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Posted by JM Taylor at 2/13/2013 02:52:00 PM | View Comments
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A week ago, I took an audio tour of a very interesting section of Shinjuku called “Kabukicho”. This area is infamously known as Tokyo’s red light district (though there is another such district near my apartment) and home to many Yakuza offices. Hence, Kabukicho has a reputation for being the “most dangerous” place in Tokyo, which of course is a total joke if you’ve ever lived in Manila and have roamed around Quiapo and Tondo. Take it from me, this place is absolutely safe as long as you stay away from suspicious looking people and shops.

It’s a bit sad that Kabukicho is always equated to the sex industry because that’s not what it’s all about. There’s a lot of more wholesome fun that can be had in this part of Shinjuku like arcades, amusement centers, great restaurants, and interesting stores and bars. One such example is in the eastern section of Kabukicho called “Golden Gai”, a block of tiny hole-in-the-wall type bars. According to White Rabbit Press’ Kabukicho audio guide, right after World War II, this area had many drinking places and brothels, but in the late 50’s, an anti-prostitution law was implemented and the brothels disappeared. Golden Gai's watering holes, however, remained and today are a well-known hangout for famous artists, with each bar having a different theme. Says the audio guide, some are for jazz fans, others for film lovers, and one of them, I discovered, is a Famicom (Family Computer) bar called “Bar Uramen” where you can drink while playing Famicom/NES games from a selection of about 500 titles. I visited this place yesterday evening.


View Bar Uramen in a larger map
The tour described the atmosphere of the bars in Golden Gai as being in “someone’s living room”. That’s exactly how being inside Bar Uramen felt like, though it was more like being in a college student’s tiny Tokyo apartment. You could probably fit about 12 to 14 people in this place, with about 6 or 7 counter seats and a small area with equally small tables for another 6 or 7 people. And when I say “tiny apartment” I mean “Wee-man” tiny – I think the floor area was around 8 to 9 square meters.

It was quite a messy place, but very homey.

There was only one customer sitting at the counter when we arrived. Not unusual as this was a Tuesday evening. He was speaking to the bartender, a nice lady who apparently had no interest in video games, which I thought was pretty ironic considering this was a Famicom bar. She said she was more into “German board games”. I had no idea what an example of that would be, though.


There is a table charge of 600 Yen (263 Pesos). Buy a drink or not, you are charged this fee. Drinks were priced at an average of 500 to 600 Yen (219 to 263 Pesos). That might sound expensive, but that’s actually how much a drink is at any regular bar in Tokyo, so I’d say it’s reasonable. As for food, they served only smoked cheese, instant noodles, and canned food – not exactly sophisticated, though you wouldn’t be coming here for the food, right? And like I said, it’s as if you were in a university student’s flat. It’s also good to note that there are no hidden charges. Prices already include taxes.


As you can see from the picture below, gaming is done on a projector. The only system you can choose to play video games on is a newish version of the Famicom despite the fact that you can see a variety of consoles scattered throughout the bar (I saw a Wii, PS3, and a PC Engine). I even saw a couple boxes of Hori V3 Fighting Sticks. I asked the bartender if these other consoles are ever used, but she said that they only ever let customers use the Famicom.

Dude playing Super Mario Bros.

Games can be selected from a list of game cartridges in the form of a booklet. However, this list is in Japanese. If you find something you like, you tell the bartender, and she fetches it for you from the pile of Famicom cartridges on a shelf on the wall. My friend and I played Ninja Gaiden 1, 1943, Bomberman 2, Baseball, and Kirby. Another guy played Super Mario Bros., and some person played and finished Rockman 2 (Megaman 2).

Not sure what those hard hats are for.

The staff was very friendly and started a conversation with us. We even received Valentine’s day gifts in the form of a package containing a kind of brownie with a couple tea bags (in Japan, Valentine’s Day is for men - there is another day for women called White Day). Later, the shop owner came in and introduced himself to us. To be honest, when I entered Bar Uramen and saw the small, cramped, and disorganized shack with all kinds of things scattered about, I thought it may have been a bad idea to visit, but after letting ourselves feel at home, and through the kindness and warmth of the staff (and customers!), I actually enjoyed myself a lot.


With no knowledge of Japanese, I wouldn’t recommend going to Bar Uramen. No one speaks English, and all signs including the menus are in Japanese as well (with no pictures), though I suppose if you are the adventurous type you could probably somehow communicate your needs. Should you decide to go, don’t let first appearances deceive you. If you let yourself relax and enjoy what they have to offer, you’ll be in for a very unique and interesting experience.


Update: I forgot to mention that Bar Uramen used to be called Qunai Bros., and Games Radar wrote something about it in their almost 4 year old article on "Tokyo's underground game bars". They claim that Qunai Bros. is hard to find and entry to the establishment is just as difficult... but I had no difficulties at all. The place even has a website with a map. Perhaps it was GR's attempt to give it some hype, or maybe things have changed since then. Also, one other thing I wanted to mention is that they seem to have stopped serving okonomiyaki. The Games Radar article says that they used to do so.
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