Saturday, February 21, 2009

Golden Gai

In my ongoing quest to thoroughly embrace the Japanese culture, I chose to sacrifice my weekend and the better part of Monday in order to examine Tokyo nightlife.

So Tokyo is large, cabs are really expensive and the subway shuts down at ~midnight. This, coupled with the fact that night entertainment options vary greatly by ward, means that if you plan to go out at night, it seems you have to be willing to commit the whole night to it. I assume this is part of the reason for the capsule hotels which I fully intend to try out sometime.

Anyway, Golden Gai is a little bar district next to Shinjuku, the insane neon district. The lonely planet guide recommends checking it out even if you don't plan to drink and mentions that it's not the most tourist friendly place. Friday night as I'm leaving work around 10, I decide that I'll sacrifice the night and check it out.

I'm running a bit late and manage to catch one of the last trains to the Shinjuku area. I don't have a map, so I'm not entirely sure where I'm going. When I get to the neon lights of Shinjuku, I know I've gone to far and back track a couple blocks off the main drag. As I'm wander, I spot Bon's, a place noted in the Lonely Planet guide. I stop in.

Bon's has a 500yen cover charge. It also has about 6 people in it sitting around tables. I sit at the bar and am not impressed. 1 drink down, I'm out of Bon's and wondering if I will seriously regret commiting the night to being here.

Fortunately, Bon's is just on the edge of Golden Gai and gives no real indication of what I'm getting into. Golden Gai is unlike anywhere I've ever been. It is literally jam-packed with bars. Every floor, every building. They are all tiny so they're packed in like crazy. The streets between them are too small for cars. For like 5 or 6 blocks, this is all there is.

The strangest thing, though, is that there's almost no one there. It's a Friday night, a little after 12 and the only people I see wandering amongst the hundreds of bars are a couple making out in an alley and an occasional staggering drunk. It's like some horror movie or something.

I literally just wander around soaking everything in. I really don't know what to say about it. I'll have to go back and get pictures.

Anyway, after I wander through it all, I decide I'll take a chance on one of the random bars. The small stairwells always intrigue me, so I decided to wander up one. I reach the top and don't see any open places to sit. It's a small place and a guy sitting at the bar asks me something in Japanese. I have no idea what he's saying, but he doesn't seem very welcoming and I don't see anywhere to go. I retreat back down the stairs.

I wander more. I notice some of the doors say 'members only'. The Lonely Planet guide had mentioned that the area wasn't particularly welcoming. On the far end from Bon's, there is a lively Karaoke bar that offers no cover and 500yen drinks. It is packed and spilling out the door. Mostly it seems to be packed w/ drunk European guys. I decide I'd rather take my chances with another random place. I appear to be developing a resentment towards non-Japanese people I see in Tokyo. I don't know why or what this means.

I find another place. It's on the first floor. I can see there are a few people inside, but there are seats available. English writing out front. All looks good.

Turns out I chose well this time. I meet Aaron, and English guy and his Japanese girlfriend, Chewy, or something. There's also a Japanese guy who turns out to be a baseball fan and recognized the Pirates hat b/c Masumi Kuwata pitched for them a couple years back. Everyone is friendly and I am fed Japanese bar snacks. These consist of some sort of fish eggs, a weird thing wrapped in a leaf, and some pre-packaged fried snacks with flavors like pepperoni and shrimp & mayonaise. There is also an Obama mask in the bar.

I stay there until 3Am or so, then decide I should check out more of Golden Gai. Aaron recommends a place not far away that conveniently has a sign saying 'I love English people and you'.

The bartender speaks English well and lived in Colorado for a while. We discuss how I think they're 10 years younger than they are and how they can't believe I'm not 35. This is another common theme.

Around 4.30 or so, I get hungry and wander over to Shinjuku to find some food. Even at this time I am harassed by people trying to lure me into clubs. I learn that if you tell them you want food they leave you alone much quicker than if you tell them you're just not interested in going to a strip club. A useful tidbit.

I find a small noodle shop where you order by selecting something and paying at a vending machine and giving the cook the ticket it produces. I have no idea what things are, but don't really care. I wind up w/ some sort of ramen w/ meat and eggs in it. It's not bad, but at 5am, I don't really care.

Soon, the subway is running again and I'm able to get home and crash. I still have yet to find anywhere with many young Japanese people, but I now know that Golden Gai is worth returning to.

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