Why you should care
Any idiot with a hand and a mouth can get you a drink; OZY gets you gone.
There are all kinds of Tokyos: the Lost in Translation, well-heeled variety; the youth-driven, peace-sign-flashing manga’d masses collecting in parks on Sundays; the consumer-fueled fashionistas flooding multifloored department stores. All worthwhile and worth seeing as long as you’re going to be there, but the Tokyo we’re taking you to is at once occult, in your face, and much more idiosyncratically Japan than any of the above.
In the yawning electric shadows of Shinjuku, you can find Golden Gai. Our tour guide and bartender is one Yu Kaneko, who preaches the philosophical perks of the intimate drink and the ability to enjoy it in goddamned peace. He’s the perfect person to slip us between the shining steel towers of postcard Tokyo and into the crazily cramped streets of Golden Gai.
The tight quarters are packed with all manner of brute creation: yakuza-only tattoo parlors, street food, and our destination, the paradoxical mini full-sized bar.
How mini? Four people plus bartender. Two if one of you is swinging a cat.
The place is less a watering hole than it is a watering cup where you curl in quiet contemplation of your drink and murmur to the barkeep (in these close quarters, shouting is not necessary). Our bartender Kaneko’s patrilineal roots run deep into the heart of Tokyo’s swinging ’60s cinema scene and the Japanese intelligentsia – his father is a noted director. But Kaneko the son’s tastes run rebellious. From his no-name bar to the fact that the eyrie above it is where he edits one of Japan’s far-right publications (“return the emperor to power” and “return Americans to America” seem to be the extent of their editorial mission). Kaneko pulls wild-assed sake after wild-assed sake from the shelves for a tasting of deliciously customized homemade drinks – a tasting that’s as troubling as the sake is good. Something this good is bound to take a turn.
Kaneko pulls wild-assed sake after wild-assed sake from the shelves for a tasting.
But before trouble arrives, a sensible notion strikes, and Kaneko pulls us out into the Gai, leaving the bar to the two remaining customers. I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t know who they are. We wander the streets, passing equally tiny versions of, well, everything. Restaurants for two people at a time. A tattoo booth instead of a parlor. A one-person brothel, which, presumably, features at least more than one person. (We hope.) As Virgil to our Dante, Kaneko shows us all this tiny splendor with a measure of quiet pride and amusement at our amusement.
“They tell me this is close to how it had been after the war,” says the way-too-young-to-remember, 48-year-old Kaneko.
Stepping into this tucked-away maze of sloping Third Man alleyways, it’s not hard to believe you’ve been transported back to the post-war period, long before Tokyo became the bright megalopolis of today. Either that, or into an art director’s fever dream. Only there’s nothing counterfeit about Kaneko’s treats, and as we turn back into his bar, we order more, and the night becomes just that much more rich.
Developers are looking to raze the Golden Gai to make way for 2020 Tokyo Olympics – get yourself to Tokyo before they do. – Ed.