Boozing is an awesome anytime activity in Tokyo. 7-Eleven tallboys and your average bar's draft run hundreds of yen cheaper than a cappuccino, and since trains stop running at midnight, nearly all watering holes remain open and packed until dawn. But to cultivate that Cheers-like vibe, in a joint a tenth of the size but with 10,000 times the character...that takes some effort. I spend my time in Golden Gai, a network of narrow alleys whose collective footprint approximates Tompkins Square Park, yet is filled with some 200 unique, tiny-ass bars.
Where to go? The shockingly pink Love and Peace? The jazz-eclectic Dan-SING-Cinema, up a crippling flight of stairs? (Most of these bars stacked two high.) The geek-chic Bar Plastic Model? Be warned: there will be “seat charges,” either a flat fee or hourly rate to sit your ass down and drink. That's because all these joints have regulars—artists, musicians, writers, whatever—who expect their usual seat (of like eight). Bar-hopping in Golden Gai gets expensive quick.
Luckily, I found my Cheers. It's called Darling.
Japanese splatter film posters (Robogeisha and The Machine Girl anyone?)—most of which feature acting by Darling's charming owner Yūya Ishikawa—blanket the cramped space. If Yūya's in the house, then Group Sounds-era crooner Kenji Sawada will be wafting from the stereo. Otherwise, expect jazz or Motörhead, as cutie bartender Ichiko serves a full spread of the harder stuff. To offset that 800-yen seat charge (and dull the booze), Ichiko adds a complimentary snack. One night I swear it was a mini chalupa, likeOrtega-style—I don't know how she made that in Darling's dollhouse-sized kitchen.
The J-Horror world frequents Darling, plus Eiga Hiho journalists like Yoshiki Takahashi (those extra-splattery posters and “Taxi Driver” sake label? All Yoshiki-designed) and noise musicians. If I'm lucky, Tokyo Dolores pole-dance troupe leader Cay Izumi. If I'm luckier, a handful of Mutant Girls Squad actresses.
Last December was Darling's sixth anniversary, coinciding with Yūya-san's birthday and the evidently rare Japanese lunar eclipse. A crowded night of “飲み放題” (“all-you-can-drink”, truly an awesome concept) and debauchery ensued. I'd been frequenting Darling for over a year then, and I never felt closer to home.
If you end up within Golden Gai, I suggest Nagi—a Fist of the North Star-themed ramen joint—as your pre- or post-drinking nosh spot. Nagi's unctuous, garlicky deliciousness is guaranteed to soak up any alcoholic embers. Plus, any woman willing to get near my post-Nagi breath is A-OK in my book.
Images: overhead shot UnmissableTOKYO.com, all Darling photos courtesy the author