Cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth, Toru Kambayashi is busy behind the counter preparing to open his bar when a couple — American, perhaps, judging from their accents — poke their heads in the door, asking if they can come in for a drink.

“Not yet,” says Kambayashi, the bearded and bespectacled owner of Skavla, one of the near 280 bars, pubs and other establishments tightly packing the labyrinthine alleys of Shinjuku Golden Gai. His place opens promptly at 7 p.m.

“OK, we’ll come back later,” one of them says as they drift back out into the winter evening where fluorescent shop signs are beginning to flicker to life, slowly transforming these narrow, rustic streets into a colorful concoction of cramped watering holes.