Tokyo is often associated with a big, bustling, busy corporate scene alongside gorgeous, preserved historical sights perfect for anyone to travel to. Those are usually where tourists are suggested to go, naturally - however, it doesn’t take much to get to know the city a little more intimately, or as the locals do.
If you pay a little more attention, you’ll find that there is a quainter side to Tokyo. What may seem as an inconspicuous slit of a road could be a doorway to a subculture familiar to those who live nearby or frequent the area. This is Japanese alleyway culture; where little streets (usually situated near train/subway stations) are fitted with stores, izakayas (Japanese pubs) and eatery galore that whip up special dishes, drinks, trinkets, and experiences you won’t get at your usual commercial mall – and this culture is integral to understanding and living life in Japan
A Quick Brush Up on Shinjuku, According to Wiki
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo Prefecture’s Special Wards. When translated to English, it means “New Lodge”. Its current mayor is Kenichi Yoshizumi, and, its Tourism Ambassador is – playfully – Godzilla. The ward, as it is known today, was established on March 15, 1947. Currently, Shinjuku is basically made of East Shinjuku or Shinjuku-ku, Nishi-Shinjuku, Ochiai, Okubo, Totsuka, Toyama, Ushigome, and Yotsuya.
However, many people unfamiliar with the area understand the general location of Shinjuku to be the places around Shinjuku station. This technically isn’t entirely correct, because, on the southern part of Koshu Kaido, the west side of the station and the Shinjuku Southern Terrace are part of Shibuya. In the actual area of Shinjuku sits a back-alley famous for its nostalgic feel. Indeed, even in an area as busy as this, you’ll find one of these alleyways; known in as “Omoide Yokocho”.
Visit Omoide Yokocho; A Beloved Alley in Shinjuku
“Yokocho” is the Japanese word for “alley”, while “Omoide” means to reminisce. Put those two concepts together, and that creates “Memory Lane”; which Omoide Yokocho is sometimes fondly called. The reason why it was given this name is that of the old-school feel it gives with its tight passageway, old buildings, Showa-era style of shop fronts, and casual (affordable) eating and drinking experience.
Omoide Yokocho may be a tight and cluttered alley, but what you can discover and experience here is worth making the squeeze in. Posing a stark contrast from the rest of corporate, well-developed Shinjuku, Omoide Yokocho is a humbler, cozier spot you can slurp ramen. In fact, you’ll find all kinds of people here; from salarymen converging, university students having drinks and some yakitori (Japanese chicken barbecue) to other tourists exploring, it makes a perfect destination for a traditional, and authentically Japanese experiences, only barely touched by the hand of globalization.
The History of Omoide Yokocho
Omoide Yokocho emerged after the second world war was over. Japan had just undergone a handful of harrowing years, and this area of Shinjuku was not spared from the attacks. The area where Omoide Yokocho is now used to be a wreck. At that point, citizens picked themselves up and had to find a way to earn a living. Thus, shops selling all sorts of products and merchandise popped up.
In the beginning, stalls would sell things that would usually be available in grocery stores. Soap, food (tempura), boiled goods (potatoes and red beans), shoes, and clothes. However, a fire came and burned all those 30+ stalls down. That fire didn’t stop people from continuing to sell there, as the name “lucky street” was coined by this alley, as other stores popped up, using large wooden panels as divisions.
At that time, people would often cross Shinjuku to get to other areas of Tokyo, (Nerima, Setagaya), and so Shinjuku became somewhat a transitory stop. Other people noticed the traffic here, and saw this as a business opportunity, thus starting businesses here. The government was very strict about the goods being distributed, so much so that even flour was restricted.
This meant that locals needed to get creative with their businesses. Livestock was often brought in by the American occupation, and their organs would often get thrown away. Entrepreneurs took that organ meat and turned into “Motsu-yaki”, which is grilled organ meat, and served it as a bar snack alongside shochu, which is distilled Japanese liquor. Even today, when you visit Omoide Yokocho, you’ll still be able to see some stalls that sell motsu-yaki.
Shinjuku was set for metro developments in the 60’s, which displaced as many as 300 shops and merchants due to their stores illegally occupying space. However, not all stores were forced to leave, and the ones from Oume-Way until Palette Building/Shinjuku West Gate Hall remained. It was from that point on that other shops sprouted up – yet to be burned again in another fire in the year 1999. Despite this disaster, many shops continued while others reopened, forming the Omoide Yokocho popularly known today.
Enjoy Some of the Tastiest Yakitori and Other Street Food for Dinner (Not Lunch)
If you’re new to Tokyo, don’t be afraid to try the different stores here, as food prepared there is very safe to eat. In fact, many of the izakaya’s menus have English translations. However, don’t expect a 3-star Michelin dining experience. What is served here is the Japanese equivalent of Spanish tapas; or izakaya food. These are bites of different grilled vegetables, meat, organs, and seafood.
