“It’s a 2,000 yen cover charge,” the young, cute Japanese woman was telling me. This was a test, to see how badly I wanted it. There were no other customers in the establishment, yet I would have to pay the equivalent of $20 (US) to hang out there. This was to be my nighttime entertainment. When you are traveling, how much is a cultural experience worth?
The bar was called Miso Soup, and was located in the Golden Gai, a small area in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood. In Golden Gai (meaning “Golden District”), six narrow alleys run side by side with even narrower, one-person passageways connecting them. They’re jam-filled with two-story ramshackle buildings, all looking like they should have been torn down ages ago for multiple fire-code violations. Those buildings are jam-filled with tiny bars and a few tiny restaurants.
It’s crowded and tiny even by Japanese standards, but Golden Gai is famous as a drinking spot for just these reasons. It’s not merely the presence of the bars; it’s their reputation as being minuscule, very specialized, and sometimes very, very exclusive. It could have been a cheap, crappy, dive-bar place to drink, a place I’d fit into like a glove, but no, it’s an expensive place, and a place for artists and intellectuals, because everyone knows that those two groups have tons of money. But if you want atmosphere with your booze, it’s got it.
Tokyo is not a beautiful city. People there pay more attention to the inside of buildings rather than the outside. They don’t hide things like power lines and pipes and other utilities devices. Walking through Golden Gai unaware, you might think it’s a squatters area for low-income renegades. The buildings don’t line up or match, they don’t make sense, and they don’t look promising.
The history here is this block simply never fell victim to development, and thus it’s a holdover from old town Tokyo. Supposedly, it was a black market area for a time, and then full of adult entertainment, because of course places are more interesting if they have a sordid past. Later, a few Japanese writers who frequented bars there became famous, and thus gave the area its artsy association, because of course we all want to drink where the intellectuals drink. The area suffered greatly in the 90s, after the Japanese economic bubble collapse, but it’s back now.
Most bars there adopt a theme, such as photography, plastic toys, movies, wine, a music style. I don’t know how one can have a movie theme in a tiny bar, but I guess they need something. There’s the bar Jetée, for filmmakers, where the Francophile mama-san loves films and jazz and closes every May to attend the Cannes Film Festival. There’s the bar Square, full of erotic fetish gear, and Bar Plastic Model, a shrine to everything plastic from the 80s. NaNa is for Andalusian art and music, and Easy Rider celebrates Evil Knievel. One is for Ramones fans, one is for ghetto music. These places can seem oh-so contrived, but in such an area, a dedicated bar owner can make their shtick work.
There could easily be 100 bars here, and some articles say 200. Some have room only for about four patrons. Many are very exclusive, almost members-only, and most, the story goes, don’t accept foreigners. They may tell you there’s no room, empty chairs or not. It’s thus a challenge to drink there. Can you get in?
I had written down a few supposedly gaijin-friendly bars, such as Toto and Brians and Araku. One person had told me you should go by their outside signs—if there are any English words at all, such as listing the price for drinks, you’ll be welcome. Strolling through there, little looked inviting. Perhaps it was the rain, or all the closed doors. Narrow, lawsuit-indicting, steep-pitched staircases lead to the upstairs bars, about sixty degrees of incline. More than half the ground floor places have a window of some sort to catch a slight glimpse inside. Very few places gave a vibe of exclusivity, but also very few gave any vibes of being entertaining.
I came, a bit slowly, to appreciate the atmosphere. The buildings feel like slum-quality housing projects ready to fall down; the lighting is dim and uneven. The passageways between the buildings are barely wide enough for one person. There are no touts outside imploring you to come to their place, and everyone has their door shut. If this was somewhere besides Tokyo, I’d have been shaken down by now.
A good starting point is Champion (also called “Coin Bar”), staffed by friendly, English-speaking Filipinos and located just outside the edge of Golden Gai. It’s a bit different, more like a regular bar. There, one Pinoy guy showed me the menu and I got a beer for about ¥600. The place is normal Japanese small, meaning large by Golden Gai standards—a front room holding a dozen people and a side room with a group of eight or so around a table. It’s a good place to lay a base and build courage for tackling the tiny bars. Just beware the karaoke there.
When I visited, the currency exchange rate for Japanese yen was about 100 to 1 for the US dollar and for the Euro. I approximate, as exact prices don’t matter. So ¥2,000 is about $20 and €20, and ¥600 is $6 or €6. This makes Japan very easy to visit.
