The Fringe Club

Photos by Kiely Ramos

Once slated to be drowned in concrete, Shinjuku' infamous Golden Gai bar district still attracts impassioned clientele unlikely to make way for the developers. Stuart Braun drops in for a nightcap.

La Jetee film poster

"The Golden Gai is the navel of the universe," offers a still sober Swiss-French journalist as he tucks into a cous cous and glass of wine at Shadow bar. A regular around the labyrinth of nomiya (tiny counter-bars seating six to ten people) that fringe Shinjuku's Kabukicho district, Vincent comes to Golden Gai to talk art, music, politics and "escape from mediocrity." Tonight he might linger around his favorite bars - Shadow, Shikiichi and Jetee - till around 4am, finally resting his head at a nearby love hotel given to accommodating strays from the 100-odd drinking dens that make up the Golden Gai. In tow is Ogimoto, a psychiatrist trying to convince Vincent that his is not a drinking but "lifestyle" problem. But Vincent contends that all artists are "drunks or schizophrenics," and orders another beer.

Golden era
While some argue that the Golden Gai is a fading remnant of Tokyo's thriving postwar culture of sex, sedition and sophistry, these intimate drinking holes are a living reminder of a past that is all but covered in glass and concrete. Lying within Yamanote, or uptown Tokyo, the area is closer to the rustic shitamachi or downtown part of the city that survives, albeit precariously, around Asakusa and Nezu. Initially developed as an extension of the black market area around Shinjuku station-the only remnant of which is "Piss Alley" behind the Odakyu Department Store - the aptly titled "Gold Town," with its cheap rents and relative seclusion, was a magnet for the prostitutes and pimps who made up the mizu shobai (a metaphor for floating, drinking and impermanence, the term literally means "water business"). But as the occupation ended, prostitution in the area met a sudden demise, and the bars were taken up by mama-sans more interested in selling booze than sex. Once the domain of the demi-monde, the upper floors of these coarse wooden and tin sheds were transformed into bars, and by the '60s, over 200 nomiya had sprung up around the maze of laneways.

leaves fall
from Golden-gai
----Khaosarn Takke

Avoiding the controlling arm of the yakuza, which by this time were focusing their energy around Kabukicho, the Golden Gai proved a perfect asylum for Tokyo's artistic and intellectual elite. Ideas hatched drunkenly at 4am in these roughly-hewn cubbyholes have gone on to constitute national folklore, with writers Mishima Yukio and Nozaka Akiyuki, and film directors Yasujiro Ozu and Oshima Nagisa remaining synonymous with the cultural foment that centered on the Golden Gai in the '60s and '70s. Today, that tradition continues, with each bar catering to a specific clientele of journalists, writers, filmmakers, painters, musicians, dancers, aging communists or faux philosophers who gather to chew the existential grist in relative seclusion. The commitment to the arts here is epitomized by Jazz night on Sundays at Shiramren bar, where the lights are off, speaking is forbidden and the regulars sit drinking, smoking and rocking their head to discordant, experimental jazz blaring from the speakers.

Arty types hanging at Jetee: from left, Kazue Kobata, art curator; David d'Heilly, filmmaker, writer; Karoleen Schampetier, cinematographer

Shino Tetsuhiro, owner of Shadow, took over the bar 17 years ago to avoid getting a day job. A former member of the Communist party, Shino numbers French, Russian, English and German among his second languages, all of which are spoken by the eclectic mix of Tokyo's global literati who gather at his bar six nights a week. Best known for its French menu and bricolage of found objects - the room is filled with an assortment of musical instruments, an old phone and ancient Mac classic all procured from the gomi - Shino and his wife keep the omelet, cous cous, fromage du jour and drinks flowing until 6am. Shino doesn't drink or smoke, rides his bike to work and has a humble demeanor that seems out of place next to the elaborate mamas and transvestites who stand out under the pink-vermilion lighting of their adjoining burlesque bars. But get him talking and Shino is anti-establishment Golden Gai to the core, venting his disdain for modern Japanese materialism and the life of the salaryman.

