Golden Gai and Kabukicho Streets of Neon Gold
By Andrew Smith on 26 Sep 2016
Just out of reach from Kabukicho’s bright, flashy lights is the famous ゴールデン街 or “Golden Gai” as it is called despite the dark, gritty colors painted along the narrow streets of this legendary watering hole. I’m not sure when, how, or why Golden Gai became so popular among foreign visitors, and I’m not sure local bar owners could tell you either. However, this island of traditional drinking culture in the sea of neon beams has gathered a lot of attention from travelers thirsty for something different.
Even though I have lived in Tokyo for over 4 years now, this was my first time visiting Golden Gai, because my impression is that it is a place for local salarymen around Shinjuku to have a few drinks after leaving the office around 11 pm. I’ve heard that many of these joints only welcome loyal patrons or their friends. Considering the size of these shanty-style bars, it’s understandable that they try to save their seats for the same old hippies that have been drinking there since the 60’s. The apparent exclusivity of the cozy bars around this area is intimidating, but a few bars do try to attract foreign bar hoppers boasting their free cover charge and English menu.
Interest in the nightlife and traditional architecture may bring in many tourists to the gates of Golden Gai, but their wallets keep them from venturing too far down the street. Most of the tiny, cramped bars have a pretty steep cover charge in addition to their pricy drinks, so many people choose to hang around the shot bar at the front of Golden Gai drinking and singing karaoke. As someone who is basically accustomed to many areas of Japanese culture at this point, I never really felt the need to explore this particular area. I’m glad I finally made it out, though. The narrow alleyways, tiny drinking shacks, the clustered web of electrical wires overhead, and raucous laughter filling the streets is just what you would imagine an old-fashioned Japanese drinking town would be like. It really is a lot of fun, but a couple of drinks is probably enough time to soak in the unique atmosphere.
If you really want to party and still have plenty of money left to spend, Kabukicho is not far away. I’ve previously talked about some more family-friendly spots around Kabukicho to enjoy, but there’s no denying the district has its dark side despite the city’s attempt to clean it up. Though I’ve spent a lot of time around the new TOHO Cinemas or some well-known izakaya chains, I finally took my first step behind those mysterious Manzoku Station (satisfaction station, see the picture below) curtains into the world of adult entertainment. These posts scattered throughout the area are your one-stop depots to debauchery. Apparently, to exploit some loopholes or gray areas in Japanese laws, you have to first enter one of these questionable kiosks before being escorted to a hostess club, topless bar, or anywhere else you would like to go on your tour of erotica.
First I visited a hostess bar, which was more harmless than I expected. It was clean, the girls were friendly, and there was an air of luxury like a VIP lounge. The girls were very chatty and did a great job keeping the conversations and the drinks flowing. I’m honestly more of an introverted person, so, for me, paying money to talk to strangers is like paying to have my fingernails removed with a pair of rusty pliers. I actually had a good time, though, before being shown out by the less congenial, black suit-wearing male staff.
Back at the “satisfaction station” I was presented with a few more options. Strictly for the sake of research, of course, I agreed to take the next step up and go to a “topless bar.” I have it in quotations because I have no idea what to really call a place like this. The scene wasn’t unlike something you would see in a film set in some kind of dystopian future. It was a large, dark room with rows of seats all facing one direction where mostly-naked women would come and sit on the laps of customers and entertain them. I almost expected the three-breasted woman from “Total Recall” to make an appearance on stage. After a certain amount of time, some more goons would come and tap the girls on the shoulder signaling them to pack up their bag of breath mints and lip gloss and make room for the next girl. Unlike the first hostess bar I visited, this was no place for conversation. Despite my best efforts to make awkward small talk as they gyrated on my lap, some of these girls had a job to do, and by God, they were going to get it done.
I really can’t help but sound a little judgmental, because I personally feel the whole industry is a little depressing. I understand the appeal, though. Some people just need a release, and if you’re looking for a place to escape reality, this is it. The surrealness of this environment is something to be experienced at least once, I guess. Whether they meant it or not, the hostesses did a great job treating me like an important guest and made me as comfortable as possible. If you’re a very open-minded, liberal person who lost every last bit of innocence long, long ago, maybe give it a try. However they did seem to be pretty concerned about my Japanese language ability, so you may need a native friend to guide you.
Neighborhood love hotel available; (foreigner are welcome)
Andrew is an American writer living in Tokyo, Japan. He often finds himself wandering home from a livehouse after missing the last train. As an outdoors enthusiast, musician, traveler and editor, he stays pretty busy, but he is still always looking for new things to try. The only thing more unorganised than his schedule is his room.