of Top-10 Bars to Visit in Golden Gai:
With over 200 bars, restaurants, and eateries, navigating Golden Gai can be complicated, especially considering many establishments are not open to new visitors.
Here’s our list of top 10 establishments we find to catch the spirit of Golden Gai the best:
If this is your first visit to Golden Gai, Ace’s is a really good place to start, since its services are geared towards newbies. The prices are reasonable (drinks are around $7), there’s no cover charge, and if you’re having any doubts, some of the English-speaking staff is always there to help out.
While the atmosphere might not be as eclectic and unique, as one may be aiming for when visiting Golden Gai, it does offer a great mix of local and foreign patrons.
And since the bar is known as one of Golden Gai’s tourist attractions, no visiting locals are likely to complain about the number of foreigners around – they know what they’re getting into.
If a unique ambiance is what you’re looking for, then there’s no better place than Albatross, with its Gothic furnishing, chandeliers, and gilded mirrors, entwining with unique details that should feel out of place but somehow don’t – like an old disco ball and a deer head mounted on the wall.
But the main attraction of this bar is its unique liquor selection, some of which is homemade and can’t be tasted anywhere else, like their famous plum tequila.
Albatross spans two full stores and a roof terrace to boot, so it’s a great place whether you’re visiting solo, with a friend, or a mid-size group.
The staff is friendly and does speak some English, so if you don’t know what to get – they’ll always be able to help out.
There’s a ¥500 cover charge, but it comes with snacks!
3. Bar Darling
This place is known to be one of the only establishments in the district that caters to female clientele (however, everyone is welcome as long as they behave). The staff is mostly female and dedicated to creating a safe space.
The owner is a seasoned film-and-theatre professional, and the bar is known to be a favorite among local media personalities.
But even if you don’t get a glimpse at a celebrity, the bar is still well-worth visiting, considering they sport one of the largest selections of alcoholic drinks (100+) and serve great appetizers and comfort foods.
4. Bitter Orange
Bitter Orange is particularly well-known for its glowing sign depicting an Orange in a crown and European prince’s clothes. Unsurprisingly, the bar is also called Prince Orange.
The owner hand-picked most of the selection themselves and there’s a wide variety of sake, beer, fruit wines, and cocktails to choose from. It’s open until 5 AM, so many visitors tend to leave it as their “last stop of the night”.
5. Bistro Pavo
This is where you go when you want a larger food selection. Every plate of food costs only ¥500, and the alcohol price is also rather reasonable, making it a good stop if you’re tired from exploring Golden Gai.
The Bistro mixes traditional Japanese food with European cuisine. Their risotto is said to be one of the best dishes on the menu.
6. Deathmatch in Hell
Probably the most popular bar among tourists, Deathmatch in Hell is known to be a place where death metal fans, both local and foreign, flock to.
The atmosphere speaks for itself – the walls are covered in band and movie posters, there are hundreds of CDs to choose from, and loud music is blasting from speakers at all times.
Getting a drink at this bar can be a tad difficult since it’s counter only and the counter is almost always crowded – but once you’re in, you’re one of the gang, and the hosts will do their bests to ensure you have a good time.
And there’s no cover charge.
7. Happy Bar
Another bar for music lovers – but this one focuses on soul, blues, and vintage rock instead of death metal.
The bar houses over 3,000 analog records from famous artists in the genre, most of them from the ’60s to ’80s, both Japanese and foreign.
They also hold a Disco Night every last Friday of the month.
8. Kenzo’s Bar
Owed by an occasional actor and screenwriter, Kenzo’s Bar is another great place to visit if you want to sit and drink with the locals.
This tiny bar is pretty well-known for its leopard-print walls and chairs, 80’s atmosphere complete with music, and a great selection of reasonably-priced alcohol, making it all more than worth the ¥500 cover charge.
Kenzo himself is very friendly and welcoming towards tourists, though his bar is still more of a local hotspot – so if you think you may feel uncomfortable being the only foreigner, don’t visit alone, it’s been known to happen.
9. La Jetee
This tiny (it only sits 8 people) is known as a celebrity hotspot of Golden Gai.
The owner, who herself worked in the film industry in the past, named the tiny establishment after French director Chris Marker’s film of the same name and has hosted many film professionals over the years including Quentin Tarantino and Johnny Depp – among other celebrities.
The decor is simple, but memorable – old photos, film posters, knickknacks, wooden benches. There’s a great assortment of hard liquors and appetizers.
It has a steeper cover charge at ¥1000, but you do get a house special tofu appetizer.
This small cramped bar which resembles someone’s apartment more than an official establishment is known for having what is probably the most unique decor in the entire Golden Gai district – it’s Halloween-themed the year-round.
How to Get to Golden Gai:
Golden Gai is located within around 10-minute walking distance from Shinjuku Station which means you can easily reach it via train from pretty much any part of Tokyo, as no less than 6 train lines pass through it:
- Chuo Line, between Yotsuya and Nakano stations;
- Chuo-Sobu Line, between Okubo and Yoyogi stations;
- Narita Express Line, between Ikebukuro and Shibuya stations (by the way, make sure to include both these districts on your itinerary if you’re determined to truly explore Tokyo);
- Saikyo Line, between Ikebukuro and Shibuya stations;
- Shonan-Shinjuku Line, between Ikebukuro and Shibuya stations;
- Yamamoto Line, between Shin Okubo and Yoyogi stations.
Golden Gai Location Via Google Maps
Whichever line you use for transit, once at Shinjuku station, you need to take East Exit, go east through Moa 4th Street, pass Shinjuku City Office, take a 2-minute stroll through Shiki-no-Michi, and you’ll reach Golden Gai.