With more than two hundred eclectic hole-in-the-wall bars packed into six modest blocks, any night in Golden Gai is bound to be an adventure.
This quirky bar hopping area lies in the back alleys of Kabukichō, Tokyo’s red-light district. The skyscrapers of Japan’s capital sprawl in all directions and tower over this collection of low-rise buildings built in the post-war era. Although the neighbourhood once had a surly reputation for hosting activities related to prostitution and the Yakuza, the charmingly ramshackle Golden Gai has found a second lease on life. It is a vibrant place where locals and tourists converge for some of Tokyo’s best nightlife.
Enter Golden Gai, a narrow maze of neon signs, power lines, and miniature bars—some with no more than four or five seats. Curiosity takes the driver’s seat as visitors wander single-file, craning their necks through windows of cozy establishments in search of an empty seat. In this labyrinth of local haunts, every doorway and staircase is a chance to stumble into the unexpected.
A Bar for Everyone
The bars may be tiny, but they make up for size with character. Most Golden Gai establishments have a distinct theme evident in their name, decor, music, and menu. You’ll find that adornments vary from book-covered walls and Post-It Notes with doodles to chandeliers, vintage bamboo and rice paper parasols.
Certain bars are known for certain kinds of drinks, whether its local specialities like sake and shōchū, world-class cocktails, or wine and beer. Some bars are also known for food specialties like ramen and drinking snacks called otsumami.
Music varies from joint to joint and whether you like rock and roll, ’80s classics, or blues, there’s a bar at Golden Gai to suit your taste. Whether you hop between ramen and karaoke bars or venture off the beaten path, the diversity of bars within a six-block stretch means you’re bound to find something up your alley.
No matter which bars you pick, be sure to sample at least a few establishments. Each will be a unique experience, whether that comes from the atmosphere, food and drinks, or the people you will encounter.
It’s fair to judge a Golden Gai bar by its exterior. Some bars operate as members-only establishments or charge cover in order to guarantee open seats for their regulars. Many welcome tourists with open arms and free entry—great for anyone traveling Tokyo on a budget. In most cases, there will be signage posted outside worth paying attention to. If in doubt, flash a smile at the bartender who, by nature of these tiny bars, are usually visible from the doorway.
Even with some golden rules in place, there’s no shortage of welcoming joints to discover. It doesn’t mean locals won’t mingle with tourists either. These intimate bars make it easy to rub shoulders and strike up conversation with locals and travelers alike. Plus, you never know who you’ll meet. Golden Gai’s bars are known for attracting everyone from students and salarymen to artists, celebrities, and cinephiles.
Golden Gai has a few other golden rules to be aware of. Photography is prohibited without permission. It is generally frowned upon to take photos without permission, especially those with faces. Always ask first. Smoking, drugs, and alcohol are not permitted on the streets of Golden Gai. Climbing on buildings and fences is also forbidden. Last but not least, some joints charge a $50+ fee for falling asleep at the bar.
It’s considered good etiquette to have a drink and move on to the next bar or order a refill due to the limited number of seats. It’s also a good idea to carry cash as relying on debit or credit will limit the number of bars you can visit. Last but not least, many bars offer complimentary otsumami but remember that these are snacks to accompany your drinks, not a free meal.
Best Bars for an Authentic Golden Gai Experience
Rumour has it that the Edwardian-meets-Gothic bar was once a brothel. Step inside and you’ll find chandeliers, gilded mirrors, and art pieces for decor. If the bar looks full, check for free seats on the roof terrace. While there is a cover charge, it does include otsumami. Oh, and it has a disco ball.
Adorned with fairy lights, this female-friendly bar offers a delicious selection of drinks and appetizers. Bar Darling is also frequented by local actors and celebrities, making it a great spot for people-watching.
This hip bar is named for the soft orange lights that cast a charming glow over the joint. Guests will find well-crafted cocktails, beer, and wine. This joint has both a bar top and some small tables, making it a great choice whether you’re out with friends or exploring solo.
Death Match in Hell
Plastered in retro movie posters, this joint plays its music loud and doesn’t charge cover.
Punk Bar Hair of the Dogs
Punk isn’t dead. It’s alive and well at this Golden Gai bar, known for its music and friendly bar staff. It’s the best place in Tokyo to nerd out about records and punk rock.
If you’re into leopard print and ’80s classics, look no further than Kenzo’s Bar. You’ll find a great selection of sake and beer, among other drinks. Be sure to strike up a conversation with Kenzo Takamune, a former actor who has become the bar’s welcoming proprietor.
One Coin Bar Champion
This bar is named for the fact that you can purchase a drink with one 500 yen coin. Especially popular with travellers, the combination of cheap drinks, no cover charge, and karaoke leaves guests feeling like champions.
Named after Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi film, La Jetée is a go-to for French cinema fans. Even Quentin Tarantino is an alleged fan of this popular Golden Gai bar.
With an unmistakable steampunk exterior, Bar Skavla serves traditional Japanese craft beer and whisky and serves it “tachinomi” style—meaning it’s a Japanese standing bar that was popular in the Edo era, which is when Ninja and Samurai lived.
These are just a few of the quirky joints in Golden Gai. At the end of the day, the best bar is the one you can find a seat at. If you can’t find or get into one of the joints on this list, don’t fret. There are dozens more to discover in this bar-hopping district. In fact, if you allow yourself to explore the alleyways of Kabukichō and leave room for spontaneity, you’re guaranteed to experience some of Tokyo’s best and quirkiest establishments.
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