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Tucked away on the eastern side of Tokyo's sordid Kabuki-cho district (near Shinkuku), 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 rely on their regulars—and give a frosty welcome and exorbitant bill to the casual visitor. And although the timeworn look of Golden Gai captures the imagination of most visitors, many of the establishments are notoriously unfriendly to foreigners. But times change, as do leases, and a new generation of owners is gradually emerging to offer the same intimate drinking experience and cold beers without the unwelcome reception.
Albatross G. With red walls and wooden shelves adorned with paintings and Spanish classic novels, this tiny, arty bar attracts crowds with its friendliness and affordability. The clientele is a nice mix of local Japanese and foreign travelers. 2F 5th Ave., 1–1 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 160-0021. 03/3203–3699. www.alba-s.com. Daily 7 pm–4 am. Subway: JR and Marunouchi subway lines, Shinjuku Station (East Exit).
La Jetée. It should come as no surprise that French cinema is the proprietor's big passion: a film lover's paradise, La Jetée is covered in Euro-cinema posters and was named after a French movie. It struggles to seat 10-12 customers, but that means intimate conversations—in Japanese, French, and sometimes English—usually about movies. If you want to discuss European cinema with Wim Wenders or sit toe-to-toe with Quentin Tarantino, this is your best bet. The music, naturally, comes exclusively from film sound tracks. 2F, 1–1–8 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 160-0021. 03/3208–9645. www.lajetee.net/. Mon.–Sat. 7 pm–1 am. Subway: JR and Marunouchi subway lines, Shinjuku Station (East Exit).
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