Golden Gai is a tiny little area in downtown Tokyo near the Shinjuku metro station. When the rest of Tokyo was being built up after the war this neighborhood of six alleyways decided to remain the same, making a sort a time warp of an area. The area is known for its nightlife and mainly it’s teeny tiny little bar that only fit a handful of people inside.
The bars here are generally a members only sort of situation, but in recent year a few have started to open up to foreigners.
Having heard about the area from a friend, Rob and I decided that we should go check it out on our last night in Japan.
Figuring out which bars are open to tourist is fairly easy, they’ll have an English sign or menu board outside. We wandered down the skinny little alleyways checking out all the signs and popped into the first one that looked inviting. It was a tiny little place with about five seats at the bar, there were already two guys in there and when anyone one wanted to move everyone had to get up to let them out.
We ordered a Japanese whiskey and got to chatting with an older Japanese man who wanted to practice his English. He was a little bit drunk but friendly enough and asked if we’d tried the “Lemon Sour”, a very “Tokyo drink” and “what all the locals drink”. We told him no we hadn’t tried one, his reaction was somewhere between disbelief and horrified. “ You must try it!” he said, “I’ll take you to my favorite bar, they make the best Lemon Sour in Tokyo”. We were a little hesitant, it was our last night in Japan and we had an early flight back to the states the next morning, plus we weren’t totally sure if this guy was for real or not. “Oh no thanks, we have to get up early” we politely declined, but he persisted “For just one Lemon Sour, just so you can try it, I can get you into the bar, it will be fine”. Not able to think of another excuse not to follow this man we’d only known for a half an hour Rob and I exchanged glances that said “ Well, YOLO” and we agreed to go to another bar.
After paying for our whiskies we followed the man out into the skinny alleyways of Golden Gai. After a bit of walking and winding we came to a building, at first I couldn’t see a door so I was a little confused. It turned out at the whole front of the building was a sliding barn door, and the man slid it open for us. It dawned on me very quickly that we were about to enter one of the members only type bars, I was suddenly very excited but also ready to be on my best behavior.
We stepped inside the small but tall room, my first impression was that it reminded me on the library from Beauty and the Beast, while the area was small the walls were lined with bookshelves going up three stories.
The man chatted with the owner behind the bar for a moment, I assume letting him know that we were with him and he’d invited us. And then ordered us the Lemon Sours. We stood near the bar watching the bartender make the drinks, he spoke English and explained what all went into the drink. Fresh lemon juice, that he squeezed right on the spot, club soda, and shochu.
We got our drinks and moved to the back corner of the bar and admired the space, the book shelves were so awesome looking that we couldn’t help but take it all in. The man told us that the owners father was an author. This is where Rob and I have different memories of the conversation, Rob thought he’d said that the father had written all the books, and I thought the father had collected all the books. Either way it was a ton of books and an awesome sight to behold.
The whole experience was sort of surreal and so unexpected. One of the greatest things about travel is the serendipitous moments that you could never make happen if you set out to do them.
As a token of our appreciation we stopped by a beer store and bought the man a bottle of California IPA. He opened it right on the spot and let out a whoop, he’d never had a beer so hoppy before and the new taste seemed to make him very happy.
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