As a newbie traveler around Japan, it’s very easy to get swept up in what is recommended to most tourists. You’re taken around the most popular areas of the cities you visit, as you look at shopping centers, arcades, castles, and gardens that are deemed high on the list made by websites dedicated to traveling. For travelers who don’t go by the book, though, there are a few places that may tickle their interest, as it is usually these less talked-about areas that truly contain the thickness of the society’s culture and local buzz.
Tokyo is a large metropolis, holding different cities. The places to explore here are virtually limitless, no matter if you’re a student from a university, a local, or a first-time tourist. If you know where to look, you’ll notice how many interesting bits of rich history and authentic, potentially awesome experiences lay in its nooks and crannies. One nook surely worth checking out is Harmonica Yokocho.
What is Harmonica Yokocho?
Located in the city of Musashino, specifically in the village of Kichijōji (吉祥寺), Harmonica Yokocho is literally translated to “Harmonica entertainment alley”. It’s basically a little street full of small shops, bars, and eateries, and it’s found just a bit up north from Kichioji station (specifically a 1-2-minute walk from its north exit). The reason why it was given the name “Harmonica” was that of a writer who had bestowed the name to it in a written article once. He noted that the holes in a harmonica’s mouthpiece very much resembled the look of how different shops were lined beside and on top of each other.
Explore Each Alley Near Kichijoji Station
Those who are familiar with Kichioji usually associate it with its links to art, high-end fashion, fine dining, and top izakayas (Japanese pubs). In fact, many popular Japanese personalities such as famous musicians and manga (Japanese anime) creators flock here to hang out and shop for themselves. It’s also very accessible from anywhere in Tokyo; it’s just a 15-minute train ride away from Shinjuku.
Japanese laneway culture makes the Harmonica Yokocho a little bit different from its high-end surroundings. It makes you feel as though you were walking into a time warp once you step into it. The streets are tight, quaint, and resembles the feel of an old-school Asian bazaar – perhaps because it used to be one.
You’ll know you’ve found the main entrance to Harmonica Yokocho when you see a large yellow sign with a red Japanese inscription. Below that inscription, you’ll also find the English translation, except it’s spelled “Harmonica Yokyocyo”. Walk right in and immerse yourself in the thick culture that locals enjoy day-to-day. You probably won’t see too many tourists or foreigners here.
A Quick History of Harmonica Yokocho
After the second world war, many black markets popped up as locals who lost their jobs in the war-torn economy struggle to gain it back by trading or selling whatever they could. One of them was Harmonica Yokocho. Though it isn’t the same as how it was 50 or so years ago, a very limited number of stores from that era remain (most of the ones that exist now emerged in the 1990’s). What does stay true how it once was long ago is its vibe; its narrow passageways and maze-like divisions.
Harmonica Yokocho has since evolved from being a post-war flea market to a trendy and well-loved area to drink, shop, and enjoy a good meal for a good price. While it’s a decent place to grab some snacks and food during the daytime, nighttime is really when the vibrant energy and gorgeous lanterns give Harmonica Yokocho its buzzing, busy charm.
Awesome Japanese Goods and Products in Market at Harmonica Yokocho
Here’s a quick guide to the gastronomical delights and other fun things to shop for in Harmonica Yokocho. While wandering around Harmonica Yokocho, you might want to try some Taiyaki. It’s a pastry (usually served hot, but every now and then it’s given cold too). It’s a light, thin batter shaped like a fish, filled with custard or crushed sweet red beans. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find the store that sells it in the shape of Magikarp, the famous water-type Pokémon.
Thirsty? Wash down that snack with some fresh Japanese beer from one of the izakayas. They’re served ice-cold (the mugs are sometimes frozen themselves too for that extra-invigorating frostiness). While you’re having that drink, order some “tsumami”, which is kind of like Japanese bar chow, as it’s something eaten distinctly with alcohol. They’re appetizer-size plates of edamame and other vegetables to keep your stomach well amidst all the alcohol. Or, you can have some yakitori (grilled skewered chicken) or other appetizer-sized servings of Japanese barbecue dishes.
If you’re superstitious, you can try have your fortune told – however it’s best to bring along someone fluent in Japanese for that, because the fortune teller may not speak English. Don’t forget to purchase some cakes and specialty cookies from the different stores there, as you may not easily find them in other parts of Tokyo. There’s even a store that sells accessories straight from L.A. called “Fascination” if you want to glam up your outfit. You can also fill up your seafood and vegetable stock with the abundant piles of it for sale by local merchants.
Harmonica Yokocho: One of the Best Places to Eat and Drink in Kichijoji
While these places are all-the-rage, a word of warning: because the area itself is quite cramped, they get full right away, so be prepared to wait for your turn to sit or go at a time when there aren’t many people, such as early afternoons. An example of a well-known Izakaya here is Tecchan, where mostly young adults come to imbibe. Here, you can also watch the chefs' grill yakitori as you sip your drink.
