Have you ever stealthily wandered the maze-like corridors of a ninja bar? Been served a beer with a shot of spiritual guidance by a monk? Offered a weapon with your whiskey?
Most of us imagine that nightlife in Tokyo includes karaoke, sake, people in fun fashions and lots of neon lights. While there’s plenty of all four, there is so much more — with many surprises and adventures around every corner.
A perfect fusion of traditional and modern Japan, Tokyo’s nightlife scene offers something for everyone’s taste. From a bar concept your friends won’t believe without photos to hidden treasures found in the narrow alleyways of the Shinjuku Golden Gai District to an evening spent cruising the Sumida River, you’re destined to enjoy a night you’ll never forget.
Do you like to stay until last call? Many bars and entertainment venues are open late — some until 5 a.m. and others never close. And you don’t have to worry about traveling the streets at night. Tokyo is very safe, and there are always a lot of people around.
Here are a few fantastic options to get this party started!
If you’re planning a night of hashigo (a local term for bar crawl), you’ll find yourself in quite a few izakaya (gastropubs), as in pubs that serve high-quality food. These watering holes started as after-work refuges, and many still serve that purpose for locals. Today, they showcase a more accurate representation of modern Japanese cuisine than some of the higher-end dining establishments. Menus at the casual bars range from traditional fare to more Western dishes, with drink menus just as diverse.
If you’re looking for a traditional izakaya experience with a touch of Hollywood glamour, local favorite Gonpachi is a good place to start. Rumor has it this institution served as the inspiration for the infamous restaurant scene in “Kill Bill.” Aside from its brush with fame, it also offers a menu that blends traditional dishes like soba noodles and spicy chicken wings.
If you’re looking for something that will shock your friends back home, The Lockup might be more your speed. Upon arrival, you’ll find yourself handcuffed to the scantily clad security guard/hostess who will lead you and your party to your own personal jail cell. The rest of the experience includes fun, quirky details like drinks served from test tubes and beakers.
A twist on tradition
The Japanese are known for respecting and honoring tradition, so you would expect nothing less from the culture’s nightlife scene. Of course, as you might expect, a few of these traditions come with a bit of a twist.
A night at the bar becomes a religious experience at Tokyo’s Vowz Bar. This cozy joint is owned and run by Buddhist monks, so your bartender can serve your drink as well as offer life-altering wisdom.
In Japanese culture, ninjas were considered elite assassins. Today, they are a themed concept for a one-of-a-kind night out at the appropriately named Ninja bar. With a hidden entrance, maze-like corridors and a secret bridge, Ninja is more than an experience — it’s an adventure.
Only in Tokyo
If Buddhist monks and ninja waiters aren’t unique enough for you, Tokyo has countless “out there” and off-the-wall options.
In the bright lights of Tokyo, the night sky can be hard to see. That’s not a problem at the Planetarium Bar, which projects 5 million stars above its patrons’ heads. As an alternative, the bar also offers a less starry, but equally impressive view of the Tokyo skyline.
If you’re craving something a little less celestial and more hands-on, then take a shot at the Shooting Bar EA, literally. After signing a rules and regulations contract, customers can help themselves to some grub, a cocktail and a Glock. That last one is an air gun replica, of course. Replicas of several popular guns are available to rent, and a private shooting range is ready for you to work on your aim.
Yakatabune (party boats)
These Japanese-style party boats connect modern-day Tokyo with a piece of its past. Originally made from wood, these traditional long boats were used by Japan’s upper class as early as the 8th century. Today, these boats have been transformed into floating party halls. With an average cost of about $100 per person, they can be less expensive than a night out in the city.
Shinjuku Golden Gai District
Surrounded by skyscrapers, this lively and popular area is a survivor of an age gone by. The district is made up of six narrow streets tucked full of 200 bars and eateries. Wandering in and out of the local establishments is a must for travelers looking for an authentic Tokyo nightlife experience. Just keep in mind that some of the bars only serve locals, so don’t be surprised if you get turned away at a place or two. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of bars to choose from.
How about some sake?
What would a night out in Tokyo be without sake? Thankfully that’s a question you won’t have to answer since plenty of bars serve this traditional rice wine.
With more than a hundred different types of sake to choose from, Kuri is perfect for aficionados or newbies. The bar has a rotating seasonal menu that changes weekly, so you’ll always have something new to try. If choosing a sake has you overwhelmed, Kuri offers a sake sommelier to help you navigate the huge menu.
More than sake
If sake’s not really your style, Tokyo has plenty more to offer. It might be the last place you’d expect to find a good whiskey joint, but that’s exactly what you will find at Zoetrope. Part whiskey bar, part movie house, this unique space boasts some rare malts and a collection of sci-fi and fantasy-movie memorabilia, and the back wall acts as a movie screen for classic films.
After a sake (or whiskey) nightcap, it’s time to say oyasuminasai (good night).
For more information on nightlife in Tokyo, see the Official Tokyo Travel Guide: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/.
—Lindsey Malkus for Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau