The Drive After Hours: Tokyo

Six alleys. Two hundred bars. Old Edo at its finest.

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Two o’clock in the morning. I was towering. Over people, over bar tops, pinballing down a dim, cramped alleyway with new friends. We were all smashed together, our ragtag clique, and looking for fun. Music. Drinks. Ramen. Maybe even a little trouble. And we were definitely in the right place.

This is Golden Gai in Shinjuku, once the area’s prostitution district. When whoring was outlawed in the Fifties, the quarter took on a second life as a bar district. Golden Gai has remained largely immune to bubble-boom urban development. It’s a cramped maze of Old Tokyo, six narrow corridors, appliances set outside, overflowing with art and mascots and character. Two-hundred-plus ramshackle bars are heaped onto one another here, each the size of a small living room in the West, or maybe a large custodial closet. Seating for eight, a dozen, tops. Blade Runner looks, Vieux Carré vibe. This is not the clean, orderly, skyscraping technopolis you know. No, this is something else.

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It used to be hole-and-corner. Golden Gai was always an insular place, pegged as unwelcoming to foreigners. Not anymore. An undercurrent of mainstream ink has brought in keener tourists—hell, Tarantino shows up for a drink when he’s in town. But it’s only made the scene more intriguing. Regular customers, neighborhood drinkers, they’re still the lifeblood. Many bars allow only locals. Others are open-door. (Note: Still expect to pay a cover.) Generally, if there’s a menu posted outside, or English language-signage, all are welcome.

What I found was incredible. Most places are themed, fragmented vestiges of subculture filtered through local fare. Jazz. Cowboys. Magic. These little hovel spots, steep staircases tucked away that lead to the next little hovel spot. Bar Champion, a karaoke joint, is a fine place to start. Albatross, a double-decker with red walls and hanging chandelier, flush with gold leaf, earns its ex-brothel reputation in aesthetics alone. Keep down the rabbit hole, though, and you’ll really get into the guts Golden Gai. It starts to seem less pop, a little grimier. Good.

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I took a battering ram made of Kirin to the language barrier, and hitched my wagon to a few locals, themselves (I think) having just met. It’s amazing how far a few cellphone photos of a Nissan Nismo GT-R can get you. If there is a true lingua franca, it’s a steering-wheel pantomime and turbo engine noises. Here, sake follows.

We wound up in a disco bar, a seven-seat spot that might as well have been somebody’s living room. More sake. Sing-alongs to songs I didn’t know. The beauty of places like this, like Golden Gai, is that intimacy. Cultural voyeurism has a bad rap. I’m not sure it’s earned. Even if you’re missing the words, just sway and hum. There’s always someone out there willing to take you in and go looking for fun. Drinks. Ramen. Maybe even a little trouble.