Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo

A writer discovers the late night charm of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood, famous for peddling eclectic little bars in its historic Golden Gai area.  
Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo
Golden Gai is a pre-war warren of alleys featuring over 200 tiny bars. Photo By: VTT Studio/Shutterstock

Rejection is a funny thing. Sometimes you can see it coming from a mile away, other times it’s like a baseball to the back of the head.

When I checked my email on the bullet train back to Tokyo I experienced the latter: a punch-to-the-gut, out-of-left-field rejection. I never thought I’d try to pay an elderly Japanese man to hang out with me—or be given the cold shoulder by him. But here I was, feeling disappointed in Mr. Ishii as I travelled at 320 kilometres per hour back to his stomping grounds.

Mind you, I was not thrusting yen into the hands of unsuspecting ossan (uncles) on the streets of Tokyo, cornering them in some dark Shinjuku alley for sultry purposes. I was, at the behest of my boss, trying to contribute to the thriving (and completely on the level) Japanese economy of ‘uncle renting’ for a travel story. From offering relationship advice to helping you move furniture, these middle-aged men are in high demand, which is perhaps why I got blown off last minute by a silver-haired uncle who moonlighted as a DJ and rode his motorcycle on the weekends—as indicated by his online profile.

 

Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo 1

A street filled with izakayas—small bars serving snacks. Photo By: VTT Studio/Shutterstock

 

While Mr. Ishii’s slight may not have broken my heart, it did throw a wrench into my plans. I didn’t need him to listen to my problems or move a couch for me. I needed him to meet me at the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku: a cluster of 200, or so, tiny bars that typically fit six to eight people, tucked into the narrow bylanes of a pre-war area (Showa era) that survived the many bombs dropped upon Tokyo during WWII, and the subsequent modernisation of Japan in the 60s.

From ultra-hip fashionista-themed bars to moody goth joints, each watering hole is like a walk-in closet of contemporary Japanese culture. It had seemed fitting, when I booked an appointment, to take Mr. Ishii, part of the country’s sweeping cultural phenomenon of uncle rentals, to the phenomenally eclectic Golden Gai bars—like opening up a Russian doll of offbeat, local lifestyle. Also, since a fair amount of the bars do not allow tourists inside—perhaps because some people hollered “Does anyone speak American!” too many times—all Mr. Ishii had to say was that I lived in Japan and that he was an old friend of mine, all the while helping with some translations on the sly. But that was not to be. Still, I persevered, catching a cab from Tokyo Station just before 11 p.m., to spend as much time as I could in Shinjuku before my morning flight, armed with a Japanese crime novel by Hideo Yokoyama and the expression of someone still digesting the humiliation of being freshly ditched by a 50-something-year-old man.

 

Silence Isn’t Golden

As the white-gloved hands of the cabbie pulled the stick of his Toyota sedan into park, I noticed a couple of Japanese men having a lie down at the mouth of a busy alleyway. The bars in this football pitch-sized zone only open around 8 p.m., so these fellows were clearly dedicated patrons. “Golden Gai,” grumbled the driver, looking at his countrymen with the face of a French waiter asked to serve a well-done steak. 

Walking down the first alley, I passed tiny entrances that resembled train compartments, offering quick glimpses into cramped, shoulder-to-shoulder barrooms. Many doors had the words ‘no tourists’ scribbled on them, yet the hubbub from the street was a babble of French, Mandarin, and Spanish mixing in with a healthy variety of Japanese voices. The ground floor bars open to tourists for a cover charge were packed to the gills, I hesitated in front of several crowded doorways, unsure if squeezing myself in would incur the wrath of the current customers. Baleful eyes seemed to suggest I was right. As I shuffled from alley to alley, I began to regret going on this adventure by myself. If someone were with me at least we could laugh about our bad luck.

 

Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo 2

These small streets host loads of locals and tourists alike (top), eager for glasses of Asahi (bottom right) and bowls of nearby ramen (bottom left). Photos By: DFLC Prints/shutterstock (alley), chee gin tan/E+/getty images (woman), Taiyou Nomachi/DigitalVision/getty images (beer)

 

I finally climbed the steep narrow steps of a place called Kenzo’s Bar, and walked into a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging in a room the size of a college dorm room, packed with a dozen people. “800 yen/Rs550 cover,” yelled the bartender, a sweaty man in a pink polo, wearing quirky upside-down looking glasses and a bar rag draped around his shoulders like an Hermès scarf. I grabbed the only free bar stool and paid my cover, plus enough for a Sapporo, to the barman, Kenzo.