Dadaist Shiramren Jazz Bar street sign

The Golden Gai's best known bar is Jetee, a cosy hang out for filmmakers, photographers and their kin since the graceful Tomoyo Kawai, a former film distributor, opened for business 27 years ago. Looking around at the hand-painted "bottle-keeps" (Kawai's customers like to add an artistic touch to their personal whiskey bottles) that line the shelves and the film posters that cover the walls, a photo of Francis Ford Coppola sitting at the Jetee counter stands out. While Coppola makes only sporadic appearances, Kawai numbers Juliet Binoche, Chris Marke - -director of La Jettee, the 1962 film classic after which the bar was named - and Wim Wenders among her clientele; or should that be "friends." Jetee was immortalized when Wim Wenders shot a few scenes in the bar for his docu-pic, Tokyo Ga. A self-confessed Tokyophile, the director describes Jetee as his favorite bar in the city.

Golden Gai laneway

Tonight, a Japanese photographer sits at the end of the counter while a few seats down a Dutch filmmaker and French cinematographer discuss their latest project. Kawai serves salmon with the drinks and rotates the music - Edith Piaf - and the ambience is very '30s Paris. Kawai is central to the movement that made the Golden Gai the Montmartre of the East in the '60s and '70s, and Jetee is a living hommage to French cinema. Honing her French on a yearly pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival, Kawai gets plenty of practice with her customers who employ the language almost as often as Japanese.

On this occasion, three languages are being communicated around the dimly lit vestibule and funnily enough, the topic of discussion is film. A woman enters through the lean doorway and with seven people in attendance the place is packed. Soon enough, introductions are made and conversation re-ignites among strangers as if they're all old friends. The discussion moves on to anecdotes about Jetee, about Wim Wenders, his documentary and it turns out the recent arrival - Kazue Kobata - was one of the featured performers, sitting in the same position 15 years ago while the cameraman performed gymnastics to capture the oblique proportions of the room. As the night progresses one can appreciate Wenders' fascination for the bar. The conversation, alcohol, food, music, and cosy ambience, is an intoxicating mix and mama Kawai has the satisfied look of someone who presides over a unique and very special part of Tokyo.

Found objects at Shadow Bar

Threatened species
Situated on some of Shinjuku's, and indeed Tokyo's, most sought after real estate, the Golden Gai was long fated to be bulldozed by rampant property developers. But while around 100 bars were lost in the early '90s, not every mama was willing to sell out to the big boys, averting a wholesale redevelopment of the area. Still, the future remained uncertain until Japan's economic bubble burst in the late '90s, sending the real estate market into free fall. The market has yet to recover and the future of the Golden Gai is relatively secure. Despite the continuing perception that the end is nigh, the Golden Gai has experienced a slight renaissance in the last few years, with new bars opening and a growing "preservation" ethic among the community. But while Kawai notes that the area is holding a "static" course, the problem of an aging clientele remains. While some bars tend to attract a younger crowd, the mainstays who have been frequenting the area for 30 years will not be around forever. David d'Heilly, one of Jetee regulars, agrees that "while the old generation holds on, the next generation can't come in," but he's hopeful that people will wake up to the cultural and historical import of the Golden Gai before it's too late.

Shadow owner Shino Tetsuhiro with his string instrument collection

It's a problem effecting many of the nomiya that once dominated Tokyo's nightscape. Both young and old are being attracted to roomier, Western-style pubs or restaurants because, as Kazue notes, they find nomiya a little "sticky and confronting." While confinement verging on claustrophobia might dissuade some, the feeling you're entering someone's intimate space is most daunting. Working the bar six days a week for upwards of 20 years, the mama or master (masuta) have nurtured a personal domain that is more a private lounge room than a public bar. But once inside, the experience can be very rewarding.

Visit a bar once or twice and you quickly become part of a very inclusive club. It is sometimes argued that foreigners are rarely welcomed into such interior aspects of Japanese society, and it is true that one shouldn't simply barge into a bar with a group of friends-though mostly it would be okay. Vincent notes that he has never experienced discrimination against foreigners in the Golden Gai - "if anything, it's a kind of counter-discrimination," he opines. For him, the Golden Gai is a microcosm of what was a contrasting and "very interesting city," but which today is becoming rapidly homogenized. "From the top of this street you start at the Ichome (the gay district), and as you come down you've got the Hozenji temple, then a koban and then Shadow," explains Vincent. The Golden Gai may no longer be a hot bed of radicalism, but the sense of tolerance and diversity remains.

Where to go
The entire Golden Gai is situated on one block - 1-1-8 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku - and since each bar is regarded as a house, they are only distinguished by the name displayed out front. Closest station: Shinjuku, east exit.
Jetee: 03-3208-9645
Shadow: 03-3209-9530


Table charges vary from JY500-JY1000

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