As a follower of Japanese culture, if you have never seen Midnight Diner on Netflix, you need to stop reading this blog for a moment and queue it up. It is one of Nihonshu Girl’s and my favourite television shows – ever. It is set in a diner in the backstreets of Shinjuku which opens at midnight and caters to an interesting cross section of Shinjuku locals. Each has a quirky back story that is explored as they interact with the owner of the diner; The Master. We are transfixed by the opening sequence of the show, a slow taxi ride into the main thoroughfare of Shinjuku with its neon lights. The music is dripping with nostalgia and tugs at our heartstrings. Sometimes talking about the show or The Master brings a tear to Nihonshu Girl’s eyes. It’s that special for us.
Being based in Shinjuku for a single night enroute to Kyoto, we felt compelled to seek out the locations and shots from the opening sequence. We also wanted to seek out The Master and his Diner, or at least a non-fictional version to have an authentic experience of sake and yakitori with some quirky locals in a small backstreet diner or izakaya.
Shinjuku is all glitter and neon, and is a big commercial hub in Tokyo. However, on the east side of the train station are some old Showa era (pre-war) period alleys and backstreets that were once Tokyo’s red light district. This area, called Kabukicho, has modernised somewhat, and is now home to the Robot Restaurant, Pachinko Parlours, Movie theatres, Godzilla statues, and the like. It is where Tokyo goes to party. But there are still a few untouched Showa era alleys lined with small izakaya’s, diners, and pubs. Many are so small they only hold six to eight people at a time. They are very authentic and unpretentious. The food and alcohol is cheap, and the patrons often part of the furniture. Each little hole-in-the-wall comes with it’s own version of The Master.
Perhaps the most famous, and photogenic of these Alley’s is Omoide Yokocho (direct translation – memory lane, but is more generally know as Piss Alley, from all the locals who go there to get pissed, apparently). We were lucky to stumble upon the alley without too much searching. We immediately recognised it from the Instagram feeds of some of our favourite Japanese Photographers. Adorned with branches of autumn maple leaves and red lanterns advertising the establishments, it is very photogenic.
After a short stroll up the alley trying to recreate some of the Insta shots we loved, we settled on a small yakitori place. It was really small. A single counter with about eight stools, and barely enough room to squeeze behind the patrons to get to the back of the restaurant. On the alley frontage was the yakitori grill, wafting smokey flavours that instantly had us hooked and salivating. I knew right away that this was just what we were looking for. We may or may not find our Master, but were in for some great food and drink.
We ordered an assortment of chicken and vegetables wrapped in thinly sliced pork. All grilled and dripping in yakitori sauce. Everything was so simple and yet so hard to reproduce. I’ve tried and failed many times at home. Maybe it’s the setting and the presence of the Master that makes it all work. I am going to dream of the Yakitori for the rest of the trip. It was so smokey and flavourful. Heaven on a stick. Even the cheap table sake went down a treat.
We could have stayed for hours and ordered more food and sake, but an early Shinkansen trip to Kyoto was on our minds for the morning. So we wrapped up our search for the Master and headed back to Book and Bed. On the walk back, we passed by a Koban (police box) on one of the streets. I instantly thought of an episode of Midnight Diner that revolves around a local junior policeman. We may have not found The Master or the Midnight Diner, but we felt like we stepped into the show for an evening. I suspect Nihonshu Girl and I will recount this night many times over. It was a little bit nostalgic and magical.