West Shinjuku is a showcase of sleek, modern high-rises. East Shinjuku, by contrast, is a low-rise mishmash of department stores and restaurants, which are gradually replaced by movie theaters and hostess clubs the farther north one moves. And if you find yourself surrounded by street hawkers instead of shoppers, chances are you’ve hit Kabukicho.
Yet on the eastern edge of the animated mayhem that is Kabukicho lies a relatively quiet, still-undeveloped area called Golden Gai. It became a haven for freedom fighters and thinkers of the ’60s who, pressured to conform to the system, resorted to the only appealing career option left: to open a bar. So it was that disgruntled poets and artists became the mamas and papas of tiny salons, where like-minded spirits would gather to soothe their bruised ideals.
These days, however, Golden Gai is a virtual ghost town, with ramshackle rows of cinder-block snack bars literally crumbling as they await redevelopment — plans for which have been momentarily thwarted by one greedy developer’s bid to purchase every square inch. Although many would-be bar owners have tried to rekindle the area, their plans have been frustrated by the lack of legal tenancy.
But recently, new bars have been opened by a few young hopefuls. Bar Tre Tre is one of them. It stands, appropriately, like a sentinel at the entrance to Golden Gai, and though it is tiny, it has provided enough of a toehold for others to gain leverage into the area.
“We get together and help each other negotiate a fair deal on rent,” says Gaku, the master of Tre Tre and a ringleader in the revival.
Tre Tre is a funky, late-night hideaway, which — despite its diminutive proportions that go well beyond cozy — seems strangely uncluttered and comfortable. A tiny elbow of a bar fronts six leopard-print stools — and that’s it! The walls are a warm red, which in one corner converge in a large neopsychedelic design. Strings of fairy lights cling to the ceiling on each side of a softly glowing, central star. Incense wafts in lethargic curves across the cosmos.
Gaku has traveled throughout Asia, where he acquired the open, smiling mannerism usually attributed to denizens of Japan’s warmer neighbors. He also picked up an eclectic taste in music. I was greeted with some mellow, reverberating jazz as he busied himself with preparations. That was followed with some manic Indian raga remixes. But what comes next is anyone’s guess — including Gaku’s. (I’ve heard rumors of entire nights at Tre Tre dedicated to bouncy Okinawan music).
You might also simply find the bar closed. If no one wanders in, Gaku often shuts up shop to do the rounds and enjoy a beer and a joke elsewhere in the hood. But don’t worry — if you call his mobile number, he will come running back with a welcoming smile (and some wacky new tunes) . . .