Drinking in Golden Gai and eating fish ramen at Nagi

It was a Thursday night in Tokyo and I had plans to meet a friend for a drink. J and I met at the west exit of Shinjuku station around 10pm and walked to Golden Gai nearby. When coming to Golden Gai this evening, I realised I had never made it to Golden Gai on my trip last year (but I thought I had).

Lane ways of Golden Gai, Shinjuku
Lane ways of Golden Gai, Shinjuku

Golden Gai is made up of a few lane-ways of tiny bars that only fit about 5-6 people in each bar. There is usually a cover charge at most of the bars here. J was an expat and had been living in Tokyo for 18 months, so he knew the area well, and I was glad to be shown the sights by a local. He picked a bar called Kangaroo Court in Golden Gai, which he’d been to before. The bar had about 5 seats, and there was one another customer inside when we came in.

Golden Gai is situated near Kabukicho, a red-light district of Tokyo. It is not a place you come to if classy bars are your thing. The bars in Golden Gai are somewhat dingy, with outdated decor that is not at all typical of Tokyo. However, they are a lot of fun. The locals in Golden Gai are friendly and always up for a chat.

After ordering drinks, we were given free bar snacks, which we nibbled on while chatting to the other customer and the bartender.

First drinks of the night
First drinks of the night

J and I both decided on scotch whiskey for our first round of drinks, although I don’t remember which kind we were drinking- it definitely wasn’t Japanese whiskey as they said they didn’t have any (it’s strange that Japanese bars sometimes don’t have Japanese alcohol). I remember that it tasted disgusting though.

For our second round of drinks, I decided to go with something different, and J made a recommendation of oolong hai- a Japanese shochu mixed with oolong tea. It was served in a highball and the concoction reminded me of Hennessy and green tea, a mixture which I’m very fond of drinking back home in Sydney. I liked it immediately and this became my favourite drink for the remainder of my Japan trip.

Bar snacks as well as my first oolong hai
Bar snacks as well as my first oolong hai
Complimentary bar snacks
Complimentary bar snacks
Range of liquor at Kangaroo Court
Range of liquor at Kangaroo Court
Interior of Kangaroo Court
Interior of Kangaroo Court

After having an animated conversation about Japanese food, we got onto the topic of ramen. I told the bartender and the other customer at Kangaroo Court that ramen was one of my favourite Japanese foods. The bartender asked me if I had tried fish ramen, to which I said no, so he then said that he recommended a place called ‘Nagi’.

J also said that he had never tried this place before either, so then the bartender said that he would take us there right then to go eat it. He then closed the bar and the other customer, J, the bartender and I all went to go eat ramen together in a ramen restaurant called Nagi that was also in Golden Gai, just one lane-way away. It was one of the most spontaneous things I had ever done in my life (and I loved it).

Fellow Kangaroo Court customer that we ate fish ramen with
Fellow Kangaroo Court customer that we ate fish ramen with
Tokyoites- perhaps the friendliest people in the world
Tokyoites- perhaps the friendliest people in the world

We climbed a set of steep stairs to enter Nagi (as is common in many places in Japan). Immediately after entering, there was a vending machine facing us with menu options. After putting in cash, we were able to select our choice, and the machine then printed out a ticket which we then gave to the chef to make. All in all, a very efficient system, and one which entirely eliminates the need for waiters. There were no English instructions on the machine, so I took my chances and ordered a ramen that cost around 1,000 yen. The ramen chef prepared freshly made ramen noodles in front of our eyes (a first for me) and served steaming hot bowls to us in minutes.

Counter seating inside Nagi
Counter seating inside Nagi

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Entrance of Nagi in Golden Gai, Shinjuku
Entrance of Nagi in Golden Gai, Shinjuku

Nagi was small, with counter seating. It was a little dingy, with an outdated interior, but like many of the places in Golden Gai, this just contributed to its too-cool vibe. The whole restaurant only fit about a maximum of 6 people, and the place filled up very quickly. Just as we were about done eating, a big group of people came into the restaurant, waiting to take our seats. I can never finish a bowl of ramen on my own, and the bartender from Kangaroo Court said he’d finish mine if I was done eating, which I found a little odd, but I just assumed I may have broken some rules concerning Japanese food etiquette- this was not the first time someone said they’d finish my food for me in Japan.

Freshly made noodles at Nagi
Freshly made noodles at Nagi
J's bowl of fish ramen- I had been pretty sure that we ordered different things but the bowls came out looking identical
J’s bowl of fish ramen- I had been pretty sure that we ordered different things but the bowls came out looking identical

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Fish ramen at Nagi
Fish ramen at Nagi

The soup had a distinct fish flavour with chilli paste, thick slices of pork and onsen tamago. I couldn’t tell what the base was for the soup, but I didn’t like it- my preferred ramen is tonkotsu. Nevertheless, it was a memorable experience being taken to secret eats by Tokyo locals, and was one of my top memories of my winter Japan trip.

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