Because of the alley’s history with motsu-yaki, you will find many adventurous dishes here, such as pig rectum, intestines, liver, and even tongue. For the bravest of heart, there’s “Asadachi”; a restaurant named after the Japanese term for morning wood that serves pig’s penis, farmed Chinese soft-shell turtle, and horse meat. If that’s surely not your cup of tea, you can just opt for some fresh oysters, ramen, or soba noodles. Ramen, for example, should cost thereabouts of 400 yen an order. Usually, the izakaya in this alley open after lunch, and close either at midnight or early morning, so hours usually go from 3 or 4 PM to 12 AM to 5 AM on each day that it is open.
As for those who drink, you will not be allowed to down sake after sake just like that; it is custom for you to order food to go along with your meal. Otherwise, you will not be served if all you want is alcohol without any appetizers. Also, smoking is allowed, but only in designated bars, while you are seated. That means you are not allowed to smoke while standing up or walking around the alley.
What Other Restaurants are in Omoide Yokocho?
There are several eateries and izakayas in Omoide Yokocho – here’s a very quick guide. It’s all about what you’re in the mood for. If you’re into yakitori, restaurants that specialize in that include Agasshai, Hinadori1, 2 and 4, Fujinoya, Ichi-fui, Izsuzu, Kabuto, Taro, Torie, Ucchan, Saitamaya, and more. As for yakiniku, there are two; Horaiya1 and Jounetsu Horumon. Soba and sushi lovers, head to Kameya for soba, and Sushitatsu for sushi.
If you want to relax with some coffee or a light snack, try Gyoza no Antei, Hitsujitei, Katsuya, Teradya, Tsurukame Shokudou, and Tajima-ya Coffe Shop. Ramen noodle places are Gifuya, Wakatsuki and Kitkata Ramen Bannai.
Bars to Check Out in Omoide Yokocho
There are even more izakayas than there are yakitori eateries; examples of these izakayas are Asadachi, Dosanko, Fukuhachi, Kappatei, Yasubee, Torobako, Sasamoto, Marusho, and Yourou no Taki, and those are just to name a few from the long list. Here is a couple of izakayas you may want to try out based on what they offer:
Daikoku-ya, calls itself a Japanese diner that serves great local sake (150 variants to choose from, plus rare options), shipped from different regions around Japan. This izakaya also serves great homemade omelet and prime sashimi. Daikoku-ya is open from 4 PM to 12 AM, with last calls made at 11 PM. It is closed on Mondays. It has a total of 62 seats and accepts reservations via phone call; 03-3342-2003/2004.
Echigo-Ya is another sake joint that dishes out pretty good Oden or fish cake stew. They also have yakitori, but instead of soy sauce, they use simple salt to flavor it. They also serve shuto (fermented bonito intestines), which is true to the history of Omoide Yokocho. This restaurant opens at 1 PM and closes at 12 AM, last call at 11 PM. It is closed on Sundays and has 21 seats in total. You may call them for reservations at 03-3342-0661.
Omoide Yokocho Vs. Golden Gai – What’s the Difference?
Very near Omoide Yokocho is a maze of alleyways very similar to it called “Golden Gai”. Just like Omoide Yokocho, it also has a series of izakaya that looks very traditional, and barely renovated from when they were first set up. However here, some bars usually serve only the regulars that go there, so you can say that it may not be as friendly as Omoide Yokocho is towards newbies. Omoide Yokocho, in reviews, is usually preferred compared to Golden Gai (if you had to pick one or the other) because of its huge range of shops and lighthearted atmosphere.
It’s also a bit harder to enjoy barhopping in Golden Gai, neither is it easy to get seats if you’re with a big crowd. You stand a bigger chance at enjoying yourself more at Omoide Yokocho, so more tourists select that option.
You Won’t Need a Map to Navigate Omoide Yokocho
Because you can navigate most of Tokyo by using stations as your markers, getting to Omoide Yokocho is as simple as heading to the stations closest to it. The closest stations are Japan Railways in Shinjuku Station, Keio line in Shinjuku station, Odakyu line in Shinjuku station, Seibu Shinjuku line in Seibu-Shinjuku station, Metropolitan Oedo line, in Shinjuku West gate station, and Tokyo Metro Marunouchi line in Shinjuku station.
The only map you may need is something that can take you through the small streets, but a simple set of directions will do. Pay attention to the two exits in Shinjuku Station; East and West. When you get to exit from the east, keep to the left, walking onwards. Enter the first pedestrian underpass you see before hitting a road, and you will eventually see a green neon sign, leading to Omoide Yokocho. This walk will take around one minute.
The other option you may take is to exit from the west side of Shinjuku station. This path is no shorter than the previous, as it will also take you there in a minute. When you see the Keio department is to your west while Odakyu department sits behind you, continue walking, but keep right. The moment you see a building that says “UNIQLO” on it (it’s a corner), turn that corner, and you will again be met by the green neon lights, beckoning you to enter Omoide Yokocho. In either case, if you want to keep close to this area, best book a hotel near Shinjuku station. It’ll also be easier to get to the airport that way.