Tokyo’s Memory Lane: The Complete Guide

japanese street food at omoide yokocho shinjuku tokyo japan
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In Japan there are the concepts of honne and tatemae, the two words that represent the difference between the private self, or one’s inner feelings, and the outer self, the face you show to the world that acts and answers in socially appropriate ways. These ideas are not the sole key to understanding all of Japanese culture, but honne and tatemae help unlock the mysteries of some of the behaviors you may see in Japan, revealing possibilities of invisible meaning in what seems like the most uninteresting of pleasant niceties.

Tokyo’s Memory Lane, or Omoide Yokocho, is an instance of Japanese honne in real life. Tucked behind the wholesome fluorescence of Uniqlo and other modern stores surrounding Shinjuku station, Memory Lane is a small area of narrow alleyways of restaurants and food stalls. Dim, crowded, and dingy, most of the structures are dilapidated and old, with room for only half a dozen patrons or so. Mugs of beer and sticks of yakitori are served matter-of-factly, without the clean pageantry that characterizes other Japanese cuisine. Stepping into Memory Lane, visitors might feel like they’ve crossed the threshold into a different, darker Japanese world that customarily exists out of sight.

History

If this is your first or even second time visiting Memory Lane, you may have trouble finding it. North of Shinjuku station’s west exit, behind a multilevel Uniqlo store, are electric green and yellow banners that mark the entrance in Japanese.

Tokyo’s Shinjuku station is the world’s busiest transportation hub: over 3.64 million commuters pass through this station and its connecting stations every day. The 200 exits and 50 platforms all but necessitate their own guidebook.

Shinjuku has long existed as a center of crossroads and chaos: when the first Tokugawa shogun made Edo (Tokyo) his capital, this area marked the juncture between two roads leading into the city from the west.

In 1868, Emperor Meiji turned Shinjuku’s crossroads into the railhead that connected the city with Japan’s western prefectures. Shinjuku was the hip, bohemian spot in the 1930s (like the Koenji of today), where artists and writers could exist easily on the fringes of interwar society.

During World War II, firebombing more or less destroyed Shinjuku completely. But out of the ashes rose Memory Lane, a center for black market activities in Occupied Japan. Here people could buy food and other supplies that were tightly regulated by the Allied presence. This is when Memory Lane began to earn its seedy reputation, eventually morphing into a restaurant area where a spirited lack of mainstream civility still reigned.

The name Memory Lane is a kind of a tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for the post-war black market days, and despite Tokyo’s 20th century metamorphosis into a modern metropolis, the area has retained its shabby charm. Occasionally, Memory Lane is referred to as Shonben Yokocho, or “Piss Alley.” While working toilets have long since been installed, the nickname makes it obvious that this wasn’t always the case. Today, nestled amongst department stores, subway lines, and skyscrapers, Memory Lane preserves its unique character, offering patrons a healthy variety of izakaya-style food and drink.

Where to Eat and Drink

If you’re looking to only eat first-class fare on your trip to Japan, it’s best to leave Memory Lane off your itinerary. Most of the food here is simple, straightforward, and relatively cheap, making it a go-to spot for Japanese salarymen getting off work. While you can explore the list of restaurants and stalls on Memory Lane’s English website, it’s best to know that the majority of establishments deal in small plates, where you’re expected to order several things as well as a drink or two.

Yakitori is dominant here, with over 16 stalls grilling thighs, necks, gizzards, skin, livers, and hearts to a perfect char. Japanese businessmen and women sit shoulder-to-shoulder in these restaurants’ smoky interiors, downing beers and nibbling chicken parts.

But Memory Lane is also known for motsu-yaki, or grilled entrails.

In the post-war black market, savvy Tokyoites began creating businesses based on the sale of unregulated goods, which included the undesired innards of animals. Some stalls continue to cook grilled pig intestines, spleens, kidneys, and even rectums for willing customers. For over 40 years restaurant Asadachi has capitalized on weird food’s ability to pique public attention, serving dishes designed to boost your stamina: skewered salamander, turtle hotpot, horse penis, pig testicles, frog sashimi, and liquor fermented in jars of whole snakes. 

Things to Do Nearby

Memory Lane is a great place to visit before or after a night of exploring some of Shinjuku’s other infamous neighborhoods: Kabuki-cho, the entertainment district; Golden Gai, an area of small, cozy bars; and Ni-chome, the center of Japan’s gay culture. Although many stalls open for business around 4 p.m., it’s most atmospheric in the evening, when paper lanterns gently illuminate the alleyways.

Here every shop is a hole-in-the-wall, each with its own time-hardened charm. These tiny streets are cracks in Tokyo’s tatemae, the sanitized surface of the city.

 

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