I’m not sure why I choose the Miso Soup bar besides the bartenders, three of them, seeming friendly and awfully cute, more welcoming than most. Most places in Golden Gai have a cover charge. Even restaurants in Tokyo charge a cover, but for them it’s rarely more than ¥400, and you often get a little extra dish of something with that, like paying for a lagniappe. I saw one bar having a ¥5000 fee for anyone falling asleep there, surely an anomaly. But I’d never heard of a ¥2,000 cover like Miso Soup wanted to charge me. That was crazy, and I should have left. I didn’t, and I’m very glad I didn’t.
One can approach such a cover with indifference (“Ah, ¥2,000 is simply the price one must pay…”) or projected expectation (“I hope I get a little snack for my ¥2,000…”). Perhaps I could have bargained (“How about ¥1,000?”), or just left. How much is this cultural experience worth?
I went with the worldly indifference approach, saying yes to the cover charge. They asked for it up front, how cheeky. It was remarkable how the atmosphere seemed to change once I paid. I was an insider now, accepted, and they were happy to take care of me.
Behind the bar at Miso Soup
All drinks there, I believe, were ¥900. That seems to be common in Japan and I like that system, not worrying about what your different drinks cost. I asked for shoju, and they poured me something Japanese. And then we all started talking. All three women spoke some English, and all were happy to chat. I stayed for two more drinks, and I had a blast. These people know how to run a bar.
One new customer, a Japanese guy, came in, no one else. That evening I had wandered over to Golden Gai from a very nearby area called Kabuki-cho, an entertainment district (I wrote an earlier story on Kabuki-cho here). There, a woman had tried to induce me into a type of hostess bar, where you pay a cover of ¥5,000 just for the privilege of conversation with a woman for an hour. No, no extra services, nothing like that, just a convo. I sat in Miso Soup instead, wondering if their ¥2,000 cover is also somewhat for the convo I’m getting. If so, it’s a better deal.
I visited two other bars in Golden Gai, each with drinks around ¥700-800. The Albatross is one of the larger ones, spanning two (or three? It was hard to tell) levels though each one was still rather small. The Albatross is now listed in Lonely Planet or something so it has become rather popular. Its cover is only ¥300, while most other bars seem to be around ¥1,000.
As for the third bar, ah, my memory of it is a bit hazy.
It’s not unheard-of in Japan to have not very fixed prices, especially in a drinking joint. Often, when you’re ready to leave, the owner (especially a mama-san) will simply size you up and think about what she should charge you, finally naming a figure that may not readily relate to what you have drunk. If you frequent Golden Gai, you may be presented with a large bill, specifically for foreigners who are stupid enough to wander in. Some bars have sort of an “uchi-soto” (insider-outsider) mentality, having no problem charging outsiders big bucks. At least there’s no tipping in Japan.
Golden Gai has some restaurants as well, the best being a second-floor ramen joint called Nagi, a tiny place up a steep staircase, more like a ladder. You squeeze into the counter and order their special tokusei niboshi ramen, a broth made by simmering vast amounts of dried sardines for twelve hours. Fish broth ramen is a rare find. Your bowl comes with two types of noodles, flat wide and narrow curly, both tasting hand-made, as well as several sheets of nori seaweed, seasoned bamboo shoots called menma, scallions, and a soft-boiled egg.
The ramen at Nagi
The broth was ambrosial, just a delight to eat. I would order a bowl of just that, how wonderful. I talked to the guys behind the counter a bit about how good the soup is and he predicted, “That’s why you’ll be back.” It helps that they are open 24H.
When you travel, you will spend some money foolishly. (I’m labeling that “Tom’s Law of travel”.) You need to accept and then get over this. I had a brilliant time in Golden Gai, but it wasn’t cheap. I may not go back until I’ve saved up some money. A 2,000 yen cover charge worked out, but perhaps the next one won’t. Your travel money is always a gamble. Sometimes, it isn’t quite worth it. Yet usually it is.
Location: Exact addresses are a bit tough in Tokyo, but here goes: 1 Chome Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0021
Hours: after dark.
Other bars to try: Black Sun for jazz, Crawdaddy for British rock, Ace’s for lower prices, Bistro Pavo for Italian snacks.
Know this: Bring cash, not cards. Tokyo is a cash society. Golden Gai isn’t full of touts on the street such as Kabuki-cho is, but if anyone comes up to you outside and tries to lead you to a bar, beware.
Read these next: If you want another drinking spot in Tokyo that has an emphasis on food, try Piss Alley, famous for yakitori. See my writeup of it here. Nearby is Kabuki-cho, an awfully interesting area to explore; read about it here. Inside that area is the Robot Restaurant, an over-the-top experience you simply must see and you can see it here. These are all stumbling distance from Golden Gai.
If you’ve always wondered, as I do, why people are attracted to bars and cafés where intellectuals and artists supposedly hang out, you seriously need to read this.