Yokochō means “alleyway” in Japanese, and the busy alleyways of Tokyo, Osaka, and other large cities in Japan, are an opportunity to connect with the past. Bustling and crowded alleyways are packed with small izakaya, bars, ramen joints and other cheap and delicious eateries. Many of these establishments seat only 4-10 people. They are very “cosy”. Getting into a seat may require some acrobatics. They are fun and a great way to meet locals. Especially if you are drinking sake.
Yokochō are usually off the main thoroughfare, but easy to find. They do, however, have a wonderful feeling of stumbling onto a secret. Also, a sense that you have time travelled. Many of these places are a window into the Showa Era and post-war Japan. They offer a tangible experience of nostalgia.
I have visited two yokochō in Tokyo, the renowned Omoide Yokochō and Ebisu Yokochō. Both have interesting and diverse histories. I highly recommend either of these places as an unforgettable Tokyo experience. Omoide is very crowded, tightly packed and photogenic. Ebisu has loads of character, friendly people and a little more breathing room.
Omoide Yokochō is in Shinjuku, not far from the station. The translation of the name is Memory Lane. It is an often photographed and recognisable icon in Tokyo. Originally a post World War 2 black market drinking spot, there are over 60 eateries lining the alley. Many of them are so narrow, you have to squeeze past other guests to get to a bar stool. The food will be worth your effort. The area was ravaged by fire in 1999. Up until this time there were no public bathrooms located in the area. This lead to the nickname, and the name by which many know this place, “Piss Alley”. The rebuilding has not changed the ambience of the place. It is smoky, from the binchotan coals, it is suitably grimy and it has loads of character. There is now one restroom. It gets very busy.
Ebisu Yokochō is located in Ebisu, a very stylish suburb of Tokyo. Previously a covered shopping arcade, that had fallen into disrepair, this very lively laneway was revamped and reopened in 1998. The design was purposefully retro, to give the yokochō a nostalgic feel. Ebisu Yokochō houses around 20 independent restaurants and bars, including a mushroom specialist restaurant, Korean BBQ, an oden place and a very popular hotplate restaurant. Our visit was an adventure. We were 8 people looking for a place to sit. It was a needle and haystack situation. We were extremely lucky to find a spot in one of the izakaya. The food was exceptional and there was a sake bar across the way. Several new friends were made that night, and our Japanese was put to the test.
Yokochō open from around 5pm (after work) until late into the night.
You can read more about my Ebisu Yokochō experience here. You can read a wonderful blog about Omoide, written by my super elusive guest blogger, Super Sake Boy here. You can also watch a very short video of Ebisu Yokochō here.