Shinjuku is a great neighbourhood for eating and drinking and I had one of the best experiences of my trip there in Golden Gai, an old entertainment district in a tiny grid of streets just a few blocks away from the east exit of Shinjuku station.
My Google map here.
When you walk the streets of Golden Gai you’re effectively stepping back in time to how Tokyo used to be before the Japanese economic miracle happened in the 1950s. Many of the buildings that line the narrow alleys are wooden, two-storey constructions that date from that time.
To get there you might walk through the brash neighbourhood of Kabukicho, once the theatre district but now a red light area (without the red lights) and a Yakuza stronghold.
Ignore the bright lights of the so-called Robot Restaurant and the automatons outside it.
I’m sure their nightly shows are quite a spectacle (from 1.15) but my advice is keep your head down and keep walking till you get to Golden Gai.
In the 1980s there were several attempts by the Yakuza to burn Golden Gai down so that it could be developed in the same way as the modern blocks that surround it. The locals prevented it from happening by organising themselves to keep watch on their buildings at night.
Mine and Shinsaku’s reasons for being here were the same as usual; ramen and music.
Nagi (Elementary A), 1 Chome-1-10 Kabukichō, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160-0021, www.n-nagi.com
Ramen shops are by nature small, seedy affairs, in fact their lack of refinement seems almost a prerequisite for good noodles and Nagi is no exception. As with all good noodle shops there is a queue which in this case was down a very narrow side alley. There was a small trickle of ‘water’ of some undefined origin running down the middle of it which you have to straddle.
The front of the queue is by the door where you can make your selection using a vending machine. Just above your head the staff have improvised a loudspeaker made from a funnel and some plastic tubing.
When it’s your turn to come up a staff member will shout down the funnel for the next person to come up the narrow treacherous staircase to the tiny eight-seat noodle shop on the second floor.
The house speciality is Niboshi Rāmen. Niboshi are small dried sardines that are used to flavour the broth, a ramen style typical of Aomori prefecture in the north of Honshu (the big, central Japanese island). I’m guessing that here this broth is mixed with other broths like chicken (torigara) or pork (tonkotsu) to give more depth of flavour.
If the fish taste isn’t strong enough you could always add some niboshi flavoured vinegar.
Another unusual aspect of this bowl is that besides the chunky noodles you also get some large, broad, pasta-like flaps in there as well. Very unusual indeed but all very tasty (B+).
So if you want atmosphere with your ramen then look no further. It’s open 24 hours apparently. Learning the letters for ‘ramen’ ラメん will help you find the shop.
After eating we went on a hunt for music and liquor. As I mentioned there are about two hundred bars to choose from in Golden Gai, each specialising in a certain musical niche like punk, country, electronic or in our case jazz. Many of the bars can only seat about six people and only cater for their regulars. The owners will most likely let you know when you come in if they can accommodate you or not and will charge non-regulars a cover charge.
I can’t remember the name or address but we found a place playing classic jazz up another narrow staircase. Unlike JBS in Shibuya there was no vinyl on the shelves, just CDs, but hundreds of them.
Our host was gruff but hospitable. Still I was thankful of having Shinsaku with me to smooth the way.
We sat huddled at one end of the bar drinking rum and coke for a couple of hours listening to some great music most of which we’d never heard before.
The CD cases were passed from customer to customer to be read and appreciated.
And that was pretty much a perfect night out for me (I’m an easy date). I loved it so much that next time I go to Tokyo I’m going to get the nearest AirBnB to Golden Gai.
Here are some suggestions from Rough Guide for other bars to try in in the area.
Despite its ramshackle appearance, Golden Gai isn’t particularly cheap which is kind of understandable as it must be hard for the business owners to make ends meet when their shops are so small. If you don’t fancy ramen and want to save money on food, you could go to the infamous Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho aka ‘Piss Alley’ instead. Doesn’t sound great does it but this is another patch of narrow alleys around Shinjuku station that’s stuffed with yakitori and noodle bars. Again, very atmospheric at night and very cheap. I went a couple of decades ago but can’t personally vouch for anywhere in particular. Eat Like A Girl has a suggestion for Soba and Udon Tempura though.
If you are passing through the east exit of Shinjuku station, keep an eye out for this place…
Bake Cheese Tart (Initial A), 〒160-0022 Tōkyō-to, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku, 3 Chome−38, 新宿3-38-1ルミネエスト1F cheesetart.com
Originally from Sapporo in Hokkaido but now international, these awesome little tarts are filled with a mousse made from three kinds of cheese; a full-bodied one from Betsukai, in eastern Hokkaido; a mild-flavoured one from Hakodate, in the south of the island and a salty French fromage to round it out.
The mousse fills a pastry cup made from cookie dough which is twice-baked and the tart is served hot from the oven. They’re extremely moreish so I advise you to buy two per person. Unfortunately, they also taste good eaten cold or reheated under a grill. Expect a bit of a queue (see the floor diagram in the pic above) as the tarts are a very popular Omiyage item.
The next stop on my tour of the Yamanote line is Ginza!