1950s Tokyo was a place abundant with small hideaway izakayas and taverns tucked into narrow alleyways behind the bustling streets. It was in these taverns and izakayas that the people of Tokyo could fill their bellies, enjoy local food, chat with friends, and even make some new ones. Today, these may be fewer and farther between, but they are certainly not forgotten. Known as yokocho, these colorful, narrow alleys overflowing with local bars and restaurants are the perfect place to sample regional specialties and mingle with locals out for a night at their favorite spot. In Tokyo there are still plenty of exciting and popular yokocho to check out, here are four to get you started.
A tiny alley tucked between two storefronts, this is an easy yokocho to miss but rewarding if you manage to find it. This pretty red lantern lined alley has shrunk over the years but you can still enjoy that old-world charm of the 1950s. You’ll find an abundance of stalls, and over fifty pubs and restaurants, selling grilled yakitori skewers, beef stew, and other delicious finger food. Step into the neon dream that is Omoide Yokocho for some sake, beer and a delicious evening bite. It’s safe, vibrant, and a stark contrast to the modern Shinjuku all around it.
A delightfully fun hodgepodge of little bars and izakayas in one of Tokyo’s most popular central districts. While Shinjuku may be known for its skyscrapers, high-end shopping, big bars and coffee shops, one of its lesser-lit streets is Golden Gai, an iconic little street featuring bars of every kind. From heavy metal to cheesy 80s and neo-gothic, many of the bars in Golden Gai are themed, so you’ll be sure to find one to suit your tastes. There is so much fun to be had before you even reach a bar by simply drinking in the atmosphere and aesthetics of Golden Gai. Graffiti lines the walls; the lights flicker and drop neon colors; the regulars are fun-loving, jolly people. Golden Gai is where some of Shinjuku’s most eclectic and interesting people go to drink, and it plays on so many different themes that repeat visits remain interesting. It’s a place where dressing a little strange would not turn many heads; a place where the creatives and eccentrics of Tokyo, local and foreigner alike, can let their hair down, meet new people, and experience the kind of themed bar they may never have come across before.
Nonbei Yokocho (Shibuya)
It’s hard to marry up the cosmopolitan Shibuya with the Tokyo of old, with towering high rises, dominating the skyline, and busy colorful streets, but look hard enough and you can still find some retro alleys peeking through. One is Nonbei Yokocho or ‘drunkard’s alley,’ marked by a string of red lanterns on either side, rows of tiny bars, restaurants, and quirky shops awaiting discovery. This is a whole other world that encourages you to cozy up with the locals, have a drink and make some new friends. Most of the establishments here will fit ten people at the most so stepping away from the thousands of pedestrians of Shibuya into this oasis of calm is a welcome relief. The main street extends into another side street where you’ll find even more bars and restaurants to enjoy.
Ebisu Yokocho (Ebisu)
One of the best things about Tokyo is how it is full of surprises. No area of the city is solely one thing, and even districts known for one characteristic will always have a few shadowy parts. The best example is Ebisu, an upscale area of high-end fashion and shopping. A place like Ebisu should be all about fashionable cocktail bars, but look hard enough and you’ll discover Ebisu Yokocho, an alley of rowdy bars and taverns that adds a lot of color and dynamism to this otherwise pristine district of Tokyo. Ebisu Yokocho is a callback to the pre-franchised era of Tokyo, when every bar and izakaya was privately owned, small, and packed with people letting off steam and filling their bellies. The izakayas of Ebisu Yokocho are cramped and hot, full of jolly energy, and offer affordable drinks and a blend of traditional Japanese and western bar snacks, from yakitori to french fries. While there aren’t a large number of themed bars here, the focus is on heading out with friends and filling yourself up with hearty food and good Japanese beer.