Tokyo is a city that rewards our curiosity. At night, awash in the shifting afterglow of big-screen advertisements, its visitors are soon acquainted with the beckoning cries and jingles from countless shops, arcades, and izakaya—a collective cacophony as each vies for your attention. And yet, resting alongside these more prominent destinations, many travelers now seek out the comparatively quieter and more intimate parts of town tucked away in a warren of back streets.
These are yokocho—literally, ‘side streets’. Where shadows curl in quiet corners and the light from neon signs glows just that little more gently. It’s here, walking past their nondescript doorways, that we encounter the remnants of a Tokyo that has existed for years. These yokocho date from the postwar period, when market stalls sprung up or were later consolidated to specific parts of town. As the years went on, they adapted and these alleyways are now home to tightly packed restaurants and bars, some with seating capacity for only a few people at one time, others only offering the space to stand. It may seem daunting at first—the intimate nature of these establishments and the difficulty in discerning which one to choose (the menus often only in Japanese), however, the popularity of these areas is rooted in stepping outside the obvious into somewhere beyond your comfort zone.
While many foreign visitors tend towards more centrally located and well-known yokocho, there are many similar areas beyond Shinjuku that receive far less tourist footfall. I encourage you to explore a little further afield; they can be found all over Tokyo and are no less charming.
So how does one choose where to go? I will first outline some alternative yokocho and will then explain how to locate the one nearest to where you are staying, even if you don’t speak Japanese!
Located in Kichijoji, a brilliant Tokyo neighborhood known for Inokashira Park and vintage shopping, this yokocho was originally a collection of market stalls–alleyways lined with narrow frontages that resembled the mouth of a harmonica. Rejuvenated in the nineties when new bars and eateries began opening, Harmonica and its lanes house a number of shops and attract a mixed crowd of young and old. I recommend spending the day in the neighborhood, perhaps walking over from Mitaka after a morning visit to the Ghibli Museum, then making your way to Harmonica Yokocho once night falls for drinks and dinner.
The district of Oimachi is not known as a tourist destination, yet is easily accessible from Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Rinkai Line. For this reason, its yokocho caters to a mostly local and after-work crowd. Best visited in the evening, these narrow lanes are home to many bars and some bigger restaurants serving delicious ramen with black chargrilled chashu and one of the largest omurice I’ve ever encountered!
An example of a modern development drawing inspiration from traditional food and drink culture, this is a brand new ‘yokocho’ located inside the high-rise Toranomon Hills Business Tower. This yokocho is interesting for its uncanny mix of old with shiny new and is worth seeing if only for the architectural feat. Serving the business lunch crowds as well as dinner until 10 pm, expect to find sushi and even French cuisine amongst the more traditional yakitori offerings.
Please note that some restaurants do not operate for lunch and may have different opening hours or closing days. For more information, please refer to each store’s page here.
Depending on where you’re staying, you may not need to leave your neighborhood to reach your nearest yokocho. Open google maps and bring up your local area, then search either 飲食店街 (inshokuten-gai) or 横丁 (yokocho). These should hopefully bring up a cluster of bars and restaurants nearby and I encourage you to step out and explore!
It is important to note that many of the bars found in yokocho will have a cover charge, which if not displayed near the entrance will usually come to between 500 to 1000 yen per head, however, this varies depending on the establishment. In exchange, you will likely receive a small appetizer or side dish to enjoy while you decide on your order.
A trip to a yokocho is a sensory experience and trusting your gut, plucking up the courage to take a seat at a particular restaurant or bar, is your chance to experience Japanese hospitality at a more local pace. Perhaps it’s a particularly delicious smell emanating from somewhere… or the dulcet tones of a crooning salaryman’s karaoke betrayed by walls that are slightly too thin; follow that inner pull and you may have one of the most memorable evenings of your trip.
This post was originally published in August 2020. While we do our best to ensure that all of our information is correct, details are subject to change. Due to Covid-19, shops may be closed or operate at reduced opening hours so please contact each establishment directly for details.