After leaving Odaiba island, the beautiful sunset, and the giant Gundam – it’s about dinnertime as I head back through rush-hour downtown Tokyo. For dinner, I’m heading to an amazing place I read about – Memory Lane (aka Piss Alley) and later, Golden Gai.
Over the last few days, I spent some evening walks finding these two locations (not an easy task in itself) and scouting them. Now I wanted to actually enjoy them. But first, some background.
First, we’ll start with “Memory Lane” (Omoide Yokocho – 思い出横丁) which is less reverently, but more popularly known as “Piss Alley” (Shonben Yokocho – 小便横丁). Nestled just north of Shinjuku Station, it is a few narrow alleyways with ramshackle eateries squeezed right next to each other. It looks quite out of place next to the modern shiny modern glass/metal sky-scrapers surrounding it.
But before that, let’s have a little history lesson to understand it better.
Located just north west of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, this collection of stalls has it’s roots in the gritty and terrible post-WWII days. In 1945, WWII bombing raids had left the area around the station as little more than piles of rubble. By 1946, the few remaining shops and food stalls started selling daily goods like food, clothes, and other necessities to war-battered residents trying to rebuild. A black market street called Lucky Street popped up in the area. By 1947, food shortages become more severe and the Japanese government started placing strict regulations on many goods – such as flour. Many of the shops then switched from all flour based foods like ramen, udon, and other noodles to cheap meats such Yakitori and Motsu (which you’ll still find there today). The area grew and soon earned its pungent name because there were no bathrooms or other public sanitation fascilities. By 1959, there were over 300 stalls – many illegally set up by squatters. A redevelopment plan was made for the area and many of the stalls were razed and replaced with the gigantic skyscrapers you see today.
Today, only about 50 shops still remain in the area, but they are under pressure. Modern Japanese culture frowns on people eating while walking around – so much so that it’s quite common to see a group of people gathered around vending machines consuming their purchases instead of leaving. In some places, even eating in public (on the train/walking down the street) is seen as ill-mannered. There is also a general sentiment that considers street foods to be for the poor/lower class. On top of that, the area itself carries a lot of the stigma and reminders of those post-WW II shortages and struggles. For these reasons, many would like to see the area razed – but it still clings to life today.
So over my first few days, I discovered that even finding they alley can be an adventure in it’s own right. The area isn’t usually found in most guide books – which is a shame really because I believe it’s places like this that help you really understand a place, it’s people, and it’s history.
The location of the alleyway is not well documented and is surrounded on the outside by strip-mall like modern stores that one could easily walk right past. The low-budget mobile phone vendors and small electronic nick-nack shops certainly disguise the fact they are surrounding a whole different experience of shops on their inside.
The entrance to the alley is down a pedestrian side street and is so tiny that it is barely noticeable Even when looking for it. There is this little green archway sign with a yellow map of the restaurants below it. You then see the half-stall (4 foot wide) entrance to the alleyways.
Once you step down the alleyway though – you enter what looks like a totally different world. The network of tiny walkways is lined with tiny eateries serving ramen, yakitori, soba, kushiyaki, and countless other street-food style dishes. Each restaurant consists usually of just one counter with some stools, but there are a few larger ones that have a couple of tables.
By about 9pm, the stalls and alley were getting quite busy and one had to start squeezing around folks. Occasionally you’ll run into a group of Japanese businessmen/group of ladies that had already hit the bars pretty hard and were ferrying an inebriated friend or two home. One such fellow in his 40’s/50’s came by, threw his arm around me, and we became ‘best buds’ for about half a block until his buddies pried him off and we exchanged knowing nods and laughs over their poor inebriated, but completely friendly, friend. More on the drinking culture later.
Each restaurant stall is often no bigger than 8-10 feet wide – but go about 20-30 feet deep. Most have open fronts and are packed right next to each other. Some had little sliding doors against the outside weather, some had plastic sheets, others had nothing and were open to the outside air. Most of the ones with with doors appeared to be more for locals that people would sit, drink, smoke and chat leisurely for long periods of time.
Most of the stalls were laid out similar to this one above. There is a long counter that runs down the center with the cook on one side and stools/patrons on the other. The counter has a shelf/display case of whatever is being cooked up for the night, and there is usually a small charcoal fired grill on the end cap near the opening that vents out into the alleyway. This made for some amazing smells as you walked down the alley and got great whiffs of fish, yakitori, eel, and all sorts of other meats being cooked up.
Some of the stalls had a great number of different dishes (like these guys above) with lots of different varieties of meats, vegetables, and soups.
Others had only one or two kinds of dishes. These guys, for example, only had some kind of chicken soup/broth dish they served up with various sides.
This was some kind of ramen/soba noodle place that never had an empty seat when I walked past it. Bummer – looked really good.
This place had many vegetable skewers – but you can also see 3 shops in this particular shot – and how thin the walls are to each other and how tightly packed they are. I had the 17mm lens at it’s max FOV and still was having a hard time getting things into shots.