Space was scarce here, at times my face was an uncomfortable few inches away from the bartender as he hurriedly crafted cocktails. At one point he looked up and matter-of-factly informed me that he had hit the bottle till 4 a.m. the previous night, and would love to vomit as soon as possible. I laughed nervously. He was perspiring like a cold beer bottle on a hot day, his beads of sweat giving off a scent more sake than saline. I looked desperately at the Aussie couple squeezed next to me. They seemed to be enjoying Kenzo’s admission as much as a shrimp enjoys being tossed on a barbie. Soon they left, seemingly perturbed they were sat in the woozy man’s proverbial ‘splash zone.’

All of a sudden a plastic bag whacked my shoulder. A young Japanese man with a kind face looked up at me from the large table behind the bar and said, “Popcorn?” What followed was a great conversation, a tad bit of tequila, and a couple of interesting cultural lessons. For one, upon hearing that I was from India, a chorus erupted amongst the eight college-aged kids sitting around the table. “Aal Izz Well, Aal Izz Well!” they sang—a nod to the hit Bollywood number from Three Idiots—tapping their hearts with as much fervour as Aamir Khan himself. And these half-in-the-bag indophiles didn’t stop there. Bahubali appeared to be another pop culture favourite, as the youngsters good-naturedly mimicked over the top archery poses from the Telugu blockbuster.  

In broken English, the sauced students explained to me how Indian films were increasingly popular with Japanese youngsters: partly because of the theatrics, partly because the films seemed to be bursting with a love of life that they felt was sometimes sidelined in Japanese youth culture. “That’s why we drink in (this) comedy bar,” piped up one of the guys, “It’s very happy.” He could see I was quite confused, and explained that the bartender Kenzo was a comedian, and the customers of this place often swapped drunken jokes and conducted sincere discussions about their favourite comedians throughout the night.

 

Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo 3

The neon-lit shopping streets of Shinjuku are bustling through the day. Photo By: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

 

At this point I started to wonder if Kenzo had merely been messing with me earlier, as a part of an elaborate act. Just then, a young, aspiring comedian with neon blue hair accidentally knocked over my beer bottle. I took it as a sign. Just because I got ditched by an old man, it didn’t mean I had to rebound with a group of college kids. I bid my farewells, shooting one last glance at Kenzo as he mopped up the spilt beer. To this day I don’t know if this strange Shinjuku haunt introduced me to an amazingly drunk barman, or an amazing comedian doing a bit. 

 

Baltimore Beckons

My next stop was inevitable. I spotted the words Baltimore on the sign of a bar that accepted gajin (foreigners), and as I paused to check out the cover charge written on the door, the powerful voice of Nina Simone took over me, floating out from a very good stereo system. I entered and slid the steep 1,000 yen/Rs690 cover across the slim bar that sat four Japanese men on stools. They appeared to be triple my age, and about three times cooler. Two wore panama hats and Hawaiian shirts along with pitch-black sunglasses. Another had a bohemian, Einstein-like hairdo, the sparse frizz moving to the sway of a Yomiuri Giants (a Japanese baseball team) uchiwa (hand fan). The bloke next to him wore a slick black suit. 

The bartender was much younger than her clientele, but wore a bonnet similar to her clients’ panama hats (a trend I did not realise was so hip in Japan). From the way she chatted with her customers, I could tell I was in a room of regulars. I ordered the house special, a shochu bloody mary. The drink licked the back of my throat with just the right amount of spice, and the heavy pour of shochu—which tastes as if it were the love child of vodka and sake—released the tension in my shoulders like the familiar hands of a crack masseuse. “What is this shochu made out of?” I asked the bartender. “Sweet potato,” she responded with a smile that already guessed my astonishment. 

 

Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo 5

Colourful bartenders raise spirits in the many eclectic pubs flanking the streets of Shinjuku. Photo By: Julian Manning

 

At this point, one of the two regulars in the Hawaiian shirts, gestured to my book. The bartender translated: “ He says your book has a Japanese name on it. What is it about?” I almost blushed. Any excuse to talk about Japanese crime novels had to be grabbed. I jabbered away, half-afraid I might scare the old gent off with my enthusiasm. When I was done he jabbered right back to the bartender (who seemed quite amused by the conversation), telling stories about his grandfather—a former yakuza member with a chopped off finger. I could feel my anger towards Mr. Ishi dissipate. Here I was, hanging out with a bunch of shochu-swilling bad grandpas and a bartender who could translate our conversations while mixing cocktails. He was the one missing out, not me, I told myself.

