A Trip down Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) in Shinjuku
Many people think of Tokyo as a high-tech, high-rise city and while that is true to a certain extent, it’s not the complete picture. Tokyo boasts charming, low-rise, traditional neighbourhoods such as Yanaka and Asakusa (which we wrote about here), but more surprisingly there are atmospheric old quarters hidden right amid the neon-lit towers of Shinjuku, such as the tiny area tucked beside the railway line known as Omoide Yokocho or Memory Lane.
A black market after WWII, these skinny lanes of rickety buildings are home to dozens of smoky yakitori and izakaya bars that are famous for their grilled skewers and wok-fried noodles cooked over open flames. Ironically, the very thing that makes the place so beloved by regulars is what for many makes the place little more than a fire hazard.
Indeed much of the neighbourhood was actually rebuilt in 1999 after fire raged through the old wooden structures. A complete demolition of the area has long been talked about, but fortunately these little eat streets still thrive, with workers filling the bars nightly to line their stomachs or soak up the alcohol with this fantastically affordable fast food.
Also called Shonben Yokocho or ‘Piss Alley’, the area gained its name from its lack of toilet facilities, and while there are toilets here now, it’s a small concession to the atmosphere of the place.
While this may not be the best spot to come on your first night in Tokyo if you’re not with a Japanese speaker — there are no menus in English and few staff speak English — we managed to make friends and get by okay with lots of pointing and a little help from our new mates. It’s also not a good place to come in a group larger than three or four as you’ll find it hard to get seats for two in the tiny eateries.
Having said that, Memory Lane quickly became one of our favourite places in Tokyo, and one we returned to — as well as being one we think should be preserved at all costs.
When you go, whatever you eat (here’s a guide), be sure to have a shot of shochu with soda and lemon, called a chuhai, and toast kampai! to an area in the heart of Tokyo that still oozes plenty of post-war charm.