Golden Gais (gais is pronounced guys, not gays. I think)


Do you see Godzilla? (photo by Mark Kaufman)

Shinjuku is intensely Japanese. sounds like an idiotic statement from an idiotic idiot, but I had trouble coming up with a comprehensive adjective list. At night it’s not only a brightly lit neon assault on the senses, but it further overwhelms with sound. Loud music plays from seemingly nowhere, ditties come from open shop doors, and buskers play outside pedestrian tunnels as thousands of people storm past. The soon-to-be-deaf sit idly in arcades that blare an impossible cacophony of electric rings.

Godzilla peeks over a building at us from above a movie poster advertising a Michael Bay film. His film posters translate perfectly into Japanese, just a glimpse tells me it’s going to be a stupid vapid piece of shit. Michael Bay sucks in every language, perhaps he should put that on his resume.

In the midst of the intensity, I look at Mark and he nods; we both understand. One of the best aspects of traveling with Mark, is that he and I are very similar travelers. We like to walk as much as possible, both finding it the best means by which to see and digest a city or a place. We are early risers and low maintenance in terms of time needed in the morning. We know when it’s time to take a break, and if you have ever been on a trip with one person who wanted to go go go and another who wanted to chill chill chill, then you fully understand the importance of this mutual understanding. We are at the same level of adventurous and know when to give the other space. Byproducts of this travel connection meant that by day two of our trip we were reading each other’s minds, when it was time to go, leave a museum, tell a salesperson “no,” and, in this case, time to get the fuck to a quieter place and have a drink.

Photo by Mark Kaufman

That quieter place is a series of alleyway pubs called the Golden Gai. The streets are dark, narrow lanes lit by paper lanterns and lines of bulbs. A stream, as in every place we will see in Japan, tinkles by the section, which takes up about six alleyways in one city block. The alleys are lined with pubs so small that they are nothing more than narrow inlets, consisting of a thin doorway with a bar on the wall and a few chairs or stools; sometimes they are only capable of hosting five or six guests. Some of the bars are upstairs and accessible via narrow steep staircases. The tallest building here is two stories, which makes it a vast change from the rest of Shinjuku.

What makes the Golden Gai’s architecture and heritage so important is that it’s what a major portion of Tokyo used to be like before its mid-20th century “economic miracle” transformed it into what we have just here to hide from.

We walk around the Golden Gai, excited to get a view of old Tokyo. The stone streets and the paper lanterns work with the streams and garden bridges to transport us back in time, and we almost expect a samurai to swagger around the corner. Though we are taken in by this living nostalgia, we find that most of the bars are packed and the streets are jammed with a bunch of gaijin like us. This, and Shinjuku (and Godzilla) lurking around the corner, give me an eerie feel, as though we are at a pavilion at EPCOT depicting Old World Tokyo but with safer food and fewer mice. This is partly due to the fact that the Golden Gai is still around specifically to preserve something that is now all but gone.

Mark and I skip several bars that require a cover charge and several others that are hosting four people and are therefore too busy. We come across a doorway that presents steep stairs. We see no sign for cover; but perhaps clinching our decision is the fact that every inch of the stairwell (ceilings, walls, steps) is covered in a deep red shag carpet. Call me nuts, but this bar has been calling me my whole life.

A Golden Gai on the Red Shag Way

By the time we make it up the steps I am fully ensconced in 1978. I knock on the door and it pops open to reveal a round face and a bar. Bob Marley and the air conditioning beckon us. When the round face said, “no cover” we nod in thanks and walk into the barroom, which is the size of a dorm room and decorated in the same red shag as the stairwell. On top of the shag in the barroom there are posters of Bob Marley and other Reggae guys, which is obviously the bar’s theme. (Other themes in the Golden Gai’s pubs included jazz, Japanese horror, anime, and Italian movies).

Bob Marley’s Pub and Grille (Photo by M. Kaufman)

The bartender pours us two draft beers for 600 Yen (about $6) and we look up at the ceiling above the bar at the dozens of currencies left there by its international patronage. Aussie dollars, American dollars, Euro, Ethiopian Birr. Mark says, “I’m looking for the Czech Koruna; there’s always a Czech note.” Before I can look, Mark says “There it is!” It’s 100 Koruna signed by an Australian couple.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere if you’d care to look.

After I use the red shag bathroom and take a picture or two, we wordlessly decide to leave rather than spend another $6 on a lukewarm beer. Back out in the alley, we move towards the way we came in, both knowing that we’d like to get back to Shinjuku and both sad to leave the nostalgic Golden Gai behind. Immediately the lights and sounds assault, kids rove in hordes, drunk Japanese men safeguard their drunk boss as he staggers down the road.

We are hungry and stumble into a side road, where we notice a hole in the wall restaurant on the corner. We ask for a table and she puts us outside to stand at a round top. We are instantly charmed by this arrangement, having been kept away from the tight and smoky interior in lieu of a breezy passage way perfect for people watching. We get two draft beers and an order of grilled scallops and sausages. I am instantly relaxed, people watching, the shrill barks of Shinjuku are far more pleasant in a distant background, not unlike the comedy of Gilbert Gottfried.

By our second scallop skewer, I am worrying less about the EPCOT feel of the Golden Gai. We are in modern Japan now, eating, drinking, and things are OK. The people are nice, the senses only under assault by light beer and seafood. I am only slightly disturbed by the unusual prizes with which people are leaving the arcade across the way, but that’s another post. I am more distressed by the fact that Mark and I have dressed as twins, which is another byproduct of being in tune with a travel partner, and a couple of Golden Gais. (Remember, pronounced guys. I think)

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