Tucked away on the eastern side of Tokyo's sordid Kabuki-cho district (near Shinjuku), Golden Gai is a ramshackle collection of more than 200 Lilliputian bars that survived the rampant construction of Japan's bubble-economy years, thanks to the passion of its patrons. In the 1980s, when the yakuza, Japan's crime syndicate, was torching properties to sell the land to big-thinking developers, Golden Gai's supporters took turns guarding the area each night.
Each bar occupies a few square yards, and some accommodate fewer than a dozen drinkers. With such limited space, many of the bars used to rely on their regulars—along with their name-written bottles kept behind the counter—and gave a frosty welcome and exorbitant bill to the casual visitor. And although the timeworn look of Golden Gai captures the imagination of most visitors, still many of the establishments could be notoriously unfriendly to foreigners. But times are changing, as are leases, and a new generation of owners is gradually emerging to offer the same intimate drinking experience and cold beers without the unwelcome reception.
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