Inside Shinjuku’s Secret, Silent, Alleys

Shinjuku is the place where many Japanese dreams are born: bustling city streets, crowded train stations, and exciting nightclubs make this a destination neighborhood for Tokyo tourists with a wide array of interests. The crowded intersections and busy streets offer a portal into the world of what many Westerners think Tokyo is when they arrive in Japan for the first time. While the glitz and glam of glittering storefronts and bright lights has an allure all its own, inside this lively neighborhood is one of my favorite places in all of Tokyo, called Omoideyokochou (思いで横丁).

Venturing down “memory lane” or “memory alley” (as the Japanese translates directly to English), these quiet alleys reveal a different, more traditional look into Japan, mere paces from JR Shinjuku Station. The average tourist walks right by these alleys and misses out on a chance to experience a different Japan. This is a place where neon lights are replaced by glowing lanterns and where loudspeakers are replaced by shopkeepers enticing passersby to sit down for a beer and some yakitori at their shop.

When I lived in Tokyo four years ago, even I never heard of this place. I was turned onto it two years ago when I read an article (in Japanese) about the hidden spots and destinations inside Tokyo. It boasted of the “retro feel” of the “Showa-era streets”. Once I read about Omoideyokocho, I knew I had to check it out.

That was two years ago and now I always make this place my first stop when I get off the airplane or the Shinkansen in Tokyo. It always sets the tone for my weekend in the city. Join me for a journey into Shinjuku’s secret alleys.

After exiting JR Shinjuku Station (Yamanote Line) and walking down the main road for a bit, be sure to look for the bright green signs and the yellow script which say 思いで横丁. They are very easy to miss in the confusion that is Shinjuku, but you should be looking to your left.

If you are taking another train, be sure to cross under the Yamanote tracks. After that, you will make a hard left turn and the west entrance (西口) will be in front of you. In the springtime, look for the cherry blossoms hanging underneath the sign. In the fall, there will be autumnal leaves draped from the same area.

Omoide

As soon as you start your journey down these alleys, you will realize how different it is compared to the rest of Shinjuku. First and foremost, it is relatively quiet. Aside from the occasional conversation, rumblings of a passing train, or shopkeepers calling would-be passengers, the other sounds of Tokyo are nonexistent.

One of my favorite parts of Omoideyokocho is the lack of neon lights. They are replaced with glowing, traditional Japanese lanterns which spell out what each shop offers: yakitori, kushikatsu, izakaya-style fare, etc. On the typical evening, these streets will be filled with Japanese salarymen and Tokyo residents heading to their favorite watering hall after a hard day’s work. This photo perfectly captures the atmosphere in Omoideyokocho on a typical evening.

Walkway

Incandescent bulbs and lanterns illuminate the narrow alleys where you will definitely bump shoulders with Japanese of all stripes as you look for your preferred dining location. Men standing and waiting for their favorite hot bowl of ramen, the smell of grilling meat, Japanese oden, and the city streets will trigger your appetite, so be ready. Somehow full stomachs become empty as you pass down these streets.

I recommend walking through the alleys a few times to get a glimpse at all the restaurants and bars here so you know where you want to start your evening. Most likely, you will hit a few different izakaya on this street before moving on to the lively Shinjuku streets. It seems like each place offers the same food, but they are different! Trust me!

Once you choose your favorite izakaya, it is time to sit down and start chatting up the locals as you wait for your order. Don’t be intimidated if you cannot speak Japanese or read the menu.

Menu

Many of the Japanese people in these shops will help you order or offer their suggestions for what you should get. I speak Japanese so it isn’t a problem for me, but do not be afraid. Lots of times, Japanese patrons will try to speak with you and ask you what you think about Japan. Just step into the shop with a smile. Going to a place like this gives you a great opportunity to meet locals and maybe learn a Japanese phrase or two as you start your journey here.

On Friday night, I spoke with a man who studied for a semester at Penn State (Pennsylvania, USA) and another man who had been to the Grand Canyon two different times. You never know who you are going to meet. After the chatting and self-introductions finish, it is time to eat.

While you may be use to wide and spacious restaurants in your home country, do not expect that type of an environment on this street. Expect small places (often only room for ten to fifteen people) and expect to be seated shoulder-to-shoulder with other patrons, often bumping shoulders and exchanging pleasantries. The narrow counters offer an interesting atmosphere where the store owners make your food right in front of you.

Izakaya

Be sure to order a few different items on the menu so you have a continuous stream of food coming your way. Couple that with an Asahi beer and you are set for at least thirty minutes of excitement and fun inside of Shinjuku’s secret and silent alleys.

Once you are finished, you can go out into the madness that is the nearby Kabuki-cho, or you can head off to another secluded part of Tokyo like Golden Gai, where hundreds of bars await both locals and tourists alike.

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While most people come to Tokyo to experience the world’s largest city and some of the world’s finest gardens and parks, it would behoove you to stop by Omoideyokocho and enjoy a glimpse into a quieter, more traditional Tokyo.

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Into the Izakaya (居酒屋)

Last night, three of my friends and I had a great experience in the most quintessential of all Japanese dining and drinking establishments, the izakaya. People back at home in the United States or outside of Japan may be familiar with the word “izakaya”(Japanese – 居酒屋) and know it is similar to a Western bar or pub, but it is so much more. Last night’s experience at one of the local izakayas in Kobe was an experience I certainly will remember for a long time to come. 

The hustle and bustle of Kobe’s Sannomiya neighborhood is similar to what you find in any of Japan’s major urban centers: people on every street corner yelling for customers to frequent their restaurants, twinkling neon lights glistening on every square inch of storefront, bustling night life, and convenience stores on every corner. I really love urban centers so I like the hustle and bustle of living in one of Japan’s largest cities, but last night was a distinct change of pace merely paces away from all of the glitz and glamor of Kobe’s most lively neighborhood. 

As soon as you reach Ikuta Road’s terminus, you encounter the JR Railway’s overhead tracks which support trains bound for Osaka, Himeji, and a host of other places in the Kansai Region. Directly underneath those tracks is one of my favorite back alleys in all of Kobe. Lining this narrow alley, I encounter what I consider to be quintissential Japan. There are small shops with bicycles and greeters out front, eagerly luring potential customers to their (non-chain) restaurants, izakays, and stand up bars. These storefronts have lanterns shining and large banners and flags outside saying what their stores offer. 

Last night, my friends and I ventured into an izakaya on this street and after we parted the cloth curtain in front of the Japanese-style sliding doors, we entered a place that is the type of place I always image when I think of Japan. 

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There was a large sushi counter and bar right past the main entrance. Older men smoked cigarettes and discussed the past and bygone eras while salarymen unwound from a long day’s work in the nearby entertainment district. Japanese-only menus lined the walls of the store while vacated seats were quickly filled by new parties eager to have a cold Kirin Lager and enjoy some a la carte items, which are standard fare in the izakaya. The atmosphere in this izakaya was electric – men yelled for servers to refill their beer, I yelled for more karaage (fried chicken) and some shrimp sauce, and a couple seated behind us were on a date. 

The combination of the smoke filling the restaurant, the unique aromas coming from the kitchen, the sounds of orders being placed, customers leaving and entering the restaurant, and patrons calling for their next plate all make the izakaya a memorable experience in Japan. American izakayas do not compare to the energy at the izakaya last night. 

I have attached a few pictures to help you feel the mood of what we saw. They do not give the izakaya the justice it deserves. 

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