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Japan: Into the alleys

Karl Cushing finds tempting treats in the warren of Tokyo’s backstreets


Having hustled through the late rush hour bustle of Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, it’s with some relief that my friend and I take the west exit and beat a retreat to the warm, welcoming arms of Shomben Yokocho alley.

Plunging headlong into this warren of delightful DIY shacks and stalls, more colourfully known as ‘Piss Alley’, I feel rather like Alice in Wonderland. In the fresh dark of an early autumn evening, the area throngs with a sea of besuited salarymen or white collar workers, some seated solo at a counter getting on with the serious business of refuelling, while others embark on the nightly mission to get well and truly oiled with their work colleagues after a hard day at the office, their volume levels rising in proportion to their intake.

Trawling for a pitstop amid the alleyways, with their red lanterns and colourful signs, keeping a watchful eye out for empty seats, we navigate the enticing wafts of grilled meats, smoking charcoal and other spicy aromas issuing from the various establishments, many of which are simple, open-fronted shacks lined with stools and an attentive chef cooking up a flavour storm behind the counter; they call out to us to advertise their wares as we pass. We rule out hearty staples, such as curry rice and steaming great big bowls of restorative ramen noodles, before settling on a game-looking spot specialising in our old failsafe, yakitori, those declious skewers of grilled chicken parts.

No sooner do we squeeze in by the counter than a bin biru (large bottle of beer), some small glasses and a flask of warm sake appear, shortly followed by a choice selection of succulent yakitori, cooked to perfection under our noses. Classics such as tebasaki (chicken wings) and tsukune (chicken meatballs) appear alongside sticks of chargrilled negi (leek), with some juicy grilled pork, or yakiton, dishes such as butabara (pork belly), also making a welcome appearance.

A few more bin birus later, with warm sake and skewers steeling our insides, we emerge into the night amid a sated fuzz of satisfaction, ready to build our buzz with a few more drinks in nearby Golden Gai, effectively a more boozy version of Shomben Yokocho.

First though, as we pass by Izakaya Asadachi, one of the area’s more famous eateries, I realise I’ve still yet to sample its exotic roster of dishes, including grilled salamander, still-beating frog’s heart and raw pig’s testicles but, hey, there’s always a chance to try those next time. Or maybe, unlike the menu, I just lack the balls.

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