I was sitting in our dorm room at the Ace Inn hostel, having the usual “what’s your name, where do you come from” introductory conversation with a fellow guest when a staring, wild-eyed face – framed by some extreme bedhead – suddenly burst out of the curtain that concealed a top bunk.
“What time is it?” he asked, clearly panicked, confused and possibly a little drunk.
“I think it’s about 10:15” I replied, not entirely sure how truthful this was.
He shrieked an expletive which I’ll replace here with “duck”, fell out of the bunk and staggered off to the bathroom, muttering about how he had to check out by 10:30, how this was very bad and I definitely heard him mention a few more ducks.
Craig appeared few minutes later. “What time is it?” I asked. “Half past eleven” he replied.
“I just told that guy…” I started.
“The checking-out guy yelling ‘duck’? Oh yeah, he’s screwed. He’s meant to be on a train at midday – he’s flown to Japan especially for a wedding in Kyoto today. Apparently he wanted a night out in Tokyo first and ended up at the Golden Gai. Probably a mistake.”
Undeterred by this sorry tale, we decided that – on our final night in the city – we too would have a night out in Tokyo and check out this mythical Golden Gai.
We started innocuously enough at a yakitori joint in Shinjuku. Yakitori is barbecue chicken, so we had delicious dainty skewers of chicken and vegetables accompanied by an almost obscenely high plate of chicken wings and (several) cheap beers. We finished with a couple of high balls – cheap cocktails of peach liquor and soda before moving on.
Our next port of call was a smoky, dim basement with rows of Japanese workers sitting at benches that carved up the room. Craig’s research reliably informed him that the beer here was even cheaper, although we fell foul of that tricksy Tokyo beast – the minimum cover charge. Even after a valiant effort with the beers and ordering a couple of plates of sashimi (which, I can confirm, is not a sensible drinking snack) the beers still weren’t that cheap. Still, we briefly made friends with some locals who insisted on taking some rather blurry photos of us with our camera so not an entirely wasted hour or two.
Finally, we headed for our ultimate destination: the Golden Gai district of Tokyo. This legendary warren of tiny bars stack higgledy piggledy around six low-rise and rather ramshackle streets and are open from about 9:30pm until last man (or indeed woman) standing. Lured by the sound of karaoke, we climbed up a steep, enclosed staircase to a bar probably about the size of our old bathroom. I counted about eight people – ten including us – and the bar was packed to the rafters: we had to stand on halfway out on the landing.
The crowd was a mixture of Japanese locals and Swedish visitors, all in various states of convivial but extreme inebriation. I ordered two beers from the Japanese guy behind the bar, but it turned out he was just standing there as there was no room on the customer side of the bar. Nevertheless, two beers were procured from somewhere.
Some sake was also consumed – far nicer ice cold than warm in my opinion and when the opening bars of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black came on, I took the mic to sing my first karaoke solo in a long while. As I finished, there was a brief, impressed silence and some admiring nods before the next song came on – Teeny Weeny Bikini (a Swedish classic, apparently). Given that my singing voice sounds like something deeply unpleasant is being done to an extremely unwilling alley cat, I hope this helps to paint a more vivid picture of just how incredibly drunk the customers of this bar were.
Eventually, one of us thought to check the time. It was 3am. Theatrically, we impressed upon each other and the remaining
drunks punters that we simply must be heading back and off we went, weaving across the cobbled alleyways and resisting the calls from other bars to join them for one more. We had a train to catch the next day, after all.
If you want a night out in Tokyo, or to visit the Golden Gai
- The Yakitori centre we visited can be found here – the sign is a fairly unmissable giant yellow and red chicken. Beers and most dishes cost Y280, so it’s an excellent place to stop for a bite to eat, even if you aren’t going on a drunken karaoke rampage afterwards.
- The Golden Gai district is in Shinjuku; a great mini guide is here and it’s well worth checking out for the unusual preserved architecture even if you aren’t looking for a beer and sake induced hangover. Some bars are open to tourists and some aren’t – it’s usually fairly obvious which will welcome you.