Beef lovers, head to Steak House SATOU. They sell Japanese beef at a very affordable price; a minced meat cutlet will set you back on 220 JPY. In fact, this little restaurant is so highly venerated that it has a star rating of 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor, with 186 reviews, and is rated as the number 1 restaurant to try when in Musashino. A weekday morning would be the best time to go if you want to avoid waiting in a long line.
Looking for something fancier? If you are, then Sasa-no-Ha is the place to be. This bar is one of the few that have been around for a bit longer. Though it’s a bit pricier, you get the worth you’re paying for; their servings are fresh, and portions are large, and their drinks are top-notch. It’s recommended that you try the “Tsukasa Botan”, a brand of sake that costs nearly $50 per bottle, and pairs divinely with sashimi.
There’s also a drink that Harmonica Yokocho specializes in, called “Harmonica High”, which has a base of Japanese whiskey. Other restaurants to consider are “Harmonica Kitchen”, which serves more appetizers, as well as a wide range of drinks. “Iroha” is another good Izakaya which serves wonderful Shochu. It’s not just about Japanese pubs, though – because they sell fresh fish here too, you have the option to warm yourself on a cold night with Tukada Fisheries’ delicious Oden, a.k.a. Japanese Fish Cake Stew.
Other Restaurants to Eat in While Visiting Kichjioji, Tokyo
While visiting Kichioji, you might as well try the other restaurants near or around this area. One top-notch Izakaya that serves seafood is SubLime Inokashira Koen Branch. It’s found in the corner of Inokashira Park. Inside, you sit on woven mats on the floor, as the room is adorned in orange lights. There are wide windows that look out to trees, adding a sense of nature and serenity.
You don’t necessarily have to stick to seafood, as SubLime Inokashira Koen Branch is also known for its horse meat – and even pasta, pizza, and cocktails. Prepare to spend around 3,200 per person for dinner, while lunch meals are usually a little cheaper at 950 yen. The address to this place is 2F, Suigetsu Bldg., 4-1-11. Don’t worry, even if it’s technically in a different city, it’s still considered as a part of Kichioji.
For a filling lunch, Peppermint Café (spelled as Pepecafe Forest) is a hit among those who frequent Kichioji. For lunch, expect to spend about 1,000 yen per head. You also may have to wait in line because it’s a big hit among locals. Because the establishment is surrounded by greenery, the atmosphere will make you feel as though you’re in the middle of a forest as you enjoy your meal.
Did you know that the Japanese are big on European culture? Italian and French restaurants are well-loved here. Ristorante Primi Baci is one Italian restaurant that is just a 3-minute walk away from Kichioji station, which makes it a prime choice for any hungry traveler. You may also opt to choose Wa Bistro TORETATE, another casual Italian restaurant with a western twist. If you’re craving French food, head to Boulangerie Bistro EPEE for some delectable cold cuts.
What People Have to Say About Harmonica Yokocho on Pantip, a Thai Forum Website
Known as one of Thailand’s top 10 websites, Pantip is the ultimate forum where discussions happen, primarily in the Thai language. It’s a place where Thai locals (and other Thai speakers) share information about almost anyone and anything, from politics to current events. Traveling tips (such as where to eat and what hotel to stay in) is also a popular topic on that site.
With Japan being an exceptional place to travel to, it gets a lot of attention on this website. One popular post details the story of two women who travel Japan together and go on adventures trying out everything they see. In one thread, they talk about their exploration of Tokyo, and how they ended up in Harmonica Yokocho. They describe it as a place that sells all kinds of different things; from food to toys, clothes and “strange things”.
They see a long queue in the street (perhaps with 30 people in line as they took a snapshot of it), and they find out that it’s the line to Steak House SATOU. They waited in line and ended up ordering 10 to 20 bites of Matsusaka beef. Matsusaka Beef is special because it comes from the Mie Prefecture, of the Matsusaka region, and is taken from only virgin female cows bred under very strict rules.
Map Out Where You Want to Go in Harmonica Yokocho
Because it’s known to be a bit of a maze, you might think that you need a map to navigate Harmonica Yokocho. The truth is, you don’t. It’s quite a small place to explore, so you won’t get lost, but the maze-like way the tight streets are oriented in such a manner that you must discover it on your own as a part of the experience. If you’re really desperate, keep portable Wi-Fi and open google maps to help you find your way.
Looking to have a taste of your first Japanese alley culture? Harmonica Yokocho is perfect for those who are just starting to dip their feet into authentic Japanese culture and are ready to try eating in more adventurous places and discovering new experiences. Don’t forget to bring your camera to snap a good shot – perhaps you could beat Shoottokyo.com and their lightroom edits at taking a great image of Harmonica Yokocho.