Just then Einstein-man started playing Cole Porter on the stereo. I was hooked. At that moment I wanted nothing more than for stool at this little bar to become my retirement plan. A bartender whose smile felt like a high-five to the heart, a bunch of little old men with stories that belong in novels, and the soft crackle of good music warming the room, I wanted it all. The resident DJ sensed me glazing over with happiness at his song choice and asked the bartender to question me on my music taste. I knew one really good Japanese song, and since I wanted to impress the fluffy-haired grandfather I responded, “I rather like Sakamoto’s song ‘Sukiyaki!’”

This got the hearty response I was aiming for, so I decided to show off a little more. “Yeah, I even looked up the lyrics for the song, which I thought was a happy tune from Sakamoto’s voice, only to realise he was saying things like ‘I hold my head up so my tears don’t fall.’” I continued, “someone must have really broken his heart!” The bartender let the dazzle in her eyes dim, and explained to me that this song was indeed about heartbreak, but was inspired by no woman—the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were what shattered the singer. For the first time the bar drifted into silence, digesting the destruction from decades before, that would reverberate from many more decades to follow. Fittingly, I was in a part of Tokyo that survived both the war and modernisation, a warren of alleys where prostitutes once roamed alongside haori wearing gangsters. Here, Sakamoto’s song felt like it belonged, just like the chipped paint and neon signs that make up Golden Gai. 

I soon parted, and got firm handshakes from the crew of old men and a warm smile from the bartender. As I left, a drunken group of Americans entered, talking loudly over Nina, whose melancholic growl had returned to the speakers. I could see the old men’s shoulders stiffen as the word ‘shots’ was shrilly shouted, and better understood why the signs that said ‘no tourists’ weren’t such bad ideas.

 

Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo 6

Shinjuku is a hotbed of action with many acclaimed eateries calling out to all food-lovers. Photo By: Francesco Bonino/Shutterstock

High Fidelity 

Although it was pushing 2 a.m., the jumble of bars around me were in full swing. I was ready for some late-night grub, but I still hadn’t sipped on my favourite Japanese whisky. I still hadn’t even been able to find a bottle of Yamazaki owing to a global shortage that limited customers to purchase only one bottle in Japanese stores—which of course meant all the stock was being bought up like flat screen TVs on Black Friday. With a nightcap on my mind I scoured the neighbourhood. 

The first bar I found that had the elusive whisky was an unsuspected source. I hadn’t even bothered to enter the small grunge bar blaring Japanese metal, but because of the noise I looked inside, and lo and behold! That very bottle of brown was being poured into a couple of glasses. I could recognise that bottle anywhere, heck, I had been keeping a keen eye out for it for days. I paid the long-haired barkeep 500 yen/Rs345 as cover. The wall of hair poured me a double and I thanked him dearly for stocking the whisky, to which he grunted something unintelligible. 

Funnily enough, I was sat next to a European-looking couple who were also quite chuffed to have found this unlikely source of Yamazaki. The lady turned out to be Greek and her companion an Australian-Greek gentleman. Several rounds of Yamazaki later and we were chatting like old pals. 

Eventually the man said, “You know, we’re both married.” 

“Good for you,” I replied slowly, confused as to what to say.

They both burst out laughing. “No, no, man. We’re both married to other people,” he clarified with a wide grin. My face proved to be fodder for another wave of laughter, while I stammered something about “to each their own.” Worse, I believe I even muttered “viet la vie,” because in my uncultured mind, if ever there was a stereotypical poster boy for adulterous promiscuity, it would be a French man. Once they were able to stop laughing, they managed to tell me their endearing love story, which included the crucial detail that they were both separated from their past paramours. They were like that Japanese story of star-crossed lovers—the one that surrounds the festival of Tanabata—who only got to see each other once a year. Except in their case they had to chisel away time from work, children, and family to travel somewhere for a romantic rendezvous. I was humbled to be in the face of such honest love.

Chasing Off-Kilter Friendships in Tokyo 4

Baltimore (top), a classic Golden Gai bar, is famed for its shochu-based Bloody Mary; Some of the area’s bars do not charge tourists a cover fee (bottom). Photos By: Julian Manning (people), Bisual Photo/shutterstock (bar)

I eventually dragged myself away, my entire bill, consisting of some very expensive whiskies, picked up by the couple, only requesting I send over a photo I’d taken of them, since they had no pictures together. 

I’d later argue with a vending machine meant to serve me beef curry, a fitting end to the night. But perhaps the most Golden Gai-esque ending to my journey was basking in the halcyon of neon wonder that is Shinjuku before heading back to Ginza, knowing that only a block away lay a historic labyrinth of debauchery, full of stories, culture, and beauty. 

Maybe I’m just melodramatic, maybe I simply had one too many whiskies—but I believe I whispered, “I forgive
you Mr. Ishii,’’ as my cab pulled away into the friscalating dusklight.

 

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller India and National Geographic Magazine, head here.

  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?