Tucked away in the bustling entertainment area of East Shinjuku is the inconspicuously located Golden Gai. Here, there are rows of narrow alleyways filled with tiny dive bars. The term hole-in-the-wall takes a literal meaning here with each bar seating only an average of 6 people at a time. Walking along the quiet alleyways feels like there's nothing much going on here but in fact there's an interesting world that exists behind these narrow doors and walls.
Every door is narrow; some are left open and some are close. All doors are opaque which means that for those that are closed we are unable see what is behind them. Closed doors, however, do not mean that the bar is shut for the evening. We see someone opening one of the closed doors to a bar and we quickly catch a glimpse of what's inside: there's life going on in there. This is a speakeasy scene at its best. Bars located on the second floor are accessible via narrow stairs. The bars may look shanty from the outside but word is that Golden Gai attracts even the rich and famous with many bars having their own regular customers.
Space is incredibly tiny in each of these bars but the number of them in existence (about 40) along the narrow alleyways is impressive. The sheer thought of the whole lot of speakeasy bars congregating together in this small area puts the meaning of "nightlife", "speakeasy", and "bar hopping" to shame in other countries.
We wander along and decide on having a drink at Cue Bar, one of the bars which has its door open. The place comfortably seats about 5 people (6 might be pushing it). The "chill dude" bartender is wearing a beanie over his head and R&B music is playing in the background. T and I each get uisukii to kora (whiskey and cola) and after the bartender mixes and hands us our drinks, he picks up his drinking glass behind the counter and cheers with us. A few minutes later, he opens the lid of a pot tucked away behind one end of the bar and dishes out two small bowls of Japanese chicken wing curry for us. We snack on curry and chips with our drinks. (Note: Many bars in Japan have a sitting fee though usually a light snack is served along it). We chat with the bartender-- us in our poor Nihongo (Japanese language) and the bartender in his equally poor Eigo (English). Never mind the language barrier. These are great times getting to know each other. He asks us "First time? Golden Gai Shinjuku?". We ask him if he is the owner and he replied "Staff". This bar has been open for 7 years, we learn. Later in the night, a friend of the bartender comes in and orders a drink. After she gets her drink, she picks up her glass and we all cheers while wishing each other Merii Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas). Oh, wonderful times that we enjoy so much. It feels special to be sitting at a local dive in Golden Gai like we are one of those in-the-know who veer off the very busy and bright neon lit streets of Shinjuku into this world of Golden Gai.
We see some curious tourists who walk pass the bars along the alleyways but they don't enter. As we sip our drinks from inside the bar we know this makes our night.