Visiting the bars in the Golden Gai district in Shinjuku took a while, but it was worth it. I couldn’t help but notice how the atmosphere has changed in recent years, with more and more tourists from overseas discovering this charming spot to explore, enjoy drinks, and strike up conversations with strangers from all walks of life.

believe Golden Gai is a truly unique spot. People who visit here are not necessarily looking for a drink, but rather for an experience of having conversations with owners, bartenders, and even fellow guests sitting next to them. It’s fascinating how you may discover that you already know each other through common friends, or share the same country or neighborhood. It makes you realize that the vast world you imagine is actually a small pond in the backyard. Anyway, it’s a perfect place to visit after exploring tourist spots and doing some shopping, and after enjoying a sushi dinner, to engage in meaningful conversations.

As a fan of Golden Gai who enjoys talking with strangers from all around the world, I’d like to share some tips for entering bars when you don’t have a guide with you. (It’s worth noting that there are specialized guides dedicated to taking visitors to night bars in Tokyo. If you feel more comfortable going with these guides, it’s a safe and unsurprising choice, although perhaps less adventurous.) While I can’t speak for other areas, Golden Gai is generally considered a safe place where you’re unlikely to encounter issues like being overcharged for services you didn’t request. However, it’s still important to be aware of certain customs. First, most bars in Golden Gai automatically charge a table fee for anyone who drinks there. The price usually ranges from 500 yen to 1,000 yen, or sometimes even more, so it’s best to ask the bartender about it. Typically, the table charge amount is displayed somewhere near the front door, on the wall, or on the bar’s kitchen counter. While there are some bars that don’t require a table charge, it’s safer to assume that you’ll need to pay it. It wouldn’t be wise to just walk in, have a quick drink, and leave, as it may give the impression that you were dissatisfied with the service or drinks at the bar.

There are a few things you should avoid when visiting the Golden Gai in Japan: bottles, Yamazaki whisky, and Japanese sake. Let me explain the reasons for each.

First, ordering a bottle might seem like a cost-effective and convenient option when you’re with a group. However, it can be overrated, especially for champagnes. In Japan, asking for a bottle of champagne is seen as a ceremonial activity and includes not only the price of the drink but also a gesture of gratitude to the bartender or bar. This is often done on special occasions, like the bartender’s birthday. Unless you’re willing to pay whatever it costs for these reasons, I personally don’t recommend ordering a bottle in the Golden Gai.

Second, while Japanese whiskies like Yamazaki are popular worldwide, the Golden Gai might not be the best place to try them. Due to the high demand from foreigners, many bars have increased the prices of Japanese whiskies and try to avoid running out of stock. Keep in mind that Yamazaki has a range of products, from less expensive blends available in convenience stores to rare single malts that are hardly found even in liquor shops. So, in the Golden Gai, you might end up paying a higher price for something you can easily find elsewhere.

Lastly, let’s talk about sake. Similar to Yamazaki whiskies, the quality of sake depends on how it is made and preserved from the brewery to the bar. Simply checking the label of a sake bottle is not enough, as improper handling can easily ruin its taste. Good sake is rarely found in bars unless they specifically focus on serving Japanese sake and take proper care of it. Sake breweries usually supply their products only to trusted liquor shops or bars to protect their brand and maintain the taste. So, unless you have a flight the next morning and don’t want to miss any moment during your visit, it’s better to carefully find a car or izakaya known for serving good Japanese sake.

Above are the things I believe you should avoid. Lastly, I want to clarify that I am not stating that the same applies to all bars you may come across in Golden Gai. While it is likely that there are bars in the area that offer good sake or Japanese whiskies at reasonable prices, or even bottles, I do not have specific knowledge about them. Based on my experiences, I can provide guidance on the type of bar you are more likely to find if you are looking for a place for the first time without any advice.

It is important to note that Golden Gai is full of bars, but its reputation lies not only in the drinks they serve, but also in the service they provide by encouraging communication among people who are encountering each other for the first time in the bar.

>> bar Kuro

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