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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What Learning Japanese has Meant to Me

A little more than two years ago, I went to Japan for the first time as a part of Temple University’s study abroad program at Temple University, Japan Campus. My decision to study abroad in Japan was rooted in reasons different than many other students: In the Spring 2010 semester, Temple Football and I parted ways and I did some serious soul searching.

Following a long talk with my most trusted advisors at Temple, the choice was clear: study at Temple Japan to learn about myself and the world. I had always had an interest in Japan and the United States’ relationship with the East Asian nation but never thought I would have the opportunity to actually go to Japan, especially as a college student. What seemed like a great opportunity to grow as a person and expand my horizons has become so much more as time has continued to pass.

I will never forget what it was like when I first arrived in Japan, with my vocabulary limited to: ありがとう (arigato- “thanks”), and さようなら (sayonara – goodbye). The whole experience was not terrifying, as it probably should have been. It was truly invigorating for me. I made some new friends, studied the language hard with a professor who really cared about all of her first-year students, and ended learning so much more than I ever though possible. Two months into my study abroad program in Tokyo, I had finally figured out how to go through Tokyo without getting lost and was even able to have very, very basic conversations with some of my friends in Japanese.

Things all changed on March 11, 2011, with the Great Earthquake. My experience in Japan came to a drastic end, as I was forced to return home to the United States. Little did I know it, but the kindness expressed by the Japanese on the night of the earthquake inspired me to continue to study their language and lit a spark within me to try to return the favors they had given me when I was such a novice in Japan for the first time. The scenes of that night have never left me- shopkeepers handing out onigiri on the night of the earthquake, and the policeman in Shibuya who knew three words of English who helped guide me home amid the chaos of March 11th.

Once I returned to Philadelphia, I joined the International Students Association to help foreign students at Temple learn about Philadelphia and the United States much like the Japanese had helped me during my time in Japan. It was rewarding to return the favors of the past, but I had no idea what would be on the horizon for me in a few short months.

Fast forward to today and so many things have changed. I went to Japanese language school last summer in what was one of the most grueling and rewarding experiences of my life. I am now back in Japan as an English teacher, enjoying every tiny interaction that I have with the Japanese people and with my newfound friends in Japan.

When I returned to Tokyo at the end of July, familiar places seemed to be abound with new life that was absent just two years ago. Instead of memorizing what I needed to hear on the train to get off at the right stop, I was able to listen to others’ conversations and read advertisements. I could speak with my friends only using Japanese and I could even see how English translations differed from the original Japanese meanings of announcements and signs. It was almost like I was back in Japan for the first time.

I have such a deeper appreciation for Japan and the Japanese people since I have returned subsequent to my language school. Everything from chatting with people in the restaurants and bars, to reading the signs, to just saying hello to people on a daily basis helps me know the language study was what made this all possible. If I had returned to Japan without studying Japanese in the interim, I do not know if I would be enjoying it as much as I am at this point.

My first time in Japan, my Japanese friends made such a great effort to help me in any way possible in Japan and now I am back, two years later, to help the Japanese in any way I can, albeit in a different role.

Learning Japanese has done so much for me from a personal to a professional level. Meeting new people and interacting with people in their native tongue is an experience I will never forget as long as I live.

I am an advocate for English education in the United States, but I encourage everyone to study a second language if they have the opportunity. Devoting the time and energy to this study  will reap tremendous benefit and personal satisfaction in the future. After the long hours of study, the first time you have an interaction with someone else in a language other than English will be an unbelievably memorable experience.

I hope I can have this type of experience in Korean someday.

Have you had this type of experience in your language studies?