(Originally published in CultureTrip)
Nonbei Yokocho: Tokyo’s Drinkers’ Alley
My friend Javier is from the same small Spanish town as me, Salamanca. Not many people leave Salamanca to live abroad. Even fewer are great designers and live in New York, as Javier does. I wanted to make very clear to Javier that Tokyo is better than New York – so I took him for a yokocho walking night.
There are many yokochos in Tokyo, and they all have a different character to them. After World War II, when there was a shortage of food – especially rice – in Japan, mainly Chinese- and Korean-run black markets filled with small shops sprang up around big train stations. As time went by, they ended up filling with bars. Nonbei Yokocho dates from 1951 in its current form and is close to Shibuya Station – a two-minute walk from the infamous scramble – yet goes unnoticed by the masses. Once a destination for overworked salarymen, it is now becoming a place to go for young creatives and old people alike. Each kiosk-size bar (and there are about forty of them) along the two alleys can hold around six or seven people at a time, and they all have a speciality of some kind, whether in the music they play or the food and drinks they serve. There’s a red velvet-themed Piano Bar, one for sushi, one where you can only order wine, etc…
Javier and I find some empty seats at APPRE (Apperu) which serves mainly sake and whisky together with Kyoto-style food. The owner learned from a Kyoto chef, hence the menu choice. Shiitake mushrooms with wasabi; pumpkin cooked in yuzu; and fried wheat gluten (fu; 麩) wrapped in seaweed are some of their delicacies. Everything is delicious. The waitress Maki-san serves us drinks, moving swiftly in the small space behind the bar. She speaks great English (she studied Media and Communications in London) and we end up talking about semiotics with her.
Some bars have a no shoes policy. You leave them out on the street (there’s no space inside). The bars are so small the WC is outside and communal to all bars. You see those slippers at the door? They are for you to wear when you go to the loo.
Maki-san tells us some stories from the yokocho. One of them is about a guy who owned an IT company and used to come down here every night and meet his friends at the same bar. One day the bar’s owner died and the man decided to sell his IT company and take over the bar. Now he works there every day serving drinks and sharing time with his friends.
A couple comes in and sits next to us. They are an elegant 40-something art director woman and her boss. You can see how she nods at his comments and bows slightly when talking that he is above her in rank but also they are good friends. They come here every time they finish a deadline. We talk design and art direction under the warm lights and the happy drinks.
It’s time to move on to another bar. We choose Saya (莢), where the theme is Kayōkyoku music of the Showa era. The barman is actually owner of five Italian restaurants in the city. Even though he doesn’t need the money – which we suspect is not a lot – he says he enjoys tending this bar on Saturday nights. We speak in primitive Italian before we jump to English for everyone’s benefit. He is a great source of stories, like Maki-san. People serving here know a lot about the other bars as they are all so close to each other. Everything from visits by famous Hollywood actors to anecdotes and legends about old Japan – you can hear a lot of tales from a yokocho barman or woman. This one solves the Rubik’s Cube really fast in front of our eyes, too.
After a few more drinks and making a couple of new friends, we head out, happy and tipsy, to catch the train. The last one leaves Shibuya Station around midnight. Last trains are a great source of entertainment as the people riding them are usually too tired or too drunk to stay awake. Check out #shibuyameltdown for examples.
Javier says he is almost convinced.