Shinjuku is home to one of the world’s busiest stations with over 3.5 million people passing through every day. With 200 exits from the station and countless winding streets through this dense commercial district, it is as much a place to lose someone as it is to meet someone. The entire area exudes potential for chance meetings, secret encounters and hidden subcultures. It’s also home to Tokyo’s largest red light district, Kabukicho, often described euphemistically as “an entertainment and nightlife district.” Shinjuku is a warren where everyone can find a home… even if you have to head down the very darkest, dingiest alleys.
Perhaps the most famous network of alleys is Golden Gai, which is crammed with over 200 ramshackle bars. But, over the west side of the tracks, it has a slightly lesser known cousin—Omoide Yokocho. Famed for its yakitori (grilled chicken) and steaming pots of motsu (organ stew), it oozes 1950s nostalgia from Japan’s postwar Showa period, having been rebuilt faithfully after a fire in 1999. Its name literally translates as “Memory Lane,” which reflects a romanticism that’s perhaps necessary when thinking about this grimy grid of streets. It’s also commonly known by the not-so-affectionate moniker “Piss Alley”, and you don’t need to be a detective to guess why it might earn itself such a name. With the amount of booze flowing, it’s a place where you might walk out with only partial memories in the morning.
In search of secrets…
In the latest instalment in our Dark Side of Tokyo series, Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to spend an evening there, stay until late, and see who drifts by in this melting pot of locals and international visitors. But that’s not all. I was forbidden from returning home until I had completed the second part of the challenge: to get three people from three countries to tell me their deepest darkest secret.
Game on. I was going to make a night in Omoide Yokocho one to remember.
Digging Deeper: Omoide Yokocho’s Past and Present
It’s a Saturday night. The entrance to Omoide Yokocho is lit by a gaudy yellow and green sign. Decorative autumn leaves are draped across the alley next to the equally red lanterns given a warm glow that contrasts against the harsher neon. It’s packed with people taking photos and looking for a free seat.
This tourist attraction was once a black market. Goods like US flour were strictly controlled after the Second World War, but yakitori and motsu (organ meats) fell outside the regulations. A thriving trade in this cuisine sprung up in Omoide Yokocho, and continues today. Narrow bars with a ramshackle counter open to the street, stew pots bubbling and smoke from the grills adding to the nostalgic haze. Customers are crammed elbow-to-elbow, laughing and drinking, as others squeeze by to make their way up some rickety stairs to the barely detectable second floors.
A Keio Urban Studies Researcher on Shinjuku’s dingiest
For my adventures tonight, I’ve recruited the perfect accomplice—Joe McReynolds, an urban studies researcher at Keio University with a keen interest in subcultures. He joins me at our first stop for the evening – Yasubee – which I have carefully chosen for its large selection of sake.
Before we even enter the store, the staff run through a checklist to make sure we’re OK with their policies: they will give us an otoshi (a small dish to accompany your drink); there’s a “cover charge;” and they only accept cash. It’s worth remembering these pointers before heading for a night out in Japan as they are standard cultural practice. There have clearly been misunderstandings, which is why the majority of places in Omoide Yokocho have multilingual explanatory signage and staff are keen to confirm everything.
Once inside, we perch at the counter and get some sake on order. Meanwhile, I ask Joe how Omoide Yokocho fits into Japan’s drinking culture.
“The way I look at it, there are a few main styles of drinking in Japan, and one of them is just going for some casual after-work foods like yakitori and having a beer or two with your co-workers after a long day. Omoide Yokocho reflects that side of Japanese drinking pretty well, and with classic surroundings to boot,” he explains.
I nod sagely, while helping myself to the house special potato salad. So not too touristy then?
“A friend first brought me to Omoide Yokocho over a decade ago, before the tourism boom really hit, and the core of a night out back then is the same as it is now; grilled meat and good conversation washed down with some beer. The difference now is that a much wider range of people are turning up to experience it.”
