If it weren’t for Tokyo’s ongoing economic troubles, Golden Gai – that shanty town wedged between Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine and Kabukicho – could well have been turned into condos or (worse!) a Mori-style shopping precinct. After all, it was repeatedly targeted by developers in the bubble years. Somehow this ramshackle collection of bars (about 175 at last count) survived the heady 80s and early 90s. Hanazono Hills was not to be.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about Golden Gai is that it manages to be both determinedly nostalgic whilst never lapsing into self-parody. Anyone who has visited Harajuku or Yokohama’s Chinatown will be familiar with Japan’s penchant for Disneyfication (take something unique, extract anything controversial and wait for the tour buses). Thanks to a new generation of bar owners, however, Golden Gai retains what made it interesting in the first place – individually-themed bars, cramped seating and the whiff of a sordid past.
Hidden on dimly-lit 5th street is a two and a half storey wooden building that enjoys all of these qualities. Bar Albatross resembles a dolls-house with its scaled down furniture and narrow wooden stairways. Burgundy walls are adorned with picture frames and a chandelier hangs from the upstairs ceiling. Make it all the way to the ‘attic’ space above the second floor and you’ll get a great view of the regulars chatting and drinking below.
The bar has a fairly extensive menu mostly priced around the 700 yen mark. There are beers, shochu and a wide variety of spirits on offer. On my last visit I stuck to the relatively unadventurous Moscow Mule, but you’d do well to sample some of the bar’s other cocktails.
The staff are friendly without being overbearing. If downstairs is full, latecomers are encouraged to go upstairs where there is a second bar with space at one long counter. It can be somewhat nerve-wracking watching tipsy guests wobbling up the rickety wooden stairs to the second floor, but most seemed oblivious to the threat of falling.
Given that the seating fee is a low 300 yen per person, the bill works out to be inexpensive. And the sit-down charge includes a small otooshi – nimono or some similar nibble to balance all that alcohol.
With places like Bar Albatross, Golden Gai’s future has never looked brighter.
Bar Albatross is located in Golden Gai, Shinjuku. Go out of the East exit of Shinjuku Station and turn left. Cross Shinjuku-Dori and make your way to Yasukuni-Dori. Turn right and then left into the park beside Mr Donut. Go through the park and then continue past Champion. The bar is on the right side of 5th street, four narrow alleyways after the karaoke bar. Look for the sign above the door.
Address: Kabukicho, Golden-gai (5th street), Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Home Page http://www.alba-s.com
It’s Men-Only (except on Sundays), we’ll put that up front.
Keel is a nice combination of local and stylish. The owner hangs around dispensing wisdom and recommendations on shochu, which is what this bar is all about. (Umeshu – including a lovely yuzu-infused delight – and beer are the other options. The only other options.) Read more
Guests Simon Pengilly and James Steele join host Christopher Pellegrini in testing three types of umeshu.
I may be stealing Marcus Lovitt’s thunder by reviewing this little gem, which he recommended to me, but he’s busy with Japan Booze, Blind and all that food porn, so I got dibs on the aptly and simply-named Shimo-Igusa Ni-chome. Read more
Guests Garrett DeOrio and James Steele join host Christopher Pellegrini in testing three types of white ale.
After a long day on the set of Japan Booze, Blind or Tokyo Bites, when meeting to write or plan the next step for Japan Eats, amid the vicissitudes of fortune, there is one constant; one thing in which Marcus, Christopher, and I can always find comfort, solace, and enjoyment: The Beautiful Southern Lady. Read more
I was a little bored, so I thought I’d give this little plastic cup a shot. It’s pretty easy to find in supermarkets anyway, so 200-some-odd yen and 30 minutes of my time didn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice for a drink whose name means ‘treasure cup’.
The smell when I unwrapped the plastic and unscrewed the blow lid let me know that I was indeed in for a bit of an adventure with some shochu. Not quite as sharp as Korea’s favorite drink, soju, this one wafted a slightly tamer and rounder version of that familiar “huh, this reminds me of the stuff I use to scrub the bathtub” smell.
But the bite was smoother than expected. It was surprisingly easy to drink, and there was very little of the expected burn going down.
The 20 on the lower right hand side of the plastic cup (jar?) indicates the alcohol by volume, and I believe that this little blue-topped number (it’s a business-card-and-a-half tall) has a redheaded cousin that clocks in at 25 percent. I may have to give that one a try just to see how it compares.
While Tokyo’s urbanization works its way West and the chain shops of the suburbs work their way into the center of town, variety and smallness go the way of Tora-san films and doing research in libraries – things people over a certain age remember and talk about, but things that just aren’t really around much anymore.
Thankfully, there are some pockets of interest left around the city and one of those is the area North of Nakano Station east of Nakano-dori and south of Waseda-dori, centered on the narrow, pedestrians-only Fureai Road.
Go one block East of Fureai Road (make a right, then a left if you’re walking from Nakano Station), and two blocks South of Waseda-dori, on a corner on your left-hand side, facing you, you’ll see a green door and an unassuming green shingle reading: Tara no Oka. The Hill of Tara. Read more
At around 3700 yen a bottle, Suntory is proud of their flagship single malt, as they should be. If Kaku-bin is the whisky that made the Yamazaki distillery famous, Yamazaki 12 year old is the tipple that made Japan’s oldest whisky distillery its most prestigious. Read more
Whisk(e)y fans sometimes talk about the three main types of the king of tipples: Scotch, Bourbon, and Irish.
Now Christopher will surely be asking, “What about my Canadian Club? My Crown Royal? My Seagram’s Royal-freaking-Reserve?! Where is Canada on the list?” But anything best served drowned in cola is best not served.
Fans of Japan’s ever-improving product, Scotch-like as it may be, may be in a better position to ask when their country will get its due. Read more