Another very typical scene from one of the small shops. Note that smoking is totally cool – so this isn’t really a set of places to eat out if you’re a non-smoking snob. Still, smoking was fairly limited with only one or so people smoking at a stand. Most of the time you wouldn’t see anyone smoking; but you should be prepared for someone to light up at some point.
Some of the eateries have upstairs rooms that you can’t really get access too unless you’re an insider or are very polite. You can see there is barely enough room to squeeze through to the stairways. This one had the stairs up front, some were hidden in the back. I had the option on the night I was there to eat upstairs at one place with such a second floor, but the food would have to be brought up to you. Since I was traveling alone, I opted to sit downstairs where the action was next to the grill so I could meet folks and see what was being made. It would have been a great way to keep with the Japanese custom of sitting and drinking with friends for hours though.
In the end, I decided to stop into this little shop that seemed to have a wide variety of food and start my eating and drinking adventures. It also had an open seat right up front near the open charcoal grill so I was constantly smelling great food and seeing everything being ordered by the 10 or so folks in the place.
I pulled up my stool next to the grill and started watching for the dishes I wanted to try. I started with this fried fish. I ordered a beer and had an absolutely scrumptious dish of fried fish and rice. I then branched into some yakisoba and other skewers that the matron had pre-made and were sitting on metal trays, ready to be cooked and then eaten.
While eating, I started making friends with those sitting around me. After a few beers, I got to talking to these guys. They worked at a South Korean chemical company. The guy next to me was a chemical engineer that specialized in coagulates for waste-water treatment. The middle guy was his boss, and the guy on the end was a friend of the boss (if I remember right). We had a lot of great fun drinking, eating, and swapping stories. We ended up buying each other numerous rounds and all kinds of crazy foods – but there was no way I could keep up with the hard-drinking style of these guys. I told them I was a software engineer and we swapped cards. The guy next to me even gave me a Korean 100 Wan coin as a souvenir.
We also had a lot of great banter with the matron – a very funny and happy lady. We had lots of fun with her making me various dishes and I ate until I was stuffed. I even bought her a round as part of a round I bought with my new Korean friends. She politely had a shot of sake with us as part of our toast, but then insisted on drinking my beer with me most of the rest of the night (yep – she’d reach over and take a swig out of my beer and wink at me). There were some funny comments by my Korean friends about ‘indirect kissing’ and many a good laugh was had despite the fact she spoke no English and I very little Japanese. In the end, I couldn’t eat another bite or drink much more and had to call it a night as we rolled into the midnight hour. I bid goodbye to my new friends and staggered home to catch the last midnight train back to my hotel. It was also pretty amazing price – I blew less than $40 for tons of food and drinks.
But it wasn’t the only night I ate there. The next night I returned.
I decided to try a very different booth this time – one that looked very much full of Japanese businessmen. I could tell this booth was a much more locals-only style of place, but with a bit of charm and a LOT of Japanese politeness, I managed to get a seat.
This is the only picture I took while in there since you could tell they were not beholding to the tourist crowd (or cameras) at all. This place seemed to go by the style of only serving one dish style – and this night was fried eel yakitori. It was served up by this older guy that cooked them on his little charcoal grill just under this fantastic melty lamp. There was even a picture of it behind him enshrining the lamp. Can any of you help decipher/translate it since I found nothing on the internet about this artifact? It was covered with black grease/tar/??? from what I can only assume was years and years of frying underneath it. It was also melted in a very odd way too. The lamp was trippy in a Salvador Dali sort of way and clearly something of a trademark/mascot.
As a counter spot opened up, I sit next to an extremely drunk older guy that attempted numerous times to have a conversation with me. Despite the fact I didn’t speak any Japanese, I don’t think it would have mattered much if I spoke the language or not. You could tell the servers had kind of stopped serving him and he was nearly falling over drunk and barely getting sentences out. I took the opportunity to earn a little face by being very kind to him and helping him remain upright in his chair and making some small-talk (very small talk since I only knew a few dozen words of Japanese). After a few minutes of this and being very polite, I seemed to have won over the servers who had started by gruffly telling me ‘no English’.
This place worked on the system that they would cook up a full grill full of skewers and then serve them out as people asked for them. Within a few minutes, another batch of the skewers were cooked up and I ordered up 4 of them.
Each skewer was about 4-5 inches long, covered in some delicious sauce, and absolutely wonderful. Over the next 45 minutes, I think I down about a dozen or more of them along with a beer and a half. Looking around, I see that I’m on the low side since some guys have a pile of 20-30 empty sticks each. I end up after this feast having only spent about $10. Anyone that says Japan is terribly expensive must be going to the wrong spots. I got one of the best meals for a super-low price in the heart of Tokyo.
It’s at this point that I realize that Japanese beers are actually pretty good. I’ve had Japanese beers like Kirin and Asahi (my new favorite after this trip) in the states, but the same brands here taste completely different. Much, much worse in fact. Not sure what happens in the translation/shipping, but they’re way better in Japan than their same-named US counterparts. They tend to be very light beers without a lot of hoppy flavor – which makes me happy, and a complete outcast in hop-loving Portland.
This second night I cut out a little early (and a lot less inebriated) – because I’m heading over to the heart of Shinjuku to spend some time at Golden Gai.