As if to prove his point, the gentleman next to me turns out to be from Fukuoka, who has popped in for a quiet drink—until I started asking him questions. Behind us, a young Japanese couple appears to be on a date. While we’re tucking into a chef’s selection of kushiyaki – a crowd-pleasing selection of chicken thigh, pork belly, leeks and shissito green peppers – there are plenty of traditional organ dishes on offer, too.
There’s been a “yokocho boom” (an alleyway boom) over the past few years, Joe tells me. But it’s not just coming from demand from tourists.
“Districts like Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai primarily used to be haunts for gruff older guys and the countercultural types who fit in with them. Now, you’ve got a whole influx of young Japanese, including women, alongside the tourists—the yokocho are finally becoming places for everybody.”
What that means for my challenge is even greater potential for stories and secrets. Is it time to see just what kinds of people I can find.
Secret 1: Think before you strip
We stroll up and down the street to find a more intimate bar, and end up at a small yakitori joint called Saitamaya. We are soon eating tender cubes of citrus-seasoned steak on a stick, while wedged next to a Canadian couple and a Japanese salaryman, who turns out to be an alcohol supplier for the bar. It’s time to start story-hunting.
The Canadian couple are a bit perplexed by our mission but they happily share a rather cute tale. Well, it starts off cute. They got engaged two days before flying to Japan. And now they’re looking forward to experiencing local culture…and they’re keen to get local customs right. In fact, they are very keen to get them right.
This eagerness stems from a rather awkward massage mix-up. According to the gentleman, massages in Canada and Cambodia are quite different. In Canada, one strips down to one’s birthday suit. So, on a visit to Cambodia last year, he duly got butt naked at a salon. The masseuse entered the room and shrieked at full volume, alerting everyone in the vicinity that some filthy Canadian expected a happy ending. It certainly wasn’t the relaxing experience he had envisioned.
Secret 2: Magic mouth
The salaryman next to me is very intrigued by me. I’ve managed to warm him up by pretending I know something about rugby (I watched half a match on TV once). Miraculously, we have a very in depth chat about Eddie Jones’ leadership skills – or, at least, I believe we do. Then I ask about secrets. He announces he doesn’t have a secret for me, but a special performance.
This is definitely too good to pass up.
“You know the highball? It is whisky and it is soda!”
It is apparently one year since he last visited the bar but the staff clearly know what is coming. WIthout hesitation, they provide him with a glass of each.
You can see the astounding party trick below (he asked for his eyes to be covered for anonymity). I wonder what other drinks he can mix in his amazing compartmentalized mouth.
Wowed by this peculiar show, the atmosphere ratchets upwards in the bar. Energy levels are lifted, and I find myself absolutely compelled to buy a T-shirt. Not just any T-shirt! An Omoide Yokocho T-shirt with a map! Now I match the staff and we’re all part of the T-shirt club!
Apparently, you can get a free drink on November 22nd and win some kind of prize if you wear it… but no-one is giving a clear explanation and the poster says November 24th. Perhaps I should just hang out for a week wearing the T-shirt.
It is universally decided that we follow the local custom of filling up on carbohydrates after drinking. Heading down the street, we pass the suggestively named Asadachi, which translates as “Morning Wood” [*insert eyebrow waggle here*]. They serve all kinds of stamina-building dishes, including apparently horse penis and pigs’ testicles.
They get a hard pass from me. Pun intended.
We sit round a fairly wide and rowdy store serving Chinese grub until 1.30am. We pile in and promptly order what any decent human being should do: tantanmen (spicy sesame noodles), gyoza, and fried rice. But we quickly realise the store isn’t really concerned about quality or taste, knowing they have a rather undiscerning customer base.
In fact, we realise that – somewhat disappointingly – that we’re simply not drunk enough for drunk food. Nevertheless, the atmosphere has an air of camaraderie and it’s easy enough to strike up a conversation. Upon doing so, we rapidly discover that some rules had been broken….
