Yokocho’s characters 横丁・横町 means side city, and translates to alleyways off major streets. The origin of the word comes from describing the passages of Tokyo when it was still called Edo (between 1603-1868 wow that’s such a long time ago). These alleyways were garbage depots and sewage canals but as the population of Edo grew, waste required to be properly maintained.
Soon the side-streets were cleared of the waste and sewage. The people of Edo decided to fill the empty space with food stands or tiny eateries. There were even squatters who took the handles and wheels off their food carts and brought them into Yokochos. In modern day, Yokocho means a passageway of food stalls.
The most notable Yokocho is in Shinjuku, called Omoide Yokocho; also known by its unfortunate nicknames “Shomben Yokocho” (Piss Alley – classy) or “Gokiburi Yokocho” (Cockroach Alley – appetizing). The stacks of stands appropriately reflect their names: run down and a bit gross. The restrooms are vile.
In Ebisu, I am fortunate to reside near one of the newer (and more sanitary) Yokochos of Tokyo. I bring all visitors there to experience it at least once.
Next to a 7-11 and a run-down ramen? yakitori? shop, there is a traditional Japanese sliding door with paddles of colorful squares on top. Rolling the door to the side exposes a scene of inebriated salary men, groups of girls dressed to the nine, a sprinkle of non-Japanese faces. Ebisu Yokocho is popular with tourists as of late.
People are cramped around tables made of crates, and benches made for two. The teeny counters where the food is prepared fits one or two people behind them at the most. There are stands on stands, serving a hodge-podge of Japanese small plates. I normally choose any place that has empty seats.
There really is everything. From a garlic themed Japanese tapas place to a kinoko (mushroom) specialty stand, to seafood, beef tongue, katsu, Chinese and Korean (random) to typical izakaya (Japanese pub) fare. Basically a one stop shop for Japanese street food (yatai).
There’s something about Yokochos that loosen Japanese people up; even those who are typically super conservative. (Or maybe it’s just the alcohol.)
One night there was a group of young salary men drinking the same drink and I couldn’t stop staring at their colossal mugs. The liquid was clear and a halved lemon was floating around. The drink was topped with a triangular mound of ice cream or sherbert or shaved ice or something equally happy looking, that made me want one too. I couldn’t stop staring, it looked like magic in a cup. I had to find out what it was.
The slightly drunk salary men saw me looking over at them, waved, and started awkwardly salutating in English (I was with non-Japanese friends). That gesture was so endearing, I almost hid that I spoke Japanese. But my immediate goal was getting that drink, in my hand. I greeted them in Japanese, apologized for staring, and they laughed with relief. We broke into easy conversation as they described the drink, tell me the name, and offer a taste out of their mugs. Cute. I thanked them for their generosity but declined, and order one for myself and my friends. It was delicious.
I am sorry to report I forgot the drink’s name. (I have the short-term memory of a goldfish: three seconds and poof, in one ear, out the other.) At least I wrote it out as vividly as I could recall. Perhaps you can order it for yourself. Maybe not. Hey, at least I tried.
If you’re ever in Tokyo, do please stop by the Ebisu Yokocho.
JR: Yamanote Line, Ebisu Station
Subway: Hibiya Line, Ebisu Station
Then follow the directions of the map (I jacked it off the official Yokocho site, the .GIF is kind of cute).