Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Golden Gai, Cabo San Lucas

One of my favorite discoveries in Tokyo was the neighborhood called Golden Gai. Golden Gai is a series of small, narrow alleyways with many storefronts housed in close quarters, completely deserted and locked down during the day. It resides in the neighborhood of Shinjuku, known for housing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Each of these doors houses an impossibly small drinking establishment.

At nightime the doors are unlocked and in some cases left open. Lights are turned on inside by a mysterious bartender, and in some cases music begins to play. In almost no cases is there a welcome sign over the door. And in almost no case is a new client, stranger or tourist invited in. Strangers and tourists, anyone who is not accompanied by a regular, is turned away with a bark, "Closed!", or a grunted, "Japanese only!"

What is amazing and special about these bars is not just how they offer their clients a tightly knit drinking community. These bars are tiny. Most no bigger than the kitchen in a 1000 sq ft house. And I saw several much smaller. Each bar has about 6 seats, some have less, some have more, and there are seats available nowhere except at the bar itself. The person behind the bar is usually the owner, and coming into his/her bar is like being invited into their living room for cocktail hour. The same room is owned and passed down and never or rarely sold to an outsider. In all the bars I peeked into, money, movie posters, photographs and various memorabilia covered every inch of wall space.

I did find one propieter who welcomed us into his bar, and we drank together, chatted in his wonderful English, and listened to his jaw-dropping collection of flamenco vinyl from as far back as the 1940's. His room was decorated with the signatures of famous flamenco players throughout the last few decades, and dried single stem roses punctuated the autographs in dark little nooks and cubbyholes.

Wandering the Golden Gai, I knocked on doors and was turned away many times before finding a happy stool for my bum. That made the experience all the more special.

Imagine my delight when, in Cabo San Lucas last weekend, I discovered just such a bar right next door to the ridiculously celebratory Giggling Marlin. This particular itty bitty teeny tiny bar is called Sangria. While Sangria shares many similarities with the bars of the Golden Gai, there are also stark contrasts.

Sangria is petite, it has only 6 bar stools. It serves alcohol, it plays music and it attracts many regular customers. Currency of all provenances are stuck to the walls and ceilings.

However, the door is wide open starting in late afternoon, and by open I mean open to anyone. Tourists and locals together crowd the tiny bar, and the sparse seating makes for close quarters and lively conversation. By 11 pm the outside part of the bar was four people deep, and everyone was having a great time. The bartendress handled everyone equally with an attitude of welcoming joy and efficiency. I visited this bar all three nights of my stay and have some great memories.

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