Secret 3: How to earn cash quick!
The rule in Japan is no tipping, which is partly why there’s a cover charge. But sometimes rules are broken – and not just by tourists.
These three British boys waving 3000 yen aren’t trying to tip the staff. This is a tip they received. Fresh off the plane 4 hours before and on their first trip to Japan, they had tried to order their food in Japanese. A Japanese lady next to them was so impressed by their efforts, she decided to financially reward them… assuming they didn’t misunderstand her motive.
“It’s a bit depressing,” said one. “We really can’t speak any Japanese. It just goes to show how low the bar is.”
Secret 4: I need to tell you how I killed my grandmother
We head to ALBATROSS, possibly the most famous bar in Omoide Yokocho, having earned itself a place in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Decked out in shabby gothic chic, with art adorning the walls on the second floor, it feels like something straight out of hipster East London.
“ALBATROSS was set up to appeal to international visitors,” Joe tells me. He had spoken at length with the owner Yasuda san just days before. Yasuda san went on to open two other bars – one in Golden Gai, but Omoide Yokocho holds a special appeal and he only ever spends time at that location. “Yasuda san wants to preserve Omoide Yokocho and he still finds the atmosphere rare, even now.”
I order a drink called ume-ra, some kind of original cocktail of plum wine, tequila and star anise. I’m not sure if it’s incredibly weak or if I have become progressively desensitised to the taste of alcohol throughout the night. I think I’ve found enough secrets, I say to Joe. Shall we call it a night?
“Oh, but it’s my turn,” he replies.
“I need to tell you the story of how I killed my grandmother.”
Admittedly, this is not what I am expecting; I have trusted him so far to lead me down some dark alleys and not murder me. I decide to roll with it.
The story begins when he is six years old. He is visiting his grandmother in Boston over the holidays. The family are scheduled to fly home the following day at the very same time as the third episode of a Power Rangers miniseries is due to air.
Young Joe, a devout Power Rangers fan, is desperate to watch it and not fly home. So he prays and prays that something will happen so he doesn’t have to travel and can watch it. Then he goes to bed.
Next thing he knows, he is being shaken awake by his father who tells him some terrible news. His grandmother has passed away. It dawns on Young Joe: he has accidentally become a murderer. He confesses to his father, who promptly tells him he is an idiot. And yes, if he’s quiet, he can still watch Power Rangers anyway.
His story comes to an end. I take another sip of my drink. I am very glad Joe is not a murderer.
It’s way past midnight and Omoide Yokocho has emptied. We set off for home, but we’re less than a minute away before we see people dancing on the street. It’s a block party! And there is an eclectic international mix of enthusiastic dancers comprised of both fans and curious passers-by. The show is organised by DJ Vulgar, who looks as street as you get and announces his shows on Instagram stories. He is smoking at the decks, mixing some epic tunes, while guest musicians occasionally join the set. There is free tequila and paper cups for anyone who wants it.
In a country that, until 2015, banned dancing after midnight and still has strict regulations, it seems Shinjuku certainly knows how to have fun. And while I’m watching people dancing in the street, like they haven’t a care in the world, it’s hard to say if this is the dark side of Tokyo or simply the light.
Hot Tips for Surviving Omoide Yokocho (Preferably with good memories)
- Be aware of the table charges and bring cash.
- Pay attention to the places with “no photos” signs.
- Learn some basic Japanese. You might get a tip, a new friend, or both!
- Interact. Communicate. Celebrate the meeting of history with modernity and internationalisation.
- Play the brand new #TokyoChallenge Omoide Yokocho drinking game! Talk to strangers and collect: one good memory, one bad memory, and one secret.
Dark and Dingy
Omoide Yokocho is just the tip of the iceberg… the entrance to the rabbit’s warren. The #DarkSideOfTokyo series continues.
Next month, we’ll be visiting an alleyway you probably haven’t heard of…
Words & Photos by Phoebe Amoroso