Backstory: 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. The characters for omoide 思い出 means memories. In this context, it signifies nostalgia. Japanese characters and the connotations are a bit complex.
This place in Omoide Yokocho is really delicious but I was taken aback by how hostile the man is towards foreigners. I had to reassure him my non-Japanese friends eat and drink like a Japanese in order for us to be seated. Bit rude. And disappointing. I guess it makes sense because he doesn’t have a menu. Just cooks and serves what he thinks each diner would like.
His food is great though. He marinates the meats and even dips vegetables in his special dashi before grilling. Highlights: grilled pork with just salt and pepper – so flavorful and tender. Miyoga wrapped in pork. Eringe mushroom. Grilled cherry tomato. He also serves this ume syrup to drop into shochu which is fun (I prefer my shochu straight).
There are stacks on stacks of eateries in the Yokocho. Not all places are anti-non Japanese. I want to say this bad attitude comes from fear of speaking English and, non-Japanese unable to appreciate the foods they take so much pride into cooking.
If you’re ever in Tokyo and want to check it out, I’ll be more than happy to go with you. I don’t really get out to Shinjuku as much as I like, so any excuse to get me to go, I’m there!
Oddly enough, Shinjuku Omoide has a website and it’s also in English.
The site and directions are here.