Destination: Golden Gai by Nora Maynard

Tokyo, June 2009

sex pistols CD and wooden box of sake

It’s a Friday night, but except for my husband and me, the streets are completely deserted. All the windows are shuttered and the painted metal doors are tightly closed. (Photo by author)

Within the neon-lit, late-night neighborhood of Shinjuku, there’s a warren-like network of tarmacked alleyways lined with closely spaced doorways. Over 200 tiny establishments, most of which used to be brothels, our guidebook tells us, all made over now as micro bars serving tall drinks and small plates. This postage stamp-sized district—Golden Gai, it’s called—has a reputation for being bohemian, a magnet for artists and intellectuals. Whether that’s true, I couldn’t tell you. It’s a Friday night, but except for my husband and me, the streets are completely deserted. All the windows are shuttered and the painted metal doors are tightly closed.

But there are brightly lit signs everywhere. Most of them are written in Japanese characters interspersed with tantalizing flashes of English: Garden. Bar. Whiskey. Beer.

“Look.” My husband points to a handwritten notice taped to the door of a small building with a low, shingled roof. Japanese speakers only. It’s written in English so that gaijin—or Westerners—like us can understand. We were warned that most of these bars aren’t friendly to tourists, but I didn’t expect to see it spelled out as clearly as this.

The guidebook is feeling heavy now. It’s too big for my purse, so I’m carrying it under my arm. One of those Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness volumes. Packed with photos on glossy paper. It got us from our hotel to the Metro, and told us which stop we needed for Shinjuku, but it’s not going to find us a welcoming bar in Golden Gai.

We round the corner. This street looks different than the last one. Doors propped wide open to let in the warm June air. I spot a place with a large sign out front in English: 60s Bar. No bigger than my living room at home. Maybe ten seats total and close to packed. A woman wearing a pale straw fedora tipped jauntily on her head is tending bar. She turns and smiles when she sees our hesitation. “Come in,” she says.

“Would you like sake?” She pours us some in small cedar boxes resting on white saucers that catch the overflow. “Like this,” she shows us how to drink from the box’s corners. I tip it to my mouth. The wood feels cool and smooth. Light in my hand. The liquid’s cold and sweet.

We chat with some of the other patrons we’re now elbow-to-elbow with. One of them’s an American expat: Gail, a 30-something architect from Philadelphia turned English teacher, who’s semi-fluent in Japanese. Her boyfriend, Kenichi, works in IT and is semi-fluent in English.

“Can you recommend a good place for dinner around here?” we ask.

“We’re going for Malaysian if you want to come with us,” says Gail. I see that she still has beer in her glass, but that my cedar box is empty. I order one more.

Drink count for the evening: Two.

We move on to the Malaysian restaurant. I do my best to eat a crab curry, but end up with sticky fingers and stained fingernails and only a few scant shreds of meat. Gail turns to Kenichi and says a few words in Japanese. They look like they’re debating something. Kenichi seems to be putting up some resistance, but then shrugs and concedes. Gail switches back to English to explain: it’s 11 p.m. and the last train is leaving in 20 minutes. She and Kenichi live in a neighboring suburb and a cab home would cost well over 150 dollars. It is a classic Friday night decision faced by many commuters: head home early or stay out all night. Are we up for karaoke? I take the last swig of my second Sapporo. “Sure.”

Drink count for the evening: Four.

On Kenichi’s suggestion, we stop first at the 7-Eleven to fortify ourselves with ginseng energy drinks as protection against hangovers. We watch as he drains the contents of one of the tiny gold bottles in a single efficient gulp. I take a tentative sip. It’s strong and bitter and a shock to my tongue. My husband chugs his down and, not to be outdone, I follow him. Kenichi looks at us puzzled. Gail has to explain to him what the English expression “tastes like ass” means.

Drink count for the evening: Reset to zero?

We take an elevator up from street level and Kenichi negotiates something with a man in a white shirt and black tie. He ushers us into a small room with a television screen. First up: “Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto.” It’s a group sing-along. We swig the generic watered-down vodka-based cocktails out of plastic cups while random travel footage —a double decker bus in London—the L’arc de Triomphe in Paris—New York’s Times Square—rolls across the screen. When it’s my turn, I pick Blondie’s “The Tide is High.” The track seems to go on forever. My voice is stuck in some kind of monotonous, braying purgatory and I can’t seem to hit a single note. My husband sings “God Save the Queen” (the Sex Pistols version) rolling around with the microphone on the brown vinyl banquette. I laugh until tears stream down my face.

Drink count for the evening: I honestly don’t know.

There’s a knock at the door and a uniformed man enters. They’re closing. Can’t we stay for just one more song?  No. Everyone has to leave now. We take the elevator down to street level. When the doors part, it’s a cruel awakening. Like The Night of the Living Dead except it’s morning. The sun is rising on swarms of staggering partiers with bleary eyes, smudged makeup, and rumpled hair, all ejected onto the streets at exactly the same time. On the tarmac ahead of me, a pigeon pecks at a pool of vomit. A man in a navy suit and white shirt is curled up on his side on the cobblestones. His head is resting on his hard, rectangular attaché case.

Breakfast. We need some. Gail knows of a cafe nearby.

Antique Coffee Thing says a rather solemn plaque attached to the base of an elegant glass vacuum coffee maker with ornate brass fittings on a low ledge beside our table. “Antique Coffee Thing” we all repeat. When we finally stop laughing, I say it again. Kenichi’s eyes are closed now. His head is resting on Gail’s shoulder. A wave of tiredness hits me, a one-two punch compounded with jet lag. I put my hand on my purse reflexively. “Oh crap. Where’s the guidebook?’

Did I leave it on the bartop of the 60s Bar? On the table at the Malaysian restaurant? On the vinyl banquette at the karaoke place?

“That’s okay,” says my husband.  “I don’t think we need it anymore.”

Nora Maynard in art museumNora Maynard is a writer based in New York City. Her personal essays and food and drink writing have appeared in Killing the Buddha, Leite’s Culinaria, Food Republic, CHOW, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and other publications. She is the cocktails and spirits columnist for Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn. Nora has received fiction fellowships from the Ucross Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, The Artists’ Enclave at I-Park, and is a winner of the Bronx Writers’ Center/Bronx Council on the Arts’ Chapter One Competition. She is at work on a novel. Visit her website at www.noramaynard.com.
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  • Somehow, this drunken exploration seems very cultural and fun.