Tokyo's Golden-gai bar district

by AFP/Hiroshi Hiyama, Mar 4, 2003 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Taking a walk through Tokyo's Golden-gai bar district is like stepping back in time to early post-war Japan when the area was filled with artists and radicals wanting to change the world. This historical area of dimly lit alleyways and buildings fronted by thin, wooden doors is making a comeback as people take advantage of falling rent -- hit by Japan's economic slump -- to try their luck in the bar business.

"When I came to Golden-gai as a customer, I thought this town had a lot of potential," said Hirotaka Higuchi, a 39-year-old businessman who opened a rock music bar J-Fox in Golden-gai last summer. "People are warm here... and the laid-back, retro feel of this area appeals to young people and long-time loyal customers alike," he said.

Golden-gai, or golden district, is a patch of a land -- roughly 2,000 square metres (21,520 square feet) in size -- that borders the bustling Kabukicho entertainment area in downtown Tokyo. In a startling contrast to Kabukicho's modern bars, glitzy strip joints and noisy karaoke clubs, Golden-gai quietly hosts some 180 watering holes, many of which are only big enough to squeeze in a dozen or so customers. Underneath the quiet exterior, however, Golden-gai is going through a business boom with about 40 bars opening in the past two years. At least 15 more will start business by the end of the month, said Kozo Shinme, president of local real estate firm Seibi Kogyo.

"Most of them (new bar operators) used to be Golden-gai bar customers themselves, who wanted to start their own businesses," Shinme said. "Generational changes are slowly taking place. We have a mix of long-time clients, who are loyal to their favourite bars. We also have new customers in their 20s and 30s who come to Golden-gai after hearing about it on television or in magazines," Shinme said.

Strolling through the district offers a sense of Tokyo in the 1970s, when young artists, writers and actors were drawn to the Bohemian atmosphere and cheap drinks of Golden-gai while they discussed art, life and their dreams. Laughter can be heard through a string of thin doors along otherwise quiet alleys, where people might bar hop -- a Golden-gai tradition since the area was organised as a black market and red-light district after World War II.

To this day, some bars are known for catering towards amateur literati, while others attract theatrical types. "Because all the bars are small, strangers literally rub their elbows. It fosters friendship," said Hiroshi Okura, 45, who runs Julien Sorel, a bar styled around Japanese pop tunes.

"People... come here to chat to bar owners and fellow customers," said Okura, who was raised in Golden-gai by his parents who started the Julien Sorel 47 years ago. Business in Golden-gai slumped during the bubble economy era of the 1980s to the early 1990s, when bars gradually closed as massive speculative investments boosted land prices in Tokyo.

Owners were paid handsomely -- with some people rumoured to have received 10 million yen (83,333 dollars) -- to sell their tiny bar spaces as land developers prepared for major developments to sweep through the area. These building projects never materialised, however, in part because the land was divided among so many owners, while complicated lease agreements also deterred the complete desertion of long-time bar owners. As a result, when the Japanese economy started to turn sour in the 1990s, Golden-gai was left with dozens of vacated buildings, bar operators said.

A turning point came in 2000, when a law was revised to authorise landlords to set limited-term contracts with tenants. "It reduced landlords' burden of having to compensate tenants when they were asked to leave. As a result, the legal change led to lowering monthly rent," Shinme said. "Now, you can open a bar with a start-up cost of about two million yen, with the monthly rent running somewhere between 100,000 yen to 130,000 yen," roughly 30 percent lower than during the bubble economy period, he said.

The change encouraged young entrepreneurs to open bars there, and the inflow of new blood has slowly rejuvenated the community, bar owners said. Customers, though, have mixed feeling about the rebirth of Golden-gai. "To be honest, I want it to remain the best-kept secret in Tokyo," said Yasuhito Tsuneyama, 34, who works for a marketing company.

Connoisseur of theatrical art, Tsuneyama has frequented various Golden-gai bars for about five years after hearing about the area through the media. "I want the area to flourish with new bar managers. But the attraction of this area, to me, is that it is a closed society, in a good sense," he said.

"A dilemma," Shinme said, "is that we want more customers but also we want to keep the atmosphere of the